The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel

The Scottish sheepdogs that saved an Aussie town

As Casterton in Victoria hosts its annual Kelpie Festival, Mark Jones reveals how the canine breed it celebrates transforme­d the lives of locals


Burly, heavily bearded Jarrod very gently picks up two small puppies. If they were human, they would be little more than toddlers. Then he drops them into the pen. Eight fully grown Merino sheep move towards the pups, and the dogs hesitate, looking back to the gate for safety. Their mother runs franticall­y along the perimeter of the fence.

Then something kicks in. They crouch either side of the flock, and stare. The sheep press themselves obediently together against the fence. One makes a run for it. The pups calmly shepherd her back to the flock.

It is a remarkable sight: two tiny Australian sheepdogs, or kelpies, barely seven weeks old, already mastering the skill that has made their breed famous – and valuable.

Jarrod, the manager of Wilderness Kelpies at the Wando Estate, admits these particular apprentice­s are a bit on the young side – but no worries; they were born to do this.

We are spending the day just outside the quiet Australian country town of Casterton in the company of these amazing dogs. People love their kelpies around here – which isn’t surprising. It is hard to think of any place in the world which owes so much to its canine population.

In 1843, a cabinet maker from Port Glasgow called George Robertson came to this lush, wooded valley to try his luck at sheep farming in the newly populated state of Victoria.

He brought over a pair of Highland Smooth or “Sutherland” collies. They were different to their cousins who worked the Borders: smaller, black-andtan coloured, these were dogs who would work all day, which is just what you needed if you were trying to farm 17,000 acres in a hot, strange country.

Somehow, one of the pups found itself in the hands of an itinerant Irish stockman called Jack Gleeson (legend has it that one of the dogs was exchanged in secret for a fine horse). He named the dog after the mythical Scottish water spirit, the kelpie, and it didn’t take long for these agile, indefatiga­ble dogs to become part of Australian pioneering legend.

The pups’ mother, Emma, returns to the pen and corrals the sheep within seconds. I ask Jarrod what reward she gets for doing a good job. “More work,” he says. “That’s all they want.”

A few miles up the road, we turn into the remote Warrock Homestead, preserved just as George Robertson and his descendant­s left it. This remarkable craftsman made everything, from the huge, mansion-like sheep shed to the bricks that built his house. One of the humbler buildings is called Bitches’ Hell. It was here that the first kelpie puppies were whelped, while dingoes sniffed around outside.

It was long believed that kelpies were cross bred with wild dingoes, but a 2019 study from the University of Sydney put paid to that theory; the kelpies are thoroughbr­ed Scots. The poor dingoes which were lured to Bitch’s Hell and other farms were shot by the farmers.

Warrock, set in a fine, hilly landscape of mature red gum trees, reminds us of the intriguing story of those early immigrants – but the kelpie story has taken a new, perhaps surprising turn. In 2019, Australia’s national broadcaste­r ABC ran a report headlined, “Kelpies save the dying Victorian town of Casterton”.

Everyone around here knows how valuable kelpies are: they get through the work of two or three men. So, in 1997, locals decided to hold an annual auction in Casterton. People from fura

Everyone here knows how valuable kelpies are: they get through the work of two or three men

ther afield could buy dogs suited to their needs – be it a “truck dog”, able to corral a herd onto the back of a vehicle; a paddock dog, like Jarrod’s, or – most prized of all – an all-rounder.

The auction was popular: in its time, £3.6 million worth of kelpies were bought and sold in Casterton – and in 2021, a two-year-old male called Hoover fetched $35,000 (around £18,600). One even sold for $49,000.

Then they thought: why not hold an old-style country fair on the day before the auction? The first one was in 2021 and the 2023 event happens this weekend, from June 10-11. An estimated 10,000 people are expected to attend to see the kelpies compete in trials and agility tests, both mental and physical.

Casterton and the kelpies are now inseparabl­e, and the money generated by auctions and fairs has helped the community no end. But did the town need saving? The location is wonderful, an asset all its own: tucked into a rich valley on the Glenelg river, halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, it is a perfect place to stop while exploring the glorious landscapes of western Victoria. To the west of Casterton are the winelands of Coonawarra, Australia’s Bordeaux, while a couple of hours south east is the start of the Great Ocean Road.

It is a place that has long drawn people from across the world. In the late 1950s – in the middle of the post-war wool boom – another young Scot moved here from Edinburgh. He later told his daughter that moving to Casterton was like switching from black-and-white to Technicolo­r. In this land of plenty, there were big cars, milk bars and a town radio station.

He lived in Australia until his death in 2008. And now I am visiting Casterton with his daughter – who also happens to be my wife.

We check into the Albion, one of only two pubs in the area that are still trading. Fortunes have been mixed here: the town’s bank has gone and so have half the shops. The local newspaper soldiers on. Yet this is no ghost town: there is a constant stream of utes – “utility” pick-up trucks, another common symbol of rural Australia – usually with

kelpie or two on the back. And log trucks, too, ferrying timber back and forth. Acres of dead-straight blue gums have been grown since my wife left here in the 1980s.

So, come here if you love dogs. Seeing a kelpie in action, especially when they are “backing”– scampering across the thick, woolly backs of the sheep – is a rare privilege. Come for this classic landscape of huge, silver-barked gums and distant, rippling creeks. Come for the cake at Herbert’s Bakery-Café. The names on the menus – Lamingtons, hedgehogs and vanilla slices – are enough to make any Australian dewy-eyed with nostalgia.

You are not in any old hipstervil­le, however. This is a rare slice of authentic, rural Australia at its best – and there is nowhere else quite like it.

 ?? ?? g ‘Come here if you like dogs’: a visitor encounters a pair of sheepdogs at Wilderness Kelpies, near Casterton
g ‘Come here if you like dogs’: a visitor encounters a pair of sheepdogs at Wilderness Kelpies, near Casterton

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