On Sheep and Working Dogs

Garden in snow

The garden and barn a few days ago, immediately after the big snowfall. The scaffolding on the barn is part of the erection of solar panels on the roof. From the end of February the barn will be the place where lambing happens.

At last February has arrived, and with it the snow. All around us the guns fell silent as the pheasant shooting season ended on January 31st. My lovely Border Collie was able to come from beneath the wooden settle in our back porch, where she retreats when shooters are nearby. Like every Border Collie I’ve ever known, she’s scared stiff of loud bangs. On Bonfire Night I often have to sit for hours in the porch, with a terrified dog on my lap. I’ve had three working Collies and when I bought my current one, some ten years ago  I asked her breeder her name. Normally sheep dogs are given butch, usually monosyllabic, names that sound good when farmers are having man-to-man conversations in the bar at the local cattle market. Names like: Rip, Cap and Doc. My last one was called Jess. These short names are practical too. They carry a long distance when called out across an open Fen, or down the rolling fells on a clear winter’s morning. So I asked the breeder my new dog’s name. At this, she (the breeder, not the dog) looked, how can I put it, sheepish:


My Border Collie, Twink , contemplating the plot of her next novel.

‘Oh,’ she said very embarrassed, ‘actually we’ve called her…’ She paused, reluctant to say it. ‘We’ve called her Twinkle. It was the children named her. She’s become a bit of a family pet…’

Twinkle!!! I was dumbfounded. I could imagine my carefully nurtured masculine credibility crumble the moment I took her anywhere near the bar at Melton Mowbray Cattle Market. I could picture the scene. Large man in flat cap and wellies:

‘Eh-up Francis, that’s a nice looking bitch you’ve got there?

‘Yes, I’ve just bought her…’

‘Cost you much?’

‘No, not much, I’m training her myself…’

‘She got a good eye?’

‘Oh yes, very strong…’

‘That’s good…’

Possessing the charm of Mrs. Satan herself, my dog offers her head for a quick scratch which the huge farmer can’t resist. As he scratches he murmurs: ‘Good girl, there’s a good girl…

Then he looks up, smiling now:

‘And what d’you call ‘er then?’

‘Err… Twinkle.’

Collapse of stout party. End of life as we know it.

Meanwhile, and back in real life, the breeder could see I had gone pale and was swaying from the knees. Then she took pity on me:

‘But she answers to Twink.’

I could have kissed them both (the breeder, and the bitch). The name Twink was fine. Good, even. It was short and sharp, but also implied femininity. It was also unusual,  and my Twink is a very unusual dog. I’ve known university professors thicker than her. After my wife and daughter, she’s the third woman in my life. I love her desperately and will be desolated when she dies.

It’s also worth noting here that sheepdogs are quite fussy about their names. Rather like discerning people, they don’t like others taking liberties. I loathe it when somebody (usually, dare I say it, some friendly, well-meaning American) calls me Frank.  Similarly my dog answers to Twink, but would give me a disapproving look were I to call her Twonk or Twank. And as for Twanky…  Strangely, though, some dogs are bi-lingual, especially some Welsh Border Collies. My first dog had been trained in Wales, where I bought her. I didn’t know she was bi-lingual until one day in the Flag Fen car park, when she suddenly ran up to one of our trustees, a wonderful Welshman and Peterborough City Councillor, now sadly deceased, named Derek Williams.  Derek was one of the kindest men I have ever known and he single-handedly saved Flag Fen’s future during  a nasty internal political row in the mid-‘80s. Anyhow, Derek had called to her softly in Welsh, which of course she obeyed. He then explained how some farmers can manage to work two dogs simultaneously, calling to one in Welsh and the other in English. That way you can have one dog make its out-run clockwise (the ‘come by’ command, in English), while the other goes anti-clockwise, up the opposite side of the field (the ‘away’ command, in Welsh).  That sort of pincer movement can be very effective. But God alone knows what you do if you use a whistle. Incidentally, I was given one, but nearly swallowed it (which would have choked me). I used to play the saxophone and clarinet reasonably well, but I couldn’t make that blessed whistle so much as squeak. Sad that.

