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; internationalsheepdogtrials.org.uk 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
EVERY DOG HAS ITS DAY