Read an ex­tract from Adam Hen­son’s new book

In his lat­est book, Cotswold farmer and TV per­son­al­ity Adam Hen­son ex­plores the re­la­tion­ship be­tween farm­ers and their dogs. In this ex­clu­sive ex­tract, we hear how his fa­ther Joe re­lied on his dogs’ abil­ity to know in­stinc­tively what was ex­pected of them

Cotswold Life - - NEWS -

Dad was a bril­liant farmer. He un­der­stood live­stock, and could as­sess an an­i­mal at a quick glance. He had a great eye for a good an­i­mal to buy and was equally good at spot­ting, from a dis­tance of 200 yards or more, if one of our an­i­mals was sick and needed help. I miss his guid­ing hand, and I al­ways will.

How­ever there was one as­pect of farm­ing where Dad was not per­fect, or any­where near it. And that was work­ing a sheep­dog. He loved his dogs and they adored him, and they worked well enough for him, but he was not a nat­u­ral at train­ing them. He’d prob­a­bly never re­ally been shown. My dad didn’t come from a farm­ing back­ground. Dad’s fa­ther was a fa­mous ac­tor and co­me­dian, Les­lie Hen­son, and his mother was a cho­rus girl and dancer. His younger brother, Nicky Hen­son, fol­lowed them on to the stage, but as a young man Dad turned his back on his fam­ily’s show­busi­ness tra­di­tions and fol­lowed his own dream, to live on the land and to run a farm. So I think he sim­ply de­vised his own way of train­ing a sheep­dog, which wasn’t or­tho­dox or, I’m forced to ad­mit, par­tic­u­larly good. His suc­cess as a shep­herd owed a lot to the dogs’ en­thu­si­asm to work and their in­stinc­tive grasp of what they had to do.

It was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter with the Labradors he schooled as gun­dogs: they were gen­er­ally very obe­di­ent and well trained, but the sheep­dogs were al­ways a bit un­ruly. They were OK at do­ing what he wanted, which was usu­ally fairly rou­tine, but if they ever got it wrong he could be heard shout­ing at them, los­ing his rag. It was the only time I ever knew him to lose his tem­per: with us chil­dren and with the gun­dogs he was pa­tient and kind. But a badly be­haved sheep­dog would be sub­jected to a rant – which meant not a thing to the dog ex­cept that it got the gen­eral idea it was in trou­ble.

So work­ing sheep­dogs wasn’t his big­gest skill, and as the farm grew in size he took on a suc­ces­sion of stock­men who did most of the shep­herd­ing. Some of them were quite good, but some were in the same league as Dad, so I didn’t grow up with a re­ally bril­liant sheep­dog men­tor ei­ther. The stock­men of­ten had their own dogs, so I could go out with them and I picked up the ba­sic com­mands.

‘Dad de­vised his own way of train­ing a sheep­dog, which wasn’t or­tho­dox or, I’m forced to ad­mit, par­tic­u­larly good’

While watch­ing them work the sheep, I think I learned early on that Dad’s ap­proach – end­lessly shout­ing at the dog – didn’t help.

Carlo was one of the few male dogs we have ever had at Bem­bor­ough Farm – Dad pre­ferred bitches, and so do I. I love the look of male dogs, they are very hand­some an­i­mals. But when you are out with them they have an over­rid­ing in­ter­est in any nearby fe­males who may be in sea­son, con­stantly sniff­ing any bitches they come across, and if they get the scent it is all they can think about. They also stop and pee on al­most ev­ery gate post and this­tle to mark their ter­ri­tory. It drives me mad!

I know that a lot of top sheep­dog train­ers pre­fer dogs be­cause in some ways their tem­per­a­ment is more re­li­able – bitches can be a bit un­pre­dictable when they are in sea­son. Also, there’s some ev­i­dence that dogs are more com­pet­i­tive, and that’s im­por­tant in high-level tri­alling. If you look at the re­sults of field trial cham­pi­onships, 80 per cent of the top awards go to dogs, not bitches. Breed­ers who make a liv­ing from their work­ing dogs of­ten pre­fer a male, which can be put out to stud at a high fee as of­ten as he can cope with, whereas a bitch can only (re­spon­si­bly) pro­duce one lit­ter a year, and she can­not com­pete in tri­als while in the lat­ter stages of preg­nancy or when she is nurs­ing her pup­pies.

How­ever, I don’t pre­tend to be up with the best sheep­dog train­ers and I don’t go tri­alling, so a bitch suits me bet­ter. Farm­ers and shep­herds hardly ever have dogs cas­trated or bitches spayed: there’s a deep-seated be­lief that they work bet­ter, and are tougher, if they have all their bits and pieces. There may not be any ev­i­dence, but it’s gen­er­ally be­lieved that a sheep­dog may be­come lazier and fat­ter if it is neutered. Per­son­ally, I like to leave my dogs the way na­ture in­tended them to be: it feels right. But here on a farm there is plenty of land for them to roam on, and I do un­der­stand why pet own­ers liv­ing in very dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances need to have the op­er­a­tion car­ried out, and as long as it is done prop­erly at the right time the an­i­mals thrive.

The name ‘col­lie’ for a sheep­dog can prob­a­bly be traced back to the same root as ‘coal’ and ‘col­lier’, be­cause they were orig­i­nally black, or pre­dom­i­nantly black. They have a very long his­tory: dogs at­tached them­selves to hu­mans as soon as our an­ces­tors set­tled in groups, scav­eng­ing for food, and soon tak­ing on their first im­por­tant role as guard dogs. But their next role came as soon as men be­gan herd­ing flocks of an­i­mals. Most ex­perts be­lieve that the in­stinct to herd – and it is an in­stinct, and one that saved Dad many times when his or­ders were con­fus­ing – is a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of their in­nate need to hunt. In­stead of hunt­ing to kill and pro­vide their own food, they learned that their best bet was to help the hu­mans who would take care of their needs. A Farmer and His Dog, by Adam Hen­son, is pub­lished by BBC Books. Hard­back, £20.

Pearl and Maud with Adam

Peg on Adam’s farm

Adam with his dogs

Adam with Boo, and Al­fie with Dolly

Ron­nie, Dolly and Maud

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