Sheep trial adventure

PENTON, Cumbria, England -- I wish I could say that I was the one who discovered the Penton Discussion Group Annual Sheep Dog Trial. It was our daughter, Jessica, 26, who lives in England, who told us about it. My wife, Barb, and I were celebrati...

Raymond MacPherson
Raymond MacPherson, Brampton, England won the International Sheep Dog Society competition in 1975 and 1979, besting competition in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. He was one of the standouts at the Penton Discussion Group annual trials, with Don and Moss. (Mikkel Pates, Agweek staff)

PENTON, Cumbria, England -- I wish I could say that I was the one who discovered the Penton Discussion Group Annual Sheep Dog Trial.

It was our daughter, Jessica, 26, who lives in England, who told us about it. My wife, Barb, and I were celebrating our 30-year wedding anniversary with a trip. That included a stop at Windemere in England's famous Lakes District with its Peter Rabbit mystique. Then it would be on to Edinburgh -- capital of the nation-state of Scotland and host of the 8th World Potato Congress.

Carlisle, Cumbria, is right on the way, in the rich grazing country near the Scottish border in northern England. That's where the trials would be run.

Known as "The Border City," Carlisle is a city and area of about 100,000 people. It once was a Roman settlement (before the 600s), serving forts on Hadrian's Wall. It features a castle that once was a prison for Mary Queen of Scots in 1568. Later, it was important in milling and textiles. Penton is a rural area, right next to the border

Wouldn't it be fun to attend an authentic, rural sheepdog trial?


The old Bridge Inn

Barb emailed Peter McManus, a retired school teacher who helps organize the event. After emailing back and forth about public transportation, McManus finally said they'd had a meeting and decided to come and pick us up at the train. "Big Ian" Imrie, a farmer from Harelawhole, on the Scottish side of the border, who's chaired the trials for eight years, later told us "We couldn't believe we got an email from someone in North Dakota."

Penton Discussion Group is kind of a classic rural social group. It's affiliated with an international society and meets the first Monday of the month at a local pub. It's primarily a social gathering -- a mix of farmers, retirees and others. "We get a speaker to come in and talk for an hour, have a break, have some food and have some questions. It lasts from 8 o'clock until 10. Then have a few more drinks at the bar," said Eric Kitching, a local farmer and one of our driving hosts.

This time of year the group is focused on the dog trials.

McManus said we could stay in the quaint Bridge Inn, a pub/bed-and-breakfast/restaurant, within a mile of the trial, near the River Liddle bridge into Scotland. It's operated by Tony Wisniewski, an Australian, and his wife, Linda Waring -- a fine chef -- who grew up in the Penton area. Her parents, Ken and Irene, host the trials on some of their land. We'd even be welcome to an evening community barbecue and disco dance at the community social hall.

Not a normal cold soak

The entrance to the trials is a driveway through a hedge, with a gate that led into a 30-acre pasture on a hillside. Peter and Ian greeted us warmly and introduced us around.

By the time we got there, the trials were well under way. Dozens of dog handlers and vehicles parked at the base of a gentle hill. Inside a large tent structure were the trophies that would be handed out at the end of the day. Women were selling "sausage rolls," sandwiches and a variety of desserts, as well as tea. Beer was free.


There were 64 dogs in the trials this year, taking turns from 8:30 a.m. to nearly 6 p.m.

Often, the event is wet and cold, but this year, it was sunny and warm -- "23 degrees," as people often said in wonder, meaning mid-70s Fahrenheit. It is an idyllic setting in lush green hillsides with meadows separated by rock fences or thick hedges.

At the top of the hill is a sheep holding pen, where volunteers wait for a white flag signal to release a set of four sheep. Everybody gets fresh sheep. Today's sheep came out of a sale market just the day before. The flock was not used to dogs, some in the gallery commented.

At the foot of the hill, a handler waits for his turn, standing near a post with his dog.

The clock starts ticking when the handler "casts" his dog up the hill toward the sheep. Ideally, the dogs swing out in a "pear-shaped" trajectory, so they don't scare the sheep by going straight at them. Once behind them, the dogs bring the sheep straight down the hill, through a center gate at mid-field, and then the rest of the way to the handler.

The dogs take them around the handler and then "drive" the sheep halfway up the hill again. First they go through a set of gates on the left. Then the dogs "cross drive" them to a set of gates on the right.

