"It's a daggly old day today," announces the large, ruddy-faced countryman officiating at the sheep dog competition in England's Lake District. "Daggly" is his word for pouring rain, and rain drips off the end of his nose as he introduces the next heat of this quietest and most curious of British outdoor spectator sports.
Foul weather or fair, shepherds and their loyal border collies come from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to compete in the ancient skills of shepherding that rely on an almost telepathic communication between man and dog. Watching one of these trials gives you an unsurpassed glimpse of British country ways.
Some 5 million people in Britain -- about 10 percent of the population -- watch sheep dog trials each year, most of them through the medium of television. They tune in to the BBC's long-running series "One Man and His Dog" to enjoy the scenery, the characters, the dogs, the intent competition, the country pace and values. But if the viewing is good, actually being there gives an even better taste of country life, and an ideal focus for a visit to the British countryside.
The air is as fresh and rich as the accents. At a typical competition, you stand at the edge of the course with the visiting and local farmers, their wives and children to watch as one of the shepherds strides out to the starting post with his two border collies. The dogs, with names like Glyn and Gael, or Shep and Cindy, are black and white, or sometimes ruddy cinnamon. All are clever and eager. At a muttered command they sit and wait, pricking their ears from time to time.
At the top of the field a dozen sheep are released; then, with a quiet word from its master, one of the dogs races off to the right. A moment later the second, younger dog is dispatched to the left -- the shepherd is giving the old-timer a head start. This is the Outrun. Relying on instinct and training, the pair must arrive behind the sheep simultaneously, with no further commands.
The dogs herd the sheep using the "power of the eye" -- never a bark or a nip. From as far as 15 or 20 feet, the sheep react, jostling one another and starting down the course. The master whistles sharply and calls commands in a rich rural accent: "Coom bye, coom bye!" (go left), "Ley doon!" (stop), "Awey!" (go right). The dogs alternately run, wheel and turn, drop down on their bellies, stand still and stare down recalcitrant sheep.
In the standard scoring system the judges rate the dogs on their performances in various areas of the course, deducting points from a perfect total of 110. The Gather portion of the course includes the Outrun, Lift and Fetch (herding the sheep straight toward the handler). In the Drive the dog or dogs herd the sheep around several turns and through gates. The Shed is when one or two marked sheep are cut away from the herd, as would be necessary if they were ill, hurt or about to lamb. Finally, in the Pen, the dog must work the sheep into a 6-by-9-foot pen while the handler holds the gate open. Here, especially, the dog's eye power is important; the dog literally stares the sheep into the pen.
The competition is an exercise of willpower and communication. The goal is to move the sheep at a comfortable amble surely and steadily around the course. (The measured pace is essential: Fast-running sheep are difficult to control and burn up marketable meat.) Points are lost for missed turns, too many commands or galloping sheep.
The men and the dogs who participate in the trials don't do it just for "show": They will have come from a hard season's work, and will go right back to it. But in a nation with 36 million sheep, good sheep dogs and good handling are valued highly. A proven dog, or one with promise, can sell for up to $1,000, and a stud book of pedigrees is carefully maintained by the International Sheep Dog Society.
Spectators are always welcome, but be warned that at the televised trials, the emphasis is more on how the competition will look to the home viewer than on how comfortable spectators will be. Other top trials provide clearer viewing and easier access. Many feature such amenities as tea, beer and snack tents, guides, crafts, agricultural exhibits and toilets.
Wherever and whenever you go, prepare for the changeable British weather. You might take a cue from the dress code of your fellow spectators. The rubber Wellington boots ("wellies") worn by all country people are essential for coping with the mud and puddles. Women wear plastic covers over their hair and carry the ubiquitous umbrella. The stoic local farmers and competing shepherds dress unself-consciously in "le style Anglais" -- an array of district and houndstooth checks, Prince of Wales plaids, cable-knit sweaters, Aran knits and tweeds, all in shades of muted browns and tans and greens. Though they never match, the patterns and textures coordinate perfectly.
Off-duty sheep dogs are among the spectators, too. They whine very occasionally and pull at their leads, but mostly sit watchfully, rolling their eyes up to master now and then, anticipating or pleading for a command.
Other, quieter dramas catch your attention during the trials. In the Lake District I watched the mist clothe a hill prickly with firs, making it a black hedgehog-silhouette against the soft grayness, with blue blurred hills beyond. Throughout the trials the weather changed -- cloud shadows raced, the hills glowed with sun or flowered without, the lake was leaden or alive.
After a morning at the trial you can go off to the cozy comfort of a pub. Have a Ploughman's Lunch of bread and cheese, and sample the local ale: Countrymen are loyal to their own ales or bitters.
Britain's first recorded sheep dog trials were held in Wales in 1873, but it wasn't until 1906 that the International Sheep Dog Society was formed. "International," by the way, refers only to the four countries of the British Isles (England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales). The National Trials are held in each of the four countries in August, and the leading 15 dogs from these represent their countries in the International, held this year at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England, Sept. 10-12.
The last day is the Supreme Championship -- "the best trial test in the world," according to writer and TV commentator Eric Halstall, a sheep dog expert. "
Woburn Abbey itself is worth a visit. On the site of a 12th-century monastery, the grand and stately 18th-century house has opulent drawing rooms, excellent porcelain and a superb collection of paintings. An overnight or longer stay in the vicinity would allow you to see Hatfield House, where Elizabeth I was living when she was declared queen, or to spend a day wandering around the colleges of Oxford or Cambridge.
The Longshaw Sheep Dog Trials, to be held Sept. 3-5 in the Peak District of central England, also are top rated. They are the oldest trials in England, started in 1898 as a contest between the gamekeepers and shepherds on the estate of the Duke of Rutland. The Longshaw Estate is on the spectacular heather-covered moors above Grindleford, about 15 miles from Sheffield. You can drive up from London in five hours, or take a train up and hire a car in Sheffield. This national park area offers scenic drives and walks, the 18th-century Chatsworth House and grounds (with a demonstration farm for children), and the romantic, medieval Haddon Hall, which still belongs to the Duke of Rutland.
But if you hanker for wildly romantic countryside, the Lake District of northern England can't be beat. The area is the setting for the BBC trials in Derwent Water Sept. 15-20, and for the region's own trials later this month. You can take the four-hour train journey up from London and rent a car in Windermere, the town beside Lake Windermere -- a good starting point for a Lake District visit.
Wherever you go, you'll find that at the sheep dog trials, everybody wins. Man gets a silver-plated salver. Dog gets a grudging pat from its master. You get the unparalleled pleasure of participating in a bit of British country life. Susan Poad Kerr is a free-lance writer living in London.