Yorkshire students show sheepdog handling is still relevant in hi-tech farming world

Faye Smith, 24, with border collie Taff, who have completed a sheepdog training course at Askham Bryan College near York. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Faye Smith, 24, with border collie Taff, who have completed a sheepdog training course at Askham Bryan College near York. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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The march of technology is changing the face of agriculture, making it quicker and easier for farmers to get the job done, so does one of the most traditional agricultural skills around still have a place?

Sheepdog training is a precise art practised by generations of farmers. Indeed, the first recorded sheepdog trials were held in Wales in 1873 and while quad bikes have replaced border collies to round up flocks for many, a group of freshly-trained young people are intent on mastering a method that they believe has a place in farming’s hi-tech future.

Three-year-old border collie sheepdog Taff, being put to work on the farm near Holmfirth. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Three-year-old border collie sheepdog Taff, being put to work on the farm near Holmfirth. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

In a first for the region, York’s Askham Bryan College has linked up with the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) to equip students with sheepdog handling skills.

Eight young people have just completed the first course at the college’s farm using its 320-strong Texel and Mule Cross flock. Students either paired up with their own dogs or those belonging to trainer Jackie Goulder.

Ms Goulder, 67, of Pickering is an ISDS member and has worked with sheepdogs for 25 years. For her, the sheepdog’s role is unrivalled.

“Technology is certainly important on farms but using sheepdogs to manage stock is just as effective and relevant as it was 100 years ago,” she said.

“Dogs make everything so much easier. It’s all about communication, anticipating how a situation is going to develop, managing it effectively, being focused on the task in hand and developing that all-important relationship with your right hand ‘colleague’.”

And it is not just for sheep that the skill remains in use, poultry and pig farmers use dogs to bring in flocks of birds or pigs at night, she said, not forgetting of course that sheepdogs are “wonderful companions in their own right”.

One of the first students to take the training was Faye Smith after she studied for a foundation degree in canine and feline behaviour at the college.

The 24-year-old, whose parents farm near Holmfirth, said: “It’s such a nice feeling having the dog work for you, it’s a wonderful connection.”

For the training she was joined by Taff, her father’s three-year-old border collie.

“We built up a relationship pretty quickly,” she said. “You wouldn’t think it but sheep are smart and have respect for a good dog, and react accordingly. A clever dog will develop an understanding with the flock, and both learn from each other’s body language.”

Her parents have always had working dogs on the farm, she said. “The only time we used a quad was because Mum was ill - and it was stolen. Sheepdog handling needs to carry on. We have a lot of moorland round here - you can’t get a quad over that terrain, it’s dangerous.”

Fresh with confidence, Ms Smith will compete with Taff in the young handlers classes at Harden Moss sheepdog trials, and she plans to launch a pet dog training and walking business.

New sheepdog training sessions are planned at Askham Bryan College from September and it is a skill that another student, Tom Harrison, said he intends to use in his future career.

The 19-year-old gamekeeping student from Easingwold said: “I’m currently working on a sheep farm but having already got my agriculture degree, I’m keen to look at lots of careers and this is another important skill for me to have.”