CONTINUED FROM LAST WEEK
I was a humble groom on a Lord’s estate in Wales. My friend the shepherdess, Nicky, was away for the evening, the sheep were out and a member of the family of the house might appear at any moment. This was over 30 years ago – no convenient mobile phones back then. I felt I should help, but knew that herding any sheep alone was virtually impossible, and this was a large group.
Then I remembered Nicky’s competition sheepdog, Fly. What a bit of luck that Nicky was not competing that evening. Fly was locked up in her kennel behind the stables, enjoying a well earned nap. But would she work for me? I only knew one command, and wasn’t quite sure if she would respond to my voice anyway. And I’ve never been any good at whistling.
But my terror of the consequences for Nicky outweighed my justly-felt worries about my inexperience as a shepherd. Nicky was new to the job, very young and proud to have won the role. I was afraid she would get the sack if our Lady, a true battle-axe, spotted what had happened. So I borrowed Nicky’s crook and went to let Fly out.
She seemed happy to see me, and willing to walk off lead with me in the right direction. I checked out the problem. The sheep had somehow forced the gate open between the field they should be in and the lawn, pouring through the gap as if the grass were greener on the other side.
Fly and I needed to round them all up, and quietly move them back through the gap, and then secure the gate again sufficiently to await Nicky’s return. And ideally do all this without alerting the family in the great house.
I opened the lovely wide gate, and stood holding it and looked at Fly. “Go get the sheep and bring them in here!” was what I wanted to say, but I felt tongue-tied. She looked at me expectantly but uncomprehendingly, as I fought for the courage to actually voice a command out loud. I had never owned or worked a dog myself.
Eventually I said firmly “Come-by!” – the only command I recalled from watching Nicky work. Fly took a step away from me and looked back. I repeated the command more urgently, flying my arm outwards towards the sheep. Could she possibly grasp what I needed her to do?
Still Fly hesitated. Nicky was at risk of losing her future. It was really hard in those days for a young woman to succeed in the typically male-dominated career she loved so much. I threw my body forward, stamping my foot, gesturing forwards and firmly ordered “Come-by!” and off she went.
Without any further urging from me she quietly looped round the sheep, easing them together. She then moved them towards me, presumably recognising the stance I was holding, with the gate wide open, myself as an extension of the gate with my arms and the crook wide open. I could hardly believe the little soul’s intelligence. She knew exactly what her job was and how to do it, without the foolish human, so slow and useless.
The sheep passed me by quietly and calmly, back where they belonged, and I secured the gate. I made much of Fly, patting and fussing her, and wondered if she should sleep in the flat that night whilst I took the kennel. I certainly could not have done it without her!