Now most people are aware that sheepdogs can do clever things out in open fields. They can drive handfuls of sheep into pens, just like on telly. But in real life they have to handle large numbers of sheep, and sometimes these include lambs, who just like children, fail to head in the direction their parents intend. Under such circumstances one is doing quite well just to drive the flock from one field into another.

The key attribute any sheepdog must possess is a good strong eye. Basically this means that the dog’s stare affects sheep and makes them uneasy. They can’t relax. You can even detect a strong eye in a Collie puppy.  I can remember when I bought my last dog, his owner took him out into a field to show him off. And he was still young: I’d guess nine months, no more. After we’d finished looking at him and we were discussing price (something which in the farming world can sometimes take time) the young dog lay prone on the ground, barely moving its head. On the other side of the field were twenty or so ewes, and when the young puppy moved his head left, they moved left. It was extraordinary. So I paid what he asked. You don’t haggle when a dog’s eye is as strong as that.

Another job that sheepdogs do that doesn’t appear on television is what we call ‘yard work’. This requires almost as much skill and patience on the dog’s part, as work out in the fields. Last weekend we injected all our in-lamb (‘in-lamb’ in human terms means pregnant) ewes against soil-borne infections, such as braxy and pulpy kidney. The dose also protected against a form of pneumonia, known as Pasturella. It’s difficult to judge precisely when to give this injection, as you mustn’t do it too late, for fear of abortions, but if you’re too early then the new-born lambs won’t benefit as much from the immunity they inherit from their mothers. While we were doing this I also planned to give all the ewes a 20 ml doze of a mineral and copper booster. Copper can be difficult with sheep: too much kills them, but a deficiency leads to a problem in lambing, known as swayback: a form of brain-damage where affected lambs arch their necks and stagger. It’s horrible affliction, and in all but the mildest cases, is incurable.


The in-lamb ewes take their breakfast immediately outside the barn, February, 2012

To give these two medicines Mike Bamforth (an archaeologist who works on ancient wood-working with Maisie) and I built a narrow hurdle corridor in the barn, known as a race. While we were doing this, the sheep were outside in the yard eating their daily breakfast of high protein feed. Then we had to ‘persuade’ them into the race, which we did with Twink’s help. Now I don’t know how she does it, but Twink can detect when the ewes are in-lamb, and she treats them differently: far more gently. In all the years I’ve been keeping sheep, I’ve never lost a lamb due to my dog causing distress.

Every year,  lambing time brings new problems. This season, one side of the barn is covered with the scaffolding needed to erect 63 solar panels on the roof. Living at less than two metres above sea level, global warming is something I feel very strongly about. Anyhow, ubiquitous steel poles aren’t making life any simpler and having cracked his head twice, Mike Bamforth (who’s a couple of inches taller than me) gave the ewes their 20 ml of minerals, wearing a bright yellow hard hat. I didn’t think it fair to take a photo of him in that lid, but it did look very comic.

The other problem this year is a midge-borne disease with a foreign-sounding name: Schmallenberg Virus, or SBV. According to last Saturday’s Eastern Daily Press the disease has been recorded in Norfolk (3 cases) and Suffolk (4 cases). Like the much-dreaded Bluetongue disease, SBV is spread by midges that blow across the North Sea from Europe (it’s as if we in Britain were in a little continent all of our own – let’s call it Greedia to honour the financial sector). I gather from our vet who I met today in Wisbech when collecting incontinence pills for our aged Jack Russell terrier, Jane (Jane Russell – geddit?), that the foreign midges were biting and spreading the virus in late summer/early autumn. He reckoned that later lambers, such as us (and we don’t start till February 26th) will probably get away with it, as the ewes wouldn’t have been in-lamb so early in the year. A lamb’s gestation period is almost precisely 21 weeks, and our rams went to the ewes in early October. Hopefully, by then the danger had passed. Well at least that’s the theory. All we can do now is sit tight and keep our fingers crossed. SBV kills and deforms lambs, so we’re hoping and praying that we’ve got away with it. As you’ll discover in future posts, lambing can be traumatic enough without such added horrors.

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