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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.

More shepherds are likely to follow the lead of Paul Turnbull, who had the bad luck of drawing a lone sheep with an independent streak. When it became apparent that there was no way his dog Don could return the renegade sheep to his flock and complete the course in time, Turnbull called off the dog with a simple "that'll do" and ended his attempt.

By day's end, 60 dogs and shepherds had competed, with the 15 best invited back for the finals the following day. But before that, there was a dinner-dance in Newcastle at the Burrendale Country Club.

Two hours later, having snagged an invite, we were drinking Guinness with a dog handler named Stuart. We'd fallen in love with his gorgeous border collies earlier that day. While off-duty, these dogs were enjoying their leisure time much as our own dog might have -- offering paws for shaking and ears for scratching. Stunned to find Americans at a shepherd's banquet, Stuart filled in the gaps of our extremely sketchy understanding of a trial.

He also cautioned that herding is a way of life that's disappearing, even in the British Isles. For herding to survive, he told us, it has to market these kinds of events to tourists. I'd always thought that competitions of dogs actually doing the work they were bred for is much more interesting than the annual dog beauty pageant thrown in New York by the Westminster Kennel Club.

But then again, I don't understand why people like to watch race cars going around in a circle either.

The next day was as sunny and warm as the previous one, which qualifies as a minor miracle in Ireland. We looked for hiking trails near our inn before deciding that the road out the front door seemed quiet enough for a stroll. We walked for an hour in one direction, past meadows of sheep, cattle and a pony that posed for a picture.

On the walk back, however, we got stuck behind an Irish traffic jam: a shepherd moving a flock of sheep. His dog ran sweeper behind the flock, rounding up any who might stray from the fold, just like the dogs in the trial. Without a dog, this would be a two- or three-man job, but with the dog zipping back and forth, the shepherd did little more than direct the traffic.

With new appreciation for the dogs and their work, we returned to the trial for the finals. This time, each dog herded 20 sheep instead of five, and they were just as uncooperative. Few dogs were able to complete the difficult course. At the shedding ring, man and dog frequently separated six or seven or nine sheep from the fold, only to have all 20 coagulate as the shepherds tried to winnow out the last one or two. Even MacKinnon's Bronx cheer failed to separate one ornery unribboned sheep from his much more sheepish brethren.

Sheepherding trials may not be ready for television. There's no sex, no violence (unless a dog nips at a rogue sheep), no herding pigs (none that we saw, anyway), and it usually rains a lot.

For the dogs, the day ended like it did for Babe, with a "That'll do" and a well-deserved nap in the back of the truck. For the shepherds, it ended at the beer tent, where Irish, English, Scots and Welsh all hashed over the day's events. There was a winner -- S.L. Davidson and his dog, Star -- and losers (everyone else). But no sore losers.

And when somebody actually uttered the phrase, "jolly good show," we knew this had been an experience as authentic as the peat on our hiking boots.

The International Sheepherding Championship rotates among Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales. This year's is at Castle Kennedy, Stranraer, Scotland, on Sept. 11-13. (The Irish finals are Aug. 14-16 in Moat Park County Roscommon, with the winners going on to Stranraer). Details: International Sheep Dog Society, 011-44-1234-352672, www.isds.org.uk.

For U.S. trials, contact the U.S. Border Collie Handler's Association, which has a calendar of trials at www.usbcha.com/upcomingtrials.htm. The U.S. national finals will be held in Sturgis, S.D., on Sept. 14-21. Details: 254-486-2500.

John Rosenthal is a New York writer. His golden retriever Lucy gets food and affection without having to do any work in return.

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