Get down, Shep!

We’re in the quiet(ish) season on our local farms, which gives some people a chance to enjoy themselves and still mess about with sheep (enough with the sheep jokes, already). The hills are alive with the sound of ‘come by’ – it’s the sheepdog trial season. We’ve just had our very local ones and the national ones were a couple of weeks ago, and the big International Trials are happening this very weekend at Stoneleigh Park. But they’ve been happening, on and off, for a few months around here. It’s been a good summer, largely dry, and I’ve been to a couple. I’m just overawed by them, by the skill of the shepherds and, above all, by the dogs…

June farmer's trials

(And I particularly like the sheep, especially when they get bolshie, often towards the end of the day – though some just start out awkward. This particular trial came to a temporary halt at one stage when a stroppy sheep decided to climb a six-foot wall, stand on the top and sneer at the dog and his handler before disappearing into the distance; the others ran away.)


When I was growing up, our crofting neighbour was the most amazing shepherd. At the time I didn’t realise how good he was; I just assumed it was normal to be able to walk a couple of hundred sheep down to the sales in the lower valley with only one sheepdog for added control. His dog was amazing, too, of course. Generally dogs either lead or drive; Rex seemed to be able to do both. Tragically he disappeared, and the next year trailers had to be used instead – the sheep were having none of that mechanised rubbish and made a collective, and successful if temporary, bid for freedom. (Photo from Hartley and Ingelby’s Life in the Moorlands of North East Yorkshire, 1972, captioned ‘Mr J W Mackley, Low Horcum, gathering sheep near Saltersgate in the early morning, 1930s’.)

But that’s by the by – or should that be ‘bye the bye’? I started thinking about sheepdogs, particularly collies, though the breed doesn’t necessarily follow; Old English Sheepdogs were traditionally used in the South Downs, for instance, and Huntaways are very popular in New Zealand. But, for me and many others, the archetypal sheepdog is a Border Collie, and the wonderful engraver Thomas Bewick evidently thought so too. woof by BewickNow, I know some people who wouldn’t contemplate having a collie – ‘I don’t want a dog that’s brighter than I am,’ said one person I know, and there are always the dog-breed lightbulb jokes to put you off: ‘How many dogs does it take to change a lightbulb?’ Border Collie: ‘Just me. [Sigh] Wiring not up to standard. Might as well rewire the house while I’m at it.’ (Labrador: ‘Me, me, me, me, please, me, me, me, me, please, me, me, me…’ Cat: ‘Don’t be silly, humans change light bulbs. Just do it and bring me my supper.’) In Isabel Grant’s Highland Folk Ways there’s a lovely anecdote about a Gaelic-speaking shepherd in the far west who was asked why he commanded his dog in English. ‘Och, he’d be far too wise altogether if he had the understanding of the Gaelic,’ came the reply.

You do occasionally come across an – let’s say – intellectually challenged collie, and we had X, anonymity preserving some dignity. I still maintain, however, that X wasn’t dim; after all, he was one of Rex’s descendants. He was actually very bright indeed and simply preferred not to charge about the hills working sheep; he preferred organising humans, such as those queueing up at a chip van on a campsite near Dornoch. (Incidentally, it is also quite common to hear dogs being worked in English rather than Welsh around me, even when Welsh is the normal, everyday working language. X didn’t appear to understand any language at all when you wanted him to do something he didn’t want, but he could hear ‘biscuit’ when spoken almost without sound, and from three fields away. And we had to spell d-o-g t-r-e-a-t-s, though he picked that up pretty damn fast. Also v-e-t and b-a-t-h, but that’s not an uncommon skill. Not when compared with herding about twenty reluctant tourists into a tight group.) Oh, I digress…

bleaghThinking about X has got me onto the whole question of names. Traditionally working collies have one-syllable names; as one shepherd put it, ‘…call them by a long name and they’ve covered another fifty yards before they hear you’. (There is an alternative point of view, that the one-syllable name sounds too like a command. In my experience, they know the difference; they’re Border Collies, for heaven’s sake.) The other tradition is that they are often given ‘real’ names – the names of people. Dribble-chops here is Mali, belying the one-syllable thing, but then she’s not an officially working dog. Unless you count running after a ball as work (and I’m sure, being a Welsh Collie, that she does). So when my great-aunt defied the Enid Blyton ban and gave me a book by her about a working dog called Shadow the Sheepdog (it became my favourite and could not be removed by the reading police, being a gift), she was demonstrating Blyton’s lack of real research.

I’ve been collecting names in a desultory way. There are some regional variations, of course – Mali, Eira, Gwyn, Del and Cai, for example, are Welsh; Moss, for some reason, is particularly popular in North Yorkshire. Among the human names I’ve met are a Glen, Jack, Meg (several), Jess (ditto), Bob (ditto), Roy, Tom/Twm, Ted, Lyn, Tess, Bess, Gwen, Nell (and a Nel in Wales), Finn, Sam, Ben, Mac, Dot and Jimmy (see you…). Then there were Nip and Tip, Jet (who was), Lady (who wasn’t), Sweep (but no Sooty), Fan, Gem, Chip, Spot, Cap, Jet, Fly, Floss and Dash.

