The sheep were in the meadow, a dog woofing at their wool. A shephard, wearing blue jeans and a cowboy hat, waited by an open corral for the return of his flock.
"That is a good young bitch," said 62-year-old Lewis Pence after his black and white border collie, Linn, had herded five sheep through an obstacle course and into the pen. "Do the work of 10 men. And never get drunk."
Pence was one of a dozen comtemporary shepherds whose sheep dogs were competing in trials this weekend at Chester Farm, a 415-acre sheep spread 100 miles southwest of Washington and a few light years from the romance of mountain flocks and wooden flutes.
The occasion was the farm's 10th Sheep Festival, a two-day program of sheep shearing, wool weaving and ram rides to advertise Chester's local brand of yarn -- Pride of the Flock -- and to generally celebrate the beneficence of Virginia's sheep.
"We need to let people know about sheep," said Francis Chester, a native of Long Island who bought his farm in lush green grasslands near Gordonsville in 1968, during a time when sheep ranchers across the country were bleating about hard times.
Until this year, things had become annually worse for the nation's sheep farmers, who suffered from the popularity of synthetic fibers, a shortage of willing shepherds and marauding coyotes.
But for the first time in two decades, sheep industry figures this year point to a comeback for the woolly cudchewers who came to America with Columbus.
Virginia's stock of 160,000 sheep and lambs pushed its national ranking this year from 21st to 19th. Local sheep and wool merchants see golden fleeces in their future.
"The synthetics are all petro-based," said Patricia Bollow, owner of a yarn shop in Virginia Beach and one of the participants in the "sheep to shawl" contest held during the fair. "We need to get back to the basics."
The spinning, carding and weaving competition used wool sheared from Chester's flock of 230 black and whitehaired sheep, as well as sheep brought to the fair by owners of smaller flocks and pets.
"She gets very embarrassed after her shearing," said Marty Grattan of Albermarle County after her six-year-old pet Ewesless was relieved of 11 pounds of wool by one of two professional sheep shearers hired for the weekend. "I guess you would be, too, if you only got one haircut a year."
The weaving and shearing were done beside a barn and a retail warehouse where yarn and sheep skins are [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] wiches made up the other two sides of a square visited by an estimated 5,000 people over the weekend.
The sheepdog trials were held in a field four minutes from the barns via the haywagon used to transport spectators.
"I wonder if we could rent one of those dogs to watch the kids," said a mother who was having a harder time with her brood of three than the border collie had with five sheep.
"Border collies are a breed 500 years old developed along the border of Great Britain and Scotland," explained Karen Crowe, a sheepdog handler who was working the microphone while some of the best sheepdog handlers in the country worked their dogs. "They are the only breed that has the hypnotic eye. They are born with the instinct to round up strays. My dog works ducks, chickens, turkeys and he has been known to work cats and people."
Each handler and dog were given 10 minutes to move five sheep from a pen 200 yards from the start, through two open gates and finally into a coral. The dogs changed direction, dropped to their bellies and stalked the sheep like cats in response top whistles and barked commands from the handlers. s
"They've got to be eager to do this work, got to want to work more than eat," said Ralph Pulfer, an Ohio handler whose dogs won first and second place in the open competition.
Lewis Pence, another Ohio handler who follows the national circuit of sheepdog competitions from Alabama to Oregon won third and fourth place with two of his dogs.
"It's a stiff game," said the gregarious Pence, who worked for 30 years as a professional sheep shearer ("I ran a baa baa shop"). "But I couldn't ask for a better life. It sure beats killing snakes."