How herding sheep can be fun and therapeutic

PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 March 2017

Mac gathering sheep

Mac gathering sheep

not Archant

Hen parties, Japanese tourists, corporate team builders and even dementia sufferers are learning to have fun herding sheep, writes Emily Rothery.

Writer Emily gathering sheep with AlanWriter Emily gathering sheep with Alan

A lifetime of working with border collies has taught semi-retired farmers, Al and Chrissy Bradley, a thing or two and now they have great fun sharing that knowledge with people around the world.

Their sheepdog handling courses, under the title The Lake District Sheepdog Experience, receive rave reviews and they’ve been listed nationally as one of the top ten activities in the region. The courses, often held in fields on the edge of the pretty village of Crosthwaite just six miles from Kendal, are open to anyone and are designed for the absolute beginner.

It all started when the couple ran a farmhouse B&B and found the visitors would rather watch Al training his sheepdogs than eat their breakfast. ‘It grew from there and we now offer activities for individuals, parties and weddings, even hen parties which can be great fun but maybe not in the way that you would think!’ says Chrissy. ‘We also run corporate events where we usually travel to work with the groups.

‘Our dogs are highly trained but also have to have a good temperament. All are individuals but as we train them we must make sure that they are super people-friendly and they aren’t fearful of young people.’

Alan thinks a sheepdog trial is a holidayAlan thinks a sheepdog trial is a holiday

As it is my first time at gathering sheep at Totter Bank with a dog under my instruction, Chrissy gives me some essential tips. ‘First of all, come with an open mind, develop body language and put emotion into your voice. Learn to react to what the dog is doing and start with confidence as the dog will quickly pick up on your attitude.’

When I am introduced to the dogs I first meet veteran champion Fox, a talented old hand of 12, Chrissy’s best pal and winner of many open trials. He keeps a wise and watchful eye as we work. ‘He’ll look on smugly, probably thinking to himself that you don’t want to do it like that. He’s a bit like the king really, quietly enjoying the attention from his followers,’ jokes Chrissy.

Al and Chris have many dogs but I am to work initially with Mac. He greets me like an old friend and is eager to work. ‘He loves people and transfers easily from the sound of my voice to commands given by someone that he has never met before. He’s very popular – he gets more Christmas cards than us,’ laughs Al.

After a quick demonstration using whistle commands, Al runs through the traditional verbal commands that I will be using – Come-bye, Away, Lie Down and That’ll Do. The aim is to get the sheep through a set of hurdles and a final shoot. Fully aware that sheep can be awkward customers I realise that the best tactic is to try and mimic Al. He is calm and patient and truly tuned into his dogs but readily changes his tone of voice, soft to stern, to suit the circumstances.

LAN Apr17 Dogs LifeLAN Apr17 Dogs Life

My trusty new partner runs out to the edge of the field to bring a small flock of sprightly Hebridean sheep over the hill and the fun begins. I listen carefully to Al’s instructions and, in turn, Mac mostly heeds my commands. We bring the sheep successfully through the hurdles and down the field but the final prize of getting them through the shoot eludes us.

I’m given a second chance with Cap. ‘He is calm, gives you time to think and is very good at teaching people the feel of herding,’ explains Chrissy. Four year old Cap works keenly and quietly, stays close to the flock and, with a little help from Al, we finally achieve our goal.

Quiet commands when the dogs do the right thing and praise at the end of the session is reward enough for these intelligent animals that love to herd and clearly have a strong connection with their owners. Al, who once worked as a contract shepherd and spent days up in the hills with just his four-legged friends for company, admits that dogs are his life. ‘Chrissy does a lot for the business but I’m totally dogs; out all day and every day with them when I can.

‘We love to meet people from all walks of life. We’ve worked with stars from Coronation Street and Loose Women, a Russian diplomat, a Japanese TV director who filmed us and a 90-year-old who had sheep herding on her bucket list. City dwellers love the experience and we’ve found that people who can’t speak English often excel because they just copy Al and pick up his tone. Recently we had a visit from an Alzheimer’s group who are going to make regular bookings. They were great to work with and one man, in particular, came to life when he was working with our dogs.’

Geese sometimes take the place of sheepGeese sometimes take the place of sheep

Chrissy adds: ‘We have plans to build a chalet classroom with a viewing gallery and we are excited about that,’ adds Chrissy, ‘although corporate events are now our mainstay. We can travel to our clients but instead of sheep we take runner ducks. Watching our demonstration and then getting the teams to put themselves in the place of the handlers and dogs is a great way of getting people to communicate, work together and gain confidence.’

‘Hen parties are usually a great success. They are just so full of jollity and we have such a laugh. We set out an agility course for them with tunnels, slides and water. Al and I head different teams and become quite child-like and competitive ourselves!’

When asked if the couple ever have a holiday Chrissy laughs out loud. ‘Al thinks that going to a sheepdog trial is a holiday.’

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