Granny's Notes - the writing of Sue Gerard

Nancy, Walt, our friend Barbara Smith and ...

Nancy, Walt, our friend Barbara Smith and I pedaled up 13 miles of unending hills to reach a sheep and cattle farm in Radnorshire, Wales. This was our week to rest near the midpoint of our 900 mile bicycle trip in Europe. “You’ll want to see the puppies,” Joyce Lewis said, as we climbed the steep stairs to our rooms. The centuries-old structure had been enlarged and modernized into a bed-and-breakfast and the home of Joyce and Herbert Lewis and their two little boys.

Fly, the sheep dog mother, was apprehensive when we visited her cozy nest in the hay. Herbert, in his rapid, choppy Welsh accent, explained that he would train them to help with his farm animals. Later, Herbert took us by tractor and wagon to see his 500 sheep and 80 Hereford cattle grazing on several hundred acres of lush, hilly pastures. “By the way,” he said, “there’ll be sheep dog trials near here while you’re with us.”

The trials were a very low-key event on a chilly wet day. The judge wore a plaid, wool deer stalker hat that kept water from dripping down the back of his neck. He carried a cane and observed the dogs that were paraded around him on leashes before they were allowed near the sheep. Owners and onlookers huddled under umbrellas as they watched him check the dogs.

At the far end of the pasture, three sheep waited anxiously. It was about a hundred yards between their pen and the pen into which the dogs would put them. About midway, the dogs would drive them through a chute made by two free-standing, parallel gates. This was the most difficult task because there were no fences attached to the gates. Judges were evaluating skill more than speed.

The dogs’ owner stood far away, near a post that was several yards from the final pen the sheep must enter. He had to remain within six feet of that post and could only help his dogs by voice or whistle commands and by gesturing with his arms or cane. His dogs had not worked with these sheep previously because they were chosen from at least two flocks, and different sheep were used for each pair of dogs. In other words, the event was planned so that all men and dogs had as near an equal chance as possible.

A hush went over the crowd as the first three sheep were released. The dog owner signaled and the dogs bounded off, running low to the ground and moving like two streaks of lightning. Arriving near the sheep, they slowed and calmly maneuvered into position to guide the sheep toward the free-standing gates. When a sheep turned from the gates, one dog brought it back calmly.

We held our breaths and leaned in the direction we wanted the sheep to go, as if that would help the dog. When all three sheep had come through, between the two gates, the dogs were nearer to the final destination. As they came close to their master, he calmly communicated with them and gently guided the sheep with the cane, always staying within six feet of his command post.

All afternoon we watched, held our breath and leaned to help pairs of dogs perform so skillfully.

Two years ago when Joyce and Herbert visited us, I asked if he still had 500 sheep, and he grinned and said, “One and a half thousand,” he said. “Actually, we’re just a small operation, for our part of Wales.”

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