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
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