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Sheep Dog Trials…..and Tribulations…..

How hard can it be?

The first sheepdog trial Ricky and I ever attended was held near the historical village of LLanegryn, in a sheltered field on the coast between the small towns of Tywyn and Aberdyfi, on the southernmost fringe of Snowdonia National Park. I’d indulged myself in watching sheepdog trials online whilst munching intently through copious bags of crisps, trying to pick up tips and learn how to recognise the finer details of a trials field. The ability of the trainers was staggering. Not only did their dogs seem to have psychic ability but the owners’ different whistles were so subtle in their pitch and tone it was like listening to an episode of the Clangers in fast forward. 

“Just do it, you’ve got to start somewhere….” Nataly Mathews, my trainer and Ricky’s breeder, had said. “Just make sure you don’t go first, let him see the sheep a bit and watch the other dogs, let him see where the sheep are”. Nataly is an impressive woman make no mistake. She grew up with no farming in her veins, on a steep hilled council estate in Ebbw Vale, a few hundred yards below the farm where she works and runs Hilltop Sheepdogs, her sheepdog training business. She’s now one of the countries go to trainers and you can’t help but be in awe of her. Down to earth, no nonsense but kind and encouraging with it. And dogs? Well, they just love her.

So, there I was in my pickup, Ricky in the boot, driving through the winding single track roads that snake between stone walls and the steep wooded valleys of Meirionnydd, Gwynedd, on our way to our first ever Nursery Trial. The journey took me close to Craig Yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) through Cwm Maethlon (Happy Valley). Beautiful scenery though I’ve got to say I wasn’t really feeling it, I was nervous and as was usually the case with me, I’d set out about an hour too early.

“Whatever you do, don’t go first….”

We pulled on to the spectator area of the field, parking alongside the rows of various models of Mitsubishi, Isuuzu, Ford and Land Rover, with the trial field itself directly in front of us. After a few coffees and a further few trips for nerves induced wees, a quick glance around established the likely organiser of the event. Boot open, reams of paper flapping in the increasing wind, one pen in his hand and another in his mouth but with an air about him that said he knew exactly what he was doing. I made my tentative approach and enthusiastically, if slightly over audibly, stated the words ‘beginner’s class, please” with the utmost clarity to ensure the word ‘beginner’ was fully recognised and understood. And with Nataly’s sound advice “Don’t go first…” ringing in my ears, when answering his question “Would you be okay to go first?” I found my head uncontrollably nodding the wrong way….

Where Are the Sheep?

Our trial started well. I’d doffed my hat to the judge, found the starting post marked on the field plan as ‘starting post’, noted the position of the gate, marked on the field plan as ‘gate’ and even had chance to note the direction to which it would close. In hindsight the thought that I’d reach the stage at which you ‘pen’ the sheep was, to put it bluntly, wishful thinking. 

A very nice chap with a very knowing smile had nodded his head and this was it, we were ready to go. This was to be our crowning moment of triumph, a team effort that would start us on the path to appearing as renowned members of the British Team at the International Sheepdog Society World Trials. An acclaimed appearance on ‘One Person and Their Dog’ (as I’m sure it must, in our current politically correct climate, have been renamed. I believe the word ‘Person’ is not, as yet, a defamatory label). I glanced up and along the small undulating hill, expecting the sheep to be standing somewhere in the ‘not too distant’ field of view. Squinting, I spotted the shadowy figures of four, just shorn, springy, mule-like yearlings on the distant horizon. Standing like upright, poised, ready to flee, winter hares in snow against a white backdrop banner stating the event was sponsored by a Working Dog Feeds Company. I muttered a surprised expletive, vowed never to buy their brand of Working Dog Feeds again, and realised, with mounting fear and trepidation, Ricky couldn’t see the sheep. 

Next Bus to Aberystwyth

The distance between them and us seemed such that a bus to Aberystwyth and back could cover the distance sooner (Aberystwyth being approximately a 60-mile round trip from Llanegryn). I repeatedly offered the advice ‘look’ to Ricky as he hopped from foot to foot, almost half spinning, desperately trying to ‘see’ the sheep. After what felt like fifteen minutes, I had no choice but to ask him to set off. “Awaaaay” I said firmly. Now the command away is all well and good but ‘Awaaaay” to a young dog means to start an outrun around the sheep anticlockwise to come up behind them at a distance, steady themselves and then begin the drive to bring the sheep towards you. 

Ricky had no sheep, he could see no sheep. To him, I was having a lapse of concentration, memory or the possibility of an episode of showing my age because there were no sheep. So the repeated ‘Awaaaay’ was fast becoming a decreasing half circle towards me. I felt deflated….Ricky remained keen. A that moment I thought of how well we’d practised and prepared in training, for hours on end over the previous weeks, into the fading light of the day. Of all the congratulating us both I’d done on how well we were progressing only to now realise we’d missed an absolute basic….first you need to find your sheep….

A Sea Mist and Fluent Cantonese….

I’d also put so much effort and thought into preparing so well for the trial day itself, despite being unsure what I might need to take to my first ever sheepdog trial. With horse competitions there was always so much ‘stuff’ it was a wonder I didn’t forget the horse. This was entirely different but on a plus point a damn sight less costly.