But a friend of mine – and coincidentally Mali’s joint ‘owner’; her partner is much more sensible and he had a Jack – beats the lot. She had Mr Togo Jones when she was little. This is what happens when you let a child name an animal (though nothing is as bad as a cat I knew, originally called Luke Skywalker; my informant had to explain that cats don’t have surnames to get out of that one). Mr Togo Jones was a bit of an accident, half collie and half corgi – how is that possible? steps? – and was originally to be called a simple (!) Mr Jones. This was also vetoed by an adult, who simply pointed out that calling ‘Mr Jones!’ anywhere in Wales would get lots of responses, mostly not from dogs. Mr TJ was apparently adept at rounding up Japanese tourists in Chester, which beats customers at a chipper on a Scottish campsite in both scope and difficulty. Much missed, both Mr TJ and X, though perhaps any Victorian sentimentality about either would be inappropriate…


Landseer’s The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner, 1837, courtesy of the V&A Museum

X would have seized the opportunity to get up on the coffin and make a dog bed in the winding sheets when no-one was looking. Or he’d have eaten the leaves and then coughed them back up (lovely). I’m not sure what Mr TJ would have done – could have been anything, given his genetic background.


‘The Colley’ from The Dogs of Great Britain, 1879

Perhaps I should explain the title of this post for anyone who doesn’t know – there was a very popular kids’ TV programme/indoctrination vehicle called Blue Peter. Of course there still is, but it’s not the same – for one thing, the presenters all appear to have lost their minds. In my childhood one of the presenters, an ostensibly sane one, was John Noakes, and he looked after one of the show’s pets, a collie called Shep. They rapidly became an extraordinary double act, with Shep’s trademark wild jumping up and John Noakes’ world-weary cries of ‘Get down, Shep!’ And that’s another name…


10 thoughts on “Get down, Shep!

  1. CityofLeedsRose

    Once OH & I were staying in Snowdon Ranger and out the back is a farm. We watched with fascination and disbelief as we saw on the mountainside three fields of sheep moving around in an orderly fashion following exactly what the farmer was saying to the sheepdog that he was working with in the fourth field. It was also highly amusing!

    1. kate Post author

      Isn’t it incredible? I remember seeing a river of sheep come over the brow of a hill, apparently by themselves – and then the shepherd and dog appeared. Very impressive…

  2. Lydia

    Oh, what a great read! What a sight to see the dogs rounding up the sheep. Over here they have collies too, plus kelpies which never ever sit down and stay in one spot, and blue or red heelers which I think are for cattle. They are lovely mottled fur too. I read Shadow the Sheepdog and there it is on my bookshelf to this day (50 years later). It was my son’s favourite book for a few years when he was growing up, he read it so many times. Jess the collie dog near here, rounds all the dogs upat the dog beach, and leaps out at you whenever you walk past her house. Sadly our dog, Woody, has none of these useful traits. He is a mixture of staffy, huntaway, possibly, but very unlikely, cavalier king charles. He does have the remarkable ability to jump straight up in the air like a harrier jet. Now, that keeps the unwary on their toes. Just watched a wonderful show about Snowdonia, such a beautiful place, the shepherd and his dogs, in winter and summer, I will watch it again and again. Enjoy the Autumn and the sounds of the hills. I am over there in my thoughts. Springtime over here, no doubt Woody would love to round up a few kangaroos and come to think of it his excellent jumping skills would be very useful!

    1. kate Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it – and this very morning I spotted a local farmer gathering up his cows with two collies, not something I’d seen before (but then I didn’t grow up with cattle), an now here you are mentioning the blue/red heelers.

      I wonder what happened to my copy of Shadow the Sheepdog? It probably got thrown out somewhere along the line, especially as I’d drawn dogs all over it in red biro… Jess (good name) sounds absolutely typical; I was just talking to someone whose dog had rounded up all the people in the beer garden of a local pub – perhaps they should employ him at closing time…

      Love from Snowdonia – and I’d hate to think what Mali would make of kangaroos… she’d probably get all scared and hide. Hmm…

      1. Lydia

        I imagine that you have probably seen this heaps of times, however, my brother has just shown me the Specsavers dog shearing video. (I have no idea how to link). It’s on TV over here at the moment. I just love it and the beautiful music too.

        1. kate Post author

          I don’t think it’s been shown for a bit, or at least I’ve not seen it for a while, but I know the one you mean. Isn’t it lovely – especially the music, which I’m sure I know but irritatingly cannot name…

          I DO know it, just looked it up. It’s Mo Ghile Mear, and I’ve got The Chieftains’ version somewhere…

  3. knitsofacto

    Collies are far too busy for me, she writes from personal experience, hence a houseful of whippets, all of whom, because it’s hard to break away from your roots, have collie names. We have a Finn, a Griff, a Jim and a Taran (because he is black as thunder, and pronounced properly with a true Welsh accent that is practically one symbol) and the Irish interloper Tadgh (pronounced Ty-g/meaning badger). Problem is, the only thing they herd is seagulls on the beach!

    1. kate Post author

      You are so right about collies and busyness – took Mali for a ten-mile walk, we were knackered, she was fine, had to go for a run on the beach with her master, her mistress having collapsed into a hot bath. Phew…

      It was your earlier mention of Taran that got me going on names – love Griff (though I might have to have a Mel to go with him if I had a Griff). I think whippets are probably up there with collies, mind you…

  4. Laura

    Which would be why we find basset hounds to be a perfect match for our family…they are smart, but not too smart; will do anything for food; and fall fast asleep after any exertion!

    1. kate Post author

      Hah! I knew there was a disconnect between us and collies!

      (I do have a friend with lots of labradors, but I’ve never yet seen her knock over a bin and eat the entire contents, though…)


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