Sheepdogs in Suffolk? Apart from pets there haven’t been many since the Middle Ages. It was quite a surprise to see posters for the National Trials as we drove along the A14.
It was no wonder most of the competitors were from the North or Midlands. The Suffolk wool trade collapsed centuries ago, and most of the local sheep are heritage breeds. Still, one local farmer made it into the national team for the World Championships at Northleach in Gloucestershire.
Having lived in Cumbria (we still call it Cumberland) and North Yorkshire we know some sheep farmers and have always been interested in what they do. The chance to watch real experts at work was too good to miss. The website showed we could spend the final day watching the third round of singles and see the presentation. In fact we found we’d spent eight hours there, good value for £10.
Haughley Park was a beautiful bonus, and only fifteen minutes from home.The day started at 10 am; we arrived at 11, so not much had happened. As well as the trials, there were displays and demonstrations of local crafts, products and societies. As expected the scale model Sutton Hoo ship was there; so too were Suffolk Punch horses and Red Poll cattle, both breeds magnificent. Suffolk sheep were also in attendance.
Food outlets were of the hearty rather than convenience variety – posted with feeling after dropping half the apple sauce from my hog-roast burger and having it fall into my upraised sleeve. It was very tasty though, and the coffee we had later was freshly ground and enjoyable. The local fudge is always a delight too.
So, to the serious business of the day. Would Yorkshire or Lancashire win out? Surely not Surrey. The shepherd has to stand by a post and send his dog 400 yards – no metres for a traditional event – to drive five sheep between two gates then around the post and through two more sets of gates in different directions before coming back to a ring of marks where two sheep have to be shed (separated) from the five then all must be urged into a pen. Once in they can be released and a single sheep, one of two with a collar, must be shed before all are driven towards their home pen. Very complicated to describe but the photos should help.
There is a strict time limit of 15 minutes and missing a gate loses points, while going through the same gate twice means disqualification. None of these dogs seemed inexperienced but several failed almost as soon as they were sent off. One even seem to find a bird in a ditch more interesting than the sheep.
At the end of the day, after much calculation of points too complicated for us to understand, the national team was announced from lowest ranked to top three. Then the winners, one from each day who had competed in a final just before the awards ceremony, were identified: third, second and first. We had thought the decision would be between two, but were wrong about one. Third was one we’d have placed second or first but at least our other choice was the winner. In second place was also the ‘best hireling shepherd’ – a phrase right out of Thomas Hardy.
Interesting that many of the competitors were self-employed farmers and only a few were employees (hirelings). It was also interesting to find the top three coming from Lancashire, when we had expected Yorkshire, Cumbria or Norhumberland. Good that one of the top sixteen or so was from the Gipping Valley though. We wish them well in the World Championship.