Highly regarded sheepdog handler Harry Hutchinson watches his Border collies dash across the desolate fellside of Baugh Fell through the driving rain.
They cut off the flight of several renegade black-faced ewes with curly horns breaking away from the flock that is being gathered – so preventing any further escape.
Just the glaring eyes of the sheepdogs and a baring of their teeth alone does the trick. This remote hinterland can be a bleak place as Sedbergh School pupils know; it’s the scene of their annual cross country race.
Harry and his wife, Mary, moved to farm here in Uldale in 1983. They have recently downsized to Bridge Farm House, a couple of miles down the unfenced road. “Great country, this, for schooling sheepdogs,” he says, leaning on a shepherd’s crook he fashioned from a hazel stick and a ram’s horn he found on the fell attached to a bleached skull.
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His piercing whistles are directing the dogs this way and that, almost as if they were radio controlled. Sometimes his whistles sound like supermarket tills chirruping at rush hour. Others resemble a whistling kettle coming up to the boil.
Their messages? Stop, Go Left, Go Right, Lie Down or Walk Up. There is also a whistle for Come By.
Harry admits these inclement conditions have helped keep him on his toes in readiness for sheepdog trials.
That is for those times whenever he can – busy work schedule allowing – seize the day to compete at sheepdog trials in God’s Own County.
For 50 years, his Border collies have been competing against “the best” with many successes along the way – from York Racecourse to Dentdale’s annual show and beyond.
He reckons a sheepdog’s work gathering sheep on these uplands is another world from the homely environment of sheepdog trials. “A sheepdog on Baugh Fell needs staying power,” he says. “It’s a necessity. Folk say, ‘There is wet and there is very wet. And there is Uldale.’
“That collie has got to work all day even when it’s shattered and far from home. So you breed from dogs that can last the pace during a hard day’s gathering.”
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Harry says it’s all down to the genetics. “It can be difficult gathering sheep on the fells here. The shepherd needs to help conserve the dogs’ energy, nursing them along the way when some of the time they might even be out of sight.
“What you don’t want is to get halfway into a big gather, and discover your dogs have shot their bolt. It can happen. Sheep instinctively know when pressure relaxes. They start playing up to fatigued dogs. Little by little.
“Like by spreading back out over the fell. The shepherd is left helpless. He or she has to return home empty handed.”
He says sheepdog trials give a different kind of pressure. “It’s another world at country shows,” he says. “Including major national and international events. Like for instance at Bolton Abbey sheepdog trials in Wharfedale or those at Downholme near Leyburn. Or up on Holmfirth’s Harden Moss near Sheffield.
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“It’s not just a case of successfully penning the sheep, it’s also how you are judged to have done the job.” He laughs. “I once won a golden candelabra and a silver teapot at Harden Moss trials.”
On show fields like at Keighley, Reeth, Clapham and Gargrave (which is located next to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal), his dogs have reigned supreme at times.
He plays these triumphs down, though, preferring to dwell on how he likes dogs to have “a bit more push” when gathering sheep.
These are different from dogs that rely on giving the flock too much “eye” by instilling fear as just mentioned.
“Every dog has his day,” he says. “It’s the same for dog handlers, too. Sheepdog trialists who can be depended on to compete time and again are the backbone of the game.
“It’s not about the winning. It’s simply the pleasure of taking part and watching dogs working like you know they can.”
As for that word ‘‘retirement’’, he gives it short shrift. The septuagenarian asks me if I have a dictionary handy as its meaning escapes him.
Just last month he competed at Muker Show with Birdie, a four-year-old, and Clyde, two-and-a-half years old. They both have the unmistakable stamp of Harry’s sheepdogs: good breeding.
Once at the National Sheepdog Trials one of his best dogs, Maddie, qualified for the English team. “She was a good dog in my eyes,” he says. She won more than a hundred sheepdog prizes over the years.
Typical sheepdog trial entries might include 30 to 40 shepherds and their dogs. Tasked to herd respective groups of say three or more bleating sheep around a taxing course, the collies are assessed by judges who award points on accuracy and style.
Border collies need to be able to coax “awkward” sheep into sheep pens.
“Shedding the sheep” is the term used; it’s the crucial moment when applause rings out surrounding the ring.
Harry pours me a beaker of hot flask coffee, then extols the uncanny qualities of Border collies.
Maddie was once on the point of successfully shedding five sheep into a pen – each marked for the judge’s benefit with a distinctive collar. Only one broke free at the penultimate moment and dashed away, running free.
Taking cover among another group of Swaledales standing in the arena’s shedding ring, it was well camouflaged. Even Harry momentarily lost track of the elusive fugitive.
Without further instruction, Maddie raced back and cherry-picked his quarry from its sanctuary, and coaxed it gently but firmly back to rejoin its original compatriots.
The same dog would travel to sheepdog trials all over the country in the footwell of Harry’s Volvo. There it was content to stay until he opened the door.
Returning home, however, she would spring up on to the front passenger seat 100 yards from the farm gate to gaze longingly out of the window at its home ground.
Another time he tells of is when a sheepdog on Baugh Fell stayed put, totally disregarding
his whistles and entreaties. Knowing something was wrong, he discovered the object of the sheepdog’s attention – a tiny lamb, still alive, lay
at the bottom of a peat hole that could so easily have been passed by.
Another working dog and the sheep it had been working went Awol in the mist and rain. It was one of those rare occasions when Harry returned the four miles home without sheep or dog, flummoxed. Yet there they were, all in good order, by the farm gate when he returned.
He actually runs two flocks, only one of which answers to his whistles.
That first flock consists of Swaledale sheep; the other, however, is made up of the two-legged gatherings he preaches to in Methodist chapels
on Sundays. For on top of the day job he is also a well-known Methodist preacher, sought-after by the congregations who gather for his inspiring Sunday services across the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
He even mentions the one place in the Bible, in the Book of Job actually, where “sheep dogs” are mentioned. And he sometimes comments in his sermons how a well trained sheepdog works with the shepherd and obeys commands.
Properly trained, the collie is able to move sheep just above anywhere – with calm authority and without undue bother. “Does he in turn, then, liken himself to a sheepdog at the command of his Master, God the Almighty?” He ponders this for a moment. “It’s a thought,” he says.