The border collie is undoubtedly the world’s number one breed when it comes to shepherding sheep and in the UK, with more than 6,000 pups are registered with the breed’s governing body each year.
However, across Europe there are a host of indigenous breeds that have been developed to help farmers herd cattle and sheep. These include the shaggy-coated Catalan sheepdog and the Polish lowland sheepdog.
And while the border collie still reigns supreme in popularity, some sheep farmers have looked to Australia and New Zealand for breeds that could bring new shepherding skills to the way flocks are managed in the UK.
The late Eric Halsall, frontman of the famous BBC TV series One Man and His Dog, summed up the working supremacy of the border collie (pictured above) when he described it as “the wisest dog in the world”.
It’s a description that Scottish national president of the International Sheepdog Society, Ewen MacKinnon of Wester Ross, totally agrees with and says it’s why the border collie is unsurpassed as a working sheepdog.
“The border collie is a very intelligent breed that can still amaze me with some of the things it does,” says Mr MacKinnon. But while he agrees that those who get the best out of their dogs are said to possess “dog sense”, he says it’s equally important to have “sheep sense”.
“If the handler or the shepherd has sheep sense and can understand what the sheep are going to do – and the dog has it too – it can become a remarkable partnership,” says Mr MacKinnon.
When buying a pup, he encourages sheep farmers to find out as much as they can about the breeding behind it and the working ability of the parents.
A litter registered with the International Sheep Dog Society will provide buyers with details of the pups’ pedigree and any information concerning health testing for eye problems.
“Every collie is different in terms of how it responds to training,” he says.
Breeds at a glance
- Border collie – The UK’s iconic shepherding breed with about 6,000 pups registered every year. Famed for being “the wisest dog in the world”.
- Huntaway – Strong, active dog, usually black and tan and smooth-coated and with a distinctive “houndiness” to its appearance. Combines its herding skills with barking to drive stock.
- Bearded collie – Shaggy-coated breed, similar in size to a border collie and with a devout following. There are 600 registered with the Working Bearded Collie Society.
- Kelpie – An active prick-eared breed, famed for its ability to run along the back of sheep when working and with a clear visual similarity to the Australian dingo, which played a part in its development.
But getting the basics right is critical to ensure a Border Collie is trained properly.
“Sometimes you see dogs that have probably been asked to do too much too soon; they get strong or become difficult to control and just run at the sheep.
“So while it’s important to have a dog that will go out confidently from the handler and collect the sheep, it’s equally important in early training to make sure the handler can stop the dog on the whistle immediately.
Youngsters can often get into the habit of not stopping, but creeping along and ignoring the command. Unless you can stop a dog, you’ve no control,” says Mr MacKinnon.
The shaggy dogs of the sheepdog world may not be as popular among working shepherds as they used to be, but those who have stayed loyal to bearded collies have an infectious enthusiasm for these truly Scottish herding dogs.
Virtually extinct after the Second World War, breeders of today’s working beardies have focused primarily on its ability rather than on the glamorous coat of the popular show ring beardies.
Similar in size to a border collie but with a characteristically longer coat and tousled look, the modern working beardie certainly has some border collie ancestry. However, the original Scottish drover’s dogs are traced back to a breed developed from a strong influence of European shepherding dogs and possibly even some Deerhound.
Farm manager Douglas McCartney is responsible for 1,850 Blackface ewes kept alongside a herd of Highland cows on the Glen Turret Estate in Perthshire and, while he has six border collies, it’s the working style of his two beardies that he admires the most.
“I find them more adaptable than collies and easier to handle,” says Mr McCartney.
“Beardies think for themselves and that’s what I need. They don’t require a lot of handling or too many commands. They are easy to train and are very faithful dogs too.
“I need really good dogs for my lambing work and the beardies are the best for the job, but I can easily switch them to work with the cows. They are a very versatile breed.”
The coat of working bearded collies – the breed is overseen by the Working Bearded Collie Society – does need clipping if it gets too long.
“We shear our beardies’ coats once a year so the hair isn’t a problem. When we work them in snow the hair can get balled-up a bit, but it’s not a big job to sort out and a small price to pay for having such good dogs to work with.
All bark and no bite – that’s how Gethin Havard sums up the Huntaway, a breed that has been used on his family’s farm in mid-Wales for more than 40 years.
They are a no-nonsense breed that can move big numbers of sheep without a lot of commands from a handler. They are strong, powerful dogs with a wonderful temperament,” says Mr Havard, who runs 2,100 Brecknock Hill Cheviot ewes and suckler cows with brothers Huw and Howell near Sennybridge.
He admits dog training isn’t his strongest skill: “But I rely on my Huntaways to have the common sense to get on with the job.
“They may not have the finesse of a border collie or be able to do some of the more intricate shepherding tasks, but if you need a dog to gather a big hill flock and push those sheep to wherever you want them to go, then the Huntaway is unbeatable.”
Most usually seen with a black and tan smooth coat, this is a big, rangy breed developed more than 100 years ago to work large numbers of sheep in New Zealand.
No one really knows what other breeds were involved in creating the Huntaway from the original working collies stock, but there is definitely some hound in its ancestry – probably bloodhound – with a dash of rottweiler and possibly Labrador and even German shepherd.
The Huntaway is renowned for its stamina and drive and covers the ground quickly with its long, lolloping stride.
The Havard family currently have five Huntaways although there have been times when the farm was carrying 5,000 ewes and only had one Huntaway to do all the work.
“Barking to make sheep move forward is the best way to shift a big flock and far better than just having one dog nipping the legs of the sheep at the rear. That doesn’t have much impact on the sheep at the front and those are the ones you need to get moving,” says Mr Havard.
“That’s where the Huntaway comes into its own, but they are also excellent in the sheep pens,” he adds.
He describes the Huntaway as a “no-fuss” breed. “As well as doing their job so well they have a wonderful temperament – it’s absolutely fantastic.”
“There’s a huge demand for Huntaways. The Border Collie will always have an important role to play, but the Huntaway is becoming more popular for its style of work.”
Kevin Reeves is your man if you need to know anything about the kelpie – an Australian breed developed more than 150 years ago that still bears a strong resemblance to the wild dingo that played a part in its early history.
“A good kelpie will think and anticipate for itself. When it comes to being versatile they are unbeatable,” says Mr Reeves who runs the Lyndhurst kennel of kelpies in Wiltshire. He uses the dogs in his work as a self-employed shepherd.
Strong-bodied and with a real “leg at each corner” look, the kelpie is most well known for its black-and-tan markings, although red-and-tan dogs do occur.
But anyone considering buying a kelpie must make sure it’s bred from bloodlines with a proven ability to work stock and not bred for agility competitions.
“If you need a dog that has to be told to do everything, don’t buy a kelpie. If you want a dog that can work stock naturally and doesn’t need – or like – to be stopped all the time while it’s doing the job, then a kelpie is the dog for you.”
The kelpie’s forte is backing sheep – a skill that involves the dog running along the back of sheep in a race or pen and dropping “through the sheep” on the command “get in” – and to bark on command to achieve the control required.
“The dogs are taught in a sheep race and provide enough control to enable big numbers of stock to be handled by one man.
“After running along the back of the sheep and dropping into them on to floor level they learn to push the required sheep forward and then get out of the race, run along the outside and repeat the exercise,” says Mr Reeves.
But he advises first-time kelpie owners not to overcommand them in training. “The last thing you want is a kelpie that stops because it’s waiting to be told what to do instead of using its natural initiative.
“They have so much inherent ability and instinct to work with sheep.”