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Border Collie Rescue - On Line - Whistle-stop hypnotists
The Sunday Times 10th September 1978

Whistle-stop hypnotists

By David Fletcher. Edited by Richard Girling

A high court injunction recently prevented a pop festival tribute to Elvis Presley, designed to attract 10,000 people to a moorland farm in the heart of the Peak District. Last week, in a pasture less than two miles from the festival site, the same number of people gathered to witness a supreme display of communications between people and animals - the 80th annual Longshaw sheepdog trials.

They were going to attract ’em with pop bands, floodlights, amplifiers and devastating noise. We do it with four sheep and a dog in almost dead silence.” says Arthur Ward, aged 78 and in his 30th year as organising secretary. “And t’ biggest disruption we’ve caused was 1949 when t’ marquee collapsed and ladies toilets were demolished in gale on t’ final evening.”

Longshaw, barely 8 miles from Sheffield, used to be the Duke of Rutland’s shooting lodge; now it belongs to the National Trust. Six generations of sheep men have brought their dogs here. Last week more than a hundred Border Collies awaited their turn. With lolling tongues, half pricked ears, motionless tails and keenly darting eyes, they watched and assessed each other with professional shrewdness.

If you spoke to one of these dogs it remained impassive - not unfriendly, but wholly reserved. They are unresponsive to petting. Praise from a stranger has little appeal. They have the same studied indifference to the crowd as they do to the penned sheep awaiting released.

Most are young; less than five years old. It is exceptional for a dog over eight to be entered. “to have a chance of winning they must be very fast,” says Arthur ward. “A few years ago well known handler came from Shropshire to run his dog. It was so fast it went over the edge of a sunken fence and broke its legs.”

The course has remained basically the same over the years. The handler send his dog three-quarters of a mile to round up four sheep, and to run them on a circuitous route before penning them in the right quarter of a Maltese Cross, built from hurdles in front of the judge’s stand.

Neither has the method of communication changed. The shrill whistles, half-choked shouts and odd trilling calls, accompanied by waving arms and strange gesticulations, are all traditional. Locally, a dogs ability is judged by its “eye,” the hypnotic gaze inbred into the Border Collie. Once a dog has fixed a sheep with “the eye,” that sheep is completely at its mercy.

The hill farmers and shepherds of Derbyshire and Yorkshire have brought out the strain with infinite care and deliberate breeding until the Border Collie has the capacity for calculation and patience which has earned it the title of the wisest dog in the world. It is the extraordinary ability to fix one chosen sheep, cut it out from the flock and pen it separately, which baffles the spectator.

It all began in the last century, with a rivalry over their dogs with the Duke of Rutland’s gamekeeper, Ellis Ashton, and his chief shepherd, Ernest Priestly. A challenge was issued, bets were laid. The old Duke soon got to hear of it. He knew the value of a good Border Collie, and when contenders from distant parishes clamoured to demonstrate the prowess of their own dogs, he offered a £40 prize. In those earliest days, sheepdog trials provided a diversion for guests at the lavish Longshaw house parties. By 1898, the trials were officially founded and records properly kept.

That first year more than 700 people paid to enter the meadows, and subscribed enough to endow a hospital bed. The event became fashionable. Within 10 years, the attendance swelled to more then 4000 people. By 1932, sheepdog trials were taking place all over Britain. More than 10,000 flocked to Longshaw to see 16-year-old Joe Rowarth win the championship with his 11-month old bitch, Jed, finishing the course in the astonishing time of 4 minutes and 47 seconds - a record which still stands.

Film-makers were quick to realise the sheepdogs appeal. Pal Glen, owned by Mr. Mark Hayton of Ilkley, in the 1934 trials, starred in Song of the Plough. And who could forget the classic Owd Bob and its star, Glyn, winner in 1938 of the Sheffield Telegraph Challenge Cup for the most typical and best conditioned Border Collie in the competition.

Today there are fewer collies on the farms of the High Peak, but every year the Longshaw trials prove that the breed retains its uncanny intelligence. And perhaps the most heartening aspect of last weeks competition was the sight of half a dozen local farmer’s sons, eager youngsters, not yet fifteen but already handling their own dogs.

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Border Collie Rescue is a UK based charity, working Internationally to Rescue and Re-home Border Collies and Working Sheepdogs and promote a better understanding of the breed and its Welfare.

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