Next, the dogs must bring the sheep back down the hill and toward the handler for a second time.

This time the handlers move to a "shed," or pen, and open a swinging gate with a piece of rope. The handler can encourage and direct the dogs, but the dogs must do the work. The handlers must not touch the sheep.


Finally -- if the dogs succeed in penning the sheep in the 9 minute time limit -- the sheep are let out. The dogs "split" the four sheep into two groups of two, and the judges calculate their scores.

Mules, hoggets -- sheep

Some dog trials are demonstrations for tourists, but not this one. That was part of the fun of it.

The Penton trials are hosted on what's known as Haithwaite Farm. The land is owned by Waring, a bonafide sheep trader and his wife Irene. They and their son, Danny, live in the area.

Waring -- friendly and earthy -- supplied 200 speckled-faced "mule" sheep for the event. In the north of England "mules" are the slang word given to a cross between a "Swaledale" and a "Bluefaced Leicester." The Swaledale has off-white wool and curled horns, originally from the Yorkshire valley of Swaledale. The Leicester is a long-wooled, multipurposed breed that evolved in Northumberland.

The sheep are "geld," or ones that have been in lamb, but aren't at this time. Some are hoggets, or "hogs," -- sheep older than 7 months that have never lambed.

Some competitors are farmers, but all are hobbyists. Their specially trained dogs compete in a series of similar events, and accumulate points. Top dogs bring thousands of pounds at auction and many of the breeder-trainers sell the "not-quite-perfect" dogs to farmers as working dogs.

Sandy Montgomery, 76, is a retired structural engineer and is one of the day's successful competitors, running his six-year-old dog Craig. "The dog has to demonstrate that it's in control," Montgomery explained. The dog uses its "eye" to control the sheep. Too much of a stare can make the sheep reluctant to move. Montgomery said sheepdog handlers call this "balance."

Competing dogs are intense and energetic. They can seem aggressive, but not overly so. If they bite the sheep they are disqualified. Successful dogs seem to know what the sheep are thinking -- whether they need to back off or lie down, to make the sheep stop thinking about spooking.

"The dogs have specific commands -- a whistle to make it stop, a whistle to make it go forward to the sheep, a whistle to make it go clockwise 'round the sheep, a whistle to go anti-clockwise around the sheep," Montgomery said. Dogs respond to both the voice and the whistle.

How does the whistle work?

"You just blow it," Montgomery said, without a hint of humor. He acknowledges different whistle patterns give different instructions -- clockwise "come by" anti-clockwise, "come back" or "go away."

Commands are generally the same from trainer to trainer. When the dogs get close, the handler often speaks. "If I want my dog to come forward, I say 'Craig, get up.' If I want him to go clockwise, I say 'Craig, come by.' If I want him to go anti-clockwise, I say 'Away, to me.' Or if I want him to stop, I tell him to lie down."

Consistency and experience seem to count for a lot in this effort. Montgomery noted that he'd competed in his first dog trial at age 16, so he's been at it 60 years. "It gets in your blood," he said.

Sheepdogs in the media:

• A famous Guinness beer "advert" this past St. Patrick's Day depicts a sheepdog, moving people toward a bar and a drink of the famous brew. The dog guides them past couches and Indian curry restaurants, dancing girls and even a "text from the missus," eventually to the pub and a pint of Guinness ( ).

• "Babe," a 1995 film directed by Chris Noonan, adapts the novel, "The Sheep-Pig," and tells about a pig who wants to be a sheepdog. The movie was nominated for seven academy awards, but lost to "Braveheart," a film about Scottish historical figures.

• A famous United Kingdom television series, "One Man and His Dog," produced on-and-off from 1976 to the present, features sheepdog trials, in series through 2000, and now in specials and reruns.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
What To Read Next
This week on AgweekTV, we hear about North Dakota corporate farming legislation and about WOTUS challenges. Our livestock tour visits a seedstock operation and a rabbit farm. And we hear about new uses for drones.
Kevin and Lynette Thompson brought TNT Simmental Ranch to life in 1985. Now, their daughter, Shanon Erbele, and her husband, Gabriel, are taking over the reins, and their sale is for Feb. 10.
Gevo will be making sustainable aviation fuel in Lake Preston, South Dakota. Summit Carbon Solutions plans to capture carbon emissions from the facility.
Even if it's not a lucrative venture, the hobby of raising rabbits continues at this farm near Sebeka, Minnesota.