Katy Cropper - ‘I’ve been married four times and I’d rather have a puppy than a man’
00:00 05 November 2015
‘My dogs are my mates. I’ve been married four times and I’d rather have a puppy than a man. And I’m not joking,’
If the words came from anyone other than Katy Cropper then you might doubt their sincerity. But this remarkable woman is deadly serious when it comes to dogs - especially sheepdogs. She made history in 1990 when she became the first female winner of the popular televised competition, One Man and His Dog.
Katy, who succeeded in what was then a very much a male-dominated world, is justly proud of her achievement and has since gone on to build a happy and successful life around her beloved border collies.
Her success captured the public imagination and, as well as competing, she now breeds them, does some shepherding for a neighbour and trains dogs for gathering and farm work. As if that isn’t enough, she has written a best-selling book about her life and is also in demand for demonstrations at shows and festivals where her outgoing personality and sense of fun win over the crowds.
‘Herding sheep with your dog may look effortless but it’s far more complicated than people think,’ she says. Over the years she has won many prestigious awards including her first English National Brace Championship at Over Kellet, near Carnforth, with her dogs Tsavo and Scrum in 2012. She has appeared on television on numerous occasions and, in 2014, was delighted to be asked to judge ‘One Man and his Dog’ with the Country File team.
‘My main business is training sheepdogs for farmers and I’m also building a reputation for helping people to train pet dogs, especially those with problems,’ she says.
‘I’ve had many hard knocks in my life but the dogs have always been my saviours. Last year I was very down because Zac, my special three-year-old prize winning dog, became very ill. His muscles were failing and he was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis, which is rare in dogs but very serious.
‘Thankfully, he has recovered now but when I thought I might lose him, I had the chance to buy Flash, an eight-month-old pup. I loved her instantly – she wasn’t trained but I could see that she was clever with a lovely open, happy face. I paid a good price but she is shaping up really well and I will take her to the nursery trials this year.’
Flash is indeed a bonny girl, black and white with tan markings, and now at 14 months, is as keen as mustard. On command, she flies across the field to bring the small flock of sheep back to Katy. The little collie is a winning combination of stealth and speed and it’s clear she is a quick learner. Katy uses whistle commands with the occasional time-honoured directives thrown in – ‘Come-bye, Away, That’ll do and Lie down’ – all spoken in a low quiet voice but if the dog puts a paw wrong then it’s clear who is boss. ‘The air can be blue sometimes,’ confesses Katy with a wide grin.
Zac, now restored to full health, is next to show his skills in the field. He is strong and stylish with a great working ability and quickly whips the unpredictable sheep into shape. ‘Following his treatment, Zac won five opens this spring and he has qualified to run in the English National with Tsavo. I am so proud of him’, says Katy.
‘When I train sheepdogs I like them to be between six and 12 months and as green as grass. It takes about six to eight weeks to bring out their natural ability with sheep and teach the basics but it can take up to a year to train a sheepdog properly. Dogs have to be intelligent and have a good temperament and you have to get them on your side. I just love the whole concept of bonding and getting the best out of each dog.
‘Dealing with people is a huge part of my job. I have seven dogs staying here currently and I have to train the owners as well as the dogs to make sure they carry on where I leave off. It’s a big commitment. Dogs have really given me a purpose in life. When I was at school I was quite wild and had no direction. In fact, I was the lost black sheep of the family.
‘At 19, I saw my first sheep dog trial and decided that was what I wanted to do. It was hard at first because I didn’t come from a farming background but I worked hard and progressed from there. One of my first successes at events was with a three- legged sheepdog.’
Katy became a mother in her early 40s and lives with her daughter Henrietta, now 12, on their farm near Shap with their 14 dogs. Their 17th century farmhouse sits at 1,000 feet above sea level, just off the M6, and is set against a dramatic sweep of fields and wild moorland. ‘It can be harsh here but to me it’s beautiful and I love it. I’m out most days in all weathers training the dogs and I hold a sheepdog trial up here every year,’ says Katy.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Henrietta is representing England as junior competitor, alongside her dog Lad, in the 2015 Country File event, One Man and his Dog.
She and Henrietta have recently returned from a trip to the United Arab Emirates where, Katy modestly tells me, she spent two weeks training a pair of sheepdogs for the Royal family. ‘When I received the phone call I thought it was a joke but I immediately accepted the invitation. I took my young dog Johney, sired by Zac. He helped me with demonstrations and we worked with all kinds of sheep.
‘It’s not what people expect but the area I visited is mountainous with higher than average rainfall so they are able to farm there. We also did a display at the Royal International Horseshow in Dubai. It was a fantastic experience but I still loved coming home to Shap. On returning home I entered Johney for the Westmorland Trials but he wasn’t on top form. One judge commented: ‘I’ve heard all sorts of excuses at trials before but never a sheepdog with jet lag’.
Determined and sparky, and usually wearing one of her trademark hats, Katy stands out as quite a striking figure among the more conventional competitors at the sheep dog trials. ‘I suppose I’ve become obsessed with sheepdogs but it’s a life that I love and I get paid for it. What could be better?’