I’d decided a good starting point would be tonic water, for two reasons. One, in case I had a bout of cramp on the trial field. Two, to add to the gin I’d buy on the way home, in celebration of winning all classes (even those I hadn’t entered) and raising the trophy for ‘Best Ever First Time Sheepdog Trials Competitor Ever’ (you’ll be surprised to know there is no such class and no such trophy, but in my wildest dreams I reckoned we stood a chance anyway). I’d also included a few rollies and a lighter, offered by Nataly in case I felt the sudden urge to take up smoking, and a toilet roll to weep into on the way home, just in case things didn’t go to plan. This latter item was now looking increasingly like the most useful item of the bunch.

Aside from the toilet roll, it was hastily becoming apparent that what I actually needed at this point was a prayer mat and a swiftly descending sea mist. Ricky was running aimlessly, albeit energetically, around the edge of the field, still attempting to find the sheep and occasionally looking to me for guidance in the hope I’d regained my marbles. At this point a small patch of gorse became my only friend. Ricky, during his futile high speed meandering, disappeared behind the bushes and, for a fleeting moment, so did my humiliation. The relief was too brief by about twenty minutes and all too soon his eager to please, lollopy young legs were carrying him hither and thither whilst I did my best not to let my shouts of encouragement for his return to me make me sound like Bianca from Eastenders (those of a certain age understand my meaning).

“Don’t worry, walk up the field to him” came the encouraging shout from the trial organiser. Taking care not to trip over my waterproofs thereby adding further to my humiliation, I headed up the field, regained my composure, and called Ricky to heel. To be fair he came straight back but as I sent him ‘away’ again I saw with sickening clarity the fateful moment where his eyes locked on to suddenly in range, creamy white woolly things that had emerged from their camouflaged background, like the said winter hares, now crossing a blackboard. The immediacy of their appearance made them abruptly stand out like the red in my increasingly belisha beacon cheeks against the vast acres of green that seemed suddenly to loom and double the distance between me and my dog. 

Then the fun really began…. Ricky went off like a rocket. I think the shear excitement of actually seeing the sheep was all that filled his otherwise intelligent head. I could see him running round them completely dismissing my commands and flying them towards me at a hundred miles an hour like an excited child running full pelt, down hill, waving their arms in the air shouting “I’ve found them, I’ve found them”. I was confused and bemused, under normal circumstances Ricky was a supremely intelligent dog. Fetch ‘sticky sticky’, ‘din dins’ and ‘shall we go ta tas’ exacted a split-second response, and yet here I may as well have been chanting fluent Cantonese.

The Walk of Shame

After several ‘come by’ and ‘away’ and several hundred ‘stand Ricky…STAND!’ he’d finally cornered the high headed, springy balls of wool in the upper most left of the field. He stood stock still, crouched, his head lowered, keeping his watchful eye on them throughout, throwing me cursory glances, still keen but patiently waiting for the next command, since he’d listened so well to the couple of hundred that came before. Given that we finally had an element of calm, and not wanting to set him off on the rampage again with me jumping up and down, screaming like a wailing banshee, I decided, inevitably, to call it a day. 

I tentatively called him to me as I walked, dismayed and disheartened, even further up the field. I’d always considered the ‘walk of shame’ to be that tottering around in heels, eye make-up round your chin, uneasy journey home through town on a Saturday morning. Trying to radiate an air of ‘nothing to see here’ as weekend shoppers snigger and whisper behind cupped hands and young children run screaming. As it turns out, I was wrong. It is the walk back down the trial field to your vehicle as you first apologise to the owner of the sheep, then to the trial organiser, then to the judge and then to the people who have to collect and field the sheep off the course ready for the next competitor. And then apologising to the next competitor for taking the time it takes a bus to get to Aberystwyth and back to strike up an epic fail. Ricky, looking really pleased with himself and jumping up at my hand to give it an affectionate lick, trotted happily along at my side, totally oblivious to the utter humiliation I was doing my best to shroud with a ‘happy go lucky’ smile whilst inside I was dying…

Binoculars for Dogs

I nonchalantly popped ‘wasn’t I a good boy’ Ricky in the boot and took a seat in my vehicle, planning to stay for just a bit. Just long enough that I didn’t have the embarrassment of leaving the field immediately because the shame, as all the spectators could imagine, was just too much.

I sat and watched intently, thinking I might pick up tips as to where I went wrong (sarcasm intended). To be honest I was in awe, some of the other competitors had a nightmare of it too but others, well, they moved up and down the whistling scales with oral dexterity akin to a dark art. In all honesty, that these people give their free time, effort and encouragement to ensure the improvement and future of the working sheepdog is to be commended. They celebrate the tradition of shepherd and dog working together that has been passed down through the millennia. Traditions that support a whole range of workers that remain close to the land. At the same time though, I’d like to think me and Ricky accomplished something that day, to add to the continuation of the sport. Even if it was only to make other people feel a whole lot better about their own achievement. With a bit more practice, binoculars for Ricky, and less of a faux east end accent for me (which for some bizarre reason only occurs when I shout the name Ricky), and I think one day, in the dim and distant future, we might nail this sheepdog trial malarkey. 

Toilet roll at hand, intent on a stop at the Co-op in Machynlleth for a large bottle of anything, the journey home took me close to Craig Yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) through Happy Valley. Beautiful scenery, though I’ve got to say I wasn’t really feeling it ……

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