In­ter­na­tional Sheep­dog Tri­als at Lodge Park

This year’s In­ter­na­tional Sheep Dog Tri­als take place at Lodge Park on the Sher­borne Es­tate on Septem­ber 8-10. Dick Roper, English Na­tional Pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Sheep Dog So­ci­ety, will be set­ting the course – and what a beau­ti­ful, de­mand­ing cour


There are graz­ing sheep dot­ting the hori­zon, barely dis­cernible in the blur­ring gap be­tween close-knit turf and wide-open sky. Dick Roper knows where the sheep are. And Jack, his bor­der col­lie, knows that he knows. The dog watches: eyes sharp, mind fo­cused, en­ergy held in shim­mer­ing check. Ev­ery one of his mas­ter’s move­ments is a clue.

Dick lets out a pierc­ing whis­tle. “Go on, then!”

Like a shot from a can­non, Jack takes off, dis­pers­ing a caw­ing mur­der of crows into empty skies as he sprints.

“Seven­teen months old and he’s got the most per­fect bal­ance and pace,” Dick says, ad­mir­ingly. We fol­low Jack’s move­ments – within sec­onds some quar­ter of a mile away – lo­cat­ing the year­ling ewes, nudg­ing them into shape; a grace­ful, stately min­uet on a dance­floor of emer­ald green.

“A lot of young dogs would be bring­ing those sheep in at 100mph. He’s just tap­ping them along,” Dick nods, steer­ing him in.

Within a whis­tle, Jack tri­umphantly re­turns, cream-coated sheep non­cha­lantly trot­ting to his bid­ding as if they’d in­tended to pop down and see us all along.

“May I have a try?” I ask. I’m no whistler – though I’ve noted the sounds: an old steam train pulling into sta­tion means ‘Slow!’; a ‘pir­rrip’ sends the dog to the right; a trail­ing- off blast tells Jack to stop. But there are voice com­mands I can use in­stead.

“Look!” I shout au­thor­i­ta­tively at Jack, as he runs to­wards me. “Stop!” “Stop NOW!” It’s like try­ing to halt an ex­press train with a feather.

“Do you know what it is?” Dick laughs. “Every­body thinks dogs un­der­stand words. They haven’t got a clue about words. It’s pitch and tone. To be hon­est, you haven’t got a cat in hell’s chance of work­ing him.”

I watch Jack look at Dick. The word­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween them is mov­ing.

“Who the blazes does she think she is?” Jack is ask­ing.

The turf is old and wise at Lodge Park, its lime­stone bed sum­mer-rich in bee and pyra­mi­dal orchids. There’s been an inch of rain in the past week but you wouldn’t know it.

In a few days’ time, these tran­quil slopes will be trans­formed as thou­sands of spec­ta­tors gather to watch the home na­tions’ best han­dlers go through their paces: 60 shep­herds from Eng­land, Ire­land, Scot­land and Wales, work­ing their out­stand­ing sheep­dogs. The In­ter­na­tional Sheep Dog Tri­als are held in Eng­land once ev­ery four years, but this is the first time the Cotswolds have played host.

This year’s course is as pic­turesque as it is de­mand­ing. In front of us rise Lar­kett Hill Woods; Sally Copse is to our rear; while me­an­der­ing through the val­ley at our feet is the lit­tle River Leach, which rises above North­leach be­fore skip­ping on down into sis­terly Eastleach.

Dick is point­ing way up the hill, to the win­dow­less barn where es­tate deer were once slaugh­tered. This is where the dogs will find the first packet of sheep they have to drive.

“Then you’ve got to bring them right into the val­ley. You might lose them for a sec­ond - you’ll be wet­ting your­self as they come down! – but that’s all down to the shep­herd’s skills.”

At their fur­thest, dog and han­dler will be 900 yards apart. And if it’s windy and the sounds drift off-course?

“That’s when you know you’ve got a good dog in front of you.”

Dick Roper is re­spon­si­ble for or­gan­is­ing the whole ca­boo­dle – al­beit with the help of his ded­i­cated com­mit­tee. Farm man­ager on the Wills es­tate in North­leach, he’s English Na­tional Pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Sheep Dog So­ci­ety; he’s also win­ner of nu­mer­ous ti­tles in his own right, in­clud­ing last year’s One Man and His Dog with Will, a six-year-old power-ma­chine. Dick knows what makes a good course. He knows what makes a good sheep­dog, too.

Part of it’s in the ge­net­ics. “It’s in­stinc­tive. It’s as if they have a gy­ro­scope in their head, where they’ll work any­thing – a wa­ter-pipe; a broom. That’s why they’ll chase bi­cy­cles and post­men. Noth­ing to do with sheep – it’s the move­ment.

“I got my best-ever cat­tle dog from a hous­ing es­tate near Wolver­hamp­ton. She

The top 60 han­dlers from Eng­land, Ire­land, Scot­land and Wales will be com­pet­ing in the In­ter­na­tional Sheep Dog Tri­als – the pin­na­cle of the sheep-dog tri­alling cal­en­dar – for the ti­tle of In­ter­na­tional Supreme Cham­pion, at Lodge Park on the Sher­borne Es­tate, on Septem­ber 8, 9 and 10. En­ter­tain­ment in­cludes ex­perts’ cor­ner, trade stands, craft tent, climb­ing wall and ca­ter­ing mar­quee; in­ter­na­tion­al­sheep­dog­tri­ was go­ing to be put down be­cause she was round­ing up chil­dren in a cul-de-sac and wouldn’t let them out. She was a leg­end: tough as old boots; un­afraid of every­thing.”

A bit like her owner. Two years ago, Dick Roper woke one morn­ing to dis­cover he’d gone blind in one eye. At first, it was like look­ing through bub­blewrap; then, over the course of the next few weeks, the sight went com­pletely.

Nine days af­ter his ear­ly­morn­ing shock, he won the Na­tional.

“I ran that trial with one eye shut!” he re­calls. De­spite the trauma and the dis­abil­ity, he ended up 12 points clear of the field; went like a dream. “Every­thing was just go­ing like you pray for. I re­mem­ber go­ing round the trial course, talk­ing to the sheep, say­ing, ‘Come on, girls! I could just do with two of you with­out col­lars on to walk off now’. [One of the trial tests.] And two just walked off!”

You don’t get lucky with­out skill and hard work, though, as he’s been prov­ing since 1988 when he ran jet-black Sweep, his first cham­pion, at Blair Atholl.

I watch him now work­ing Ruby, a pro-in-the-mak­ing just two weeks into her train­ing. She cost 1,400 guineas at 13 weeks – a phe­nom­e­nal sum; but Dick’s ex­pert glance picked out a phe­nom­e­nal dog.

There’s a beauty in watch­ing this bal­let: man, dog and sheep in har­mony. Beauty… and pur­pose, too.

Don’t for­get that. Tri­alling is the pin­na­cle, but the skills are used each and ev­ery day.

“This morn­ing, I came along the road and there were 40 or 50 lambs run­ning down,” Dick says, nod­ding across the fields from his rose-clad cot­tage. “The shep­herd had brought some sheep in and they’d got away from him. I just dropped a dog out of the truck and he was into mode.

“Apart from say­ing, ‘Steady!’, I didn’t give him an­other com­mand. He knew what he was do­ing.”

‘Every­body thinks dogs un­der­stand words. They haven’t got a clue about words. It’s pitch and tone’

Jack at work

Dick Roper, with Will, at Lodge Park where the in­ter­na­tional sheep­dog trails will be held


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