Sheep Thrills in Ireland

By John Rosenthal
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 9, 2003

Ever since seeing "Babe," the 1995 movie about a polite pig who triumphed in the dog-eat-dog world of competitive sheepherding, I've longed to see a herding trial. Not because I wanted to spend time getting to know ewes. On the contrary -- it was the bossy dogs herding them that held my interest. However, there are precious few sheepherding trials in Manhattan.

So when my wife suggested a vacation in Ireland on the same week that the International Sheepdog Society was holding its international championship, I knew the stars were in alignment. I would finally get the chance to see a herding trial -- and one involving the top dogs in the British Isles to boot.

The trial was held in Seaforde, County Down. Down was easy to find: It's in Northern Ireland, just southeast of Belfast, and the subject of many legendary Irish songs. Seaforde, on the other hand, required a much more detailed map; it's a tiny town just inland of Newcastle, about halfway between Dublin and Belfast.

Having arrived in Dublin the night before the trial, we made a beeline for Seaforde. Well, not exactly a beeline; on the advice of a bartender, we took the scenic route, a three-hour drive overlooking the waters of Carlingford Lough and Dundrum Bay.

We couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the Irish landscape. To our left, the green carpeted mountains of Mourne rose steeply away from the road into the blue sky of a September morning. To our right, cliffs slipped into the Irish Sea.

By the time we made our way to the sheepherding trial, fully half the dogs had already run the course. But there were many more lean, black-and-white border collies still waiting for their chance, most of them dozing calmly in the back of a farmer's pickup or leashed almost carelessly to one of the wheels.

The site itself had the feel of a fairground, with cars parked on the grass, kids eating ice cream and hardly a computer in sight. Admission tickets came off a big red wheel like at a church bingo, and all transactions were done in cash. It was a fine, warm day -- was this Ireland or Los Angeles? -- for an outdoor event, so we passed up seats in the tented grandstand for a sunny spot overlooking the meadow.

To the untrained eye, a sheepherding trial looks like a dog conducting a fire drill, and few eyes at the trial were as untrained as ours. But like everything else in Ireland, if you want to know something about something, you ask somebody. And that somebody usually gives you a pretty good answer. In this case, we asked a woman to explain what the dogs were doing, and she obliged with a description only slightly less complicated than baseball's infield fly rule. Frankly, I'm amazed that the dogs can figure it out.

Suffice it to say the dogs are required to herd five sheep through a complicated route over a great distance. This they do at the insistence of a shepherd, who instructs the dogs with a series of whistles. When dog and sheep have completed this part, dog and shepherd coax all five sheep into a ring about the size of a tennis court. Here, man and his best friend work together to shed, or separate, the two sheep that are wearing ribbons from the three that aren't. This is the most difficult portion of the competition -- and the most dramatic, as the attendant oohs, ahhs and gasps from the savvy crowd attested.

Once the ribboned sheep are shed, the dog must herd them into a pen. Oh, and did I mention there's a 15-minute time limit? The rules go on (and on), but just knowing the rudiments was enough to increase our interest level from "Look at the pretty doggies working!" To "Wow! What a difficult shed!"

After a while, the sun began taking its toll on the dogs, unaccustomed to such warm weather. Each dog probably ran four or five yards for every yard the sheep moved, sweeping back and forth behind the flock, rounding up stragglers and being careful not to bite the scofflaws (even the ones who really deserve it). By the end of its run, each dog had lost the demonic sneer it had used to cow the sheep into submission and instead sported a pink tongue hanging listlessly from a panting mouth.

The shepherds all looked similar, too: khaki trousers, solid-color button-up shirt, tweed cabdriver's cap and shepherd's staff. Only K.C. MacKinnon broke the mold of the quiet, unassuming shepherd: His tactic of chasing away unribboned sheep by spitting a Bronx cheer at them easily qualified him as the most colorful of the characters. If this sport ever becomes prime-time fare, he'll be the Charles Barkley of herding.

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