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The World Sheepdog Trial—2008

Before Luke reached them, the sheep bolted and overran the spotter and his dog. In 30 seconds, we were toast. Luke never did control them, and when he brought them into the shedding ring, his eyes were hot and furious. What had been an ugly run was about to become uglier, so I tipped my hat to the judge and Luke and I retired. We were applauded for knowing when to quit.

The next afternoon, June was to qualify on field three, under the broken parapets of Dinefwr Castle. The field was a steep bowl, with the handler’s post at the bottom—a 400- to 450-yard outrun. While you could send to either side, left gave June more room. The sheep had been run yesterday on this field, and those who had been penned were less frightened of it. Those who’d previously evaded the pen knew something too.

We couldn’t press these sheep—June must be well behind.

The crossdrive was dangerous. The sheep had to scramble down a steep bank, which started them running. Five speeding Welsh Mountain Sheep are hard to steer, and most handlers missed the crossdrive panel, usually low.

The next hazard was the split. Handlers had trouble sorting the two (of three) uncollared sheep from the two collared ones, and June isn’t a particularly good shedder.

Qualifying runs were in the high 190s of a possible 220.

“Ms. Fiona Robertson from Quebec, Canada, will be our next competitor. Will Donald McCaig from Williamsville, Virginia, please stand by.”

As we walked to the handler’s post, June said she knew where the sheep were, and we exchanged good wishes. I sent her and clicked my timer: 15 minutes.

June made a fine outrun, absolutely nothing wrong, and I whistled her down when she was behind her sheep.

June brought the sheep quietly. I downed June again—and again. These sheep liked to be worked at a brisk walk, nothing faster.

Five Welsh Mountain Sheep approached the fetch panels a little quicker than I liked, but when I downed June, they veered, so I kept her on her feet. The lead ewe had a mind of her own. She intended to escape and end this sheepdog-trial nonsense. I turned the sheep behind me in stages: “Away June/Down!” “Away/Down!” “Away/Down!” The turn wasn’t tight (two points off per judge) but it served. En route to the drive panels, we had a bobble (one point per judge) but I downed June, held my breath that the sheep had passed through the panels, and flanked my dog for a perfect turn. June flanked too tight, and the sheep picked up the pace. Three dark green rushes marked the proper crossdrive line, and June’s sheep were a little high, but not much (one point per judge); then they broke into a run. HANDLER ERROR: I’d seen a dozen runs here, and if the sheep started running at this spot, they kept running, but I downed June (briefly), hoping they’d slow. When I regained my senses: JUNE TO THE LAST-MOMENT RESCUE. June’s always been fast, and she caught them right below the crossdrive panels.

A rescue turn often sends the sheep shooting across the panels to miss on the high side. But at the nanosecond June turned them, I whistled and she bent them properly through. A little awkward (three points per judge), but we were still in the running.

We had 11 minutes left for the split, pen, single—a month. June is an uninspired shedder, and I’d never done the “two unmarked sheep” shed before. June on one side, me on the other. Sheep hate crooks pointed at them, and I used my (borrowed) cane to rearrange them. I had my two, but a collared sheep joined them at the last second. Since they didn’t leave the ring and I didn’t ask June to shed, it’s a small error (two? per judge).

And immediately, we’ve two unmarkeds perfectly willing to split, and June marches them off.

I get the pen gate open, its rope in my hand. But as the sheep approach, with eons of time and thus far a qualifying score, I get stupid and forget that ewe with a wandering eye. These sheep are man-shy, and the dog has to do most of the work at the pen. June can do it; she’s biddable. I can flank her by inches.

Instead, I attempt a strategy that hasn’t worked for any of the 50 runs I’ve watched over the past two days. I decide to put pressure on the sheep, wag my cane and then, like good little sheepies, they’ll go in.


Donald McCaig is a novelist, essayist, poet and sheep farmer who gained recognition with his classic man-and-dog tale, Nop's Trials, which was followed by numerous other bestsellers, including Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men and, most recently, Rhett Butler's People.

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