Some 30 years ago
we were having a very late in life “gap year”. That was a gap from careers and
a gap from owning a Border collie. The main part of the trip was biking around
New Zealand. We flew to Christchurch and cycled down the east coast and when we
got to the Mackenzie country we headed for Lake Tekapo. On the shores of the
lake there is a statue of a dog, a very impressive statute of a Border collie.
It’s not a statue of a particular dog; it’s a statue to all the Border Collies
of New Zealand.
The epitaph reads, “New Zealand owes a debt to the Collie without whom the vast lands of New Zealand could never have been farmed”
I am no dog expert, let alone a Border collie expert, but I have had Border collies for nearly fifty years during which time I have had 5 very different collies. You don’t have to have a farm to own a Border collie, but it helps and why? Because it’s a working breed that needs a great deal of time and effort, which if you give them the time, they will reward your efforts for the rest of their lives with their love and devotion. They are also regarded as the most intelligent of the dog world, which sounds great but as my wife says “they have enough intelligence to wonder at everything and question everything but not enough to come up with all the answers!”
So they can often seem to have bizarre habits, much of which can be due to frustration. As one expert said, recently, ‘if you don’t give a collie a job they will invent one for themselves.’ That might be chasing cars or rounding up people or other dogs, whatever. If you want a Border collie be prepared to give them your time and above all something to do, whether it’s; real sheep dog work; agility training, fly ball, or simply lots of walks and play; if you don’t, you will have a very frustrated and screwball dog. I should add they nearly all come with a few screws loose anyway and allow two years to “grow up”.
I don’t come from a farming background, unless you include my great grandfather and mother who farmed in Shropshire. I have an old photo of my mum, with her mum, and my great grandmother, standing outside a large impressive farm house near Whitchurch with my great grandfather standing by their side. Otherwise I was born and lived in a city, but as a boy there was always a dog in the family, usually cocker spaniels, Prince and then Tess.
After many years of rock climbing and mountaineering I went to live in Snowdonia, North Wales. I was working at Portmeirion on the estate maintenance staff at the time. One break someone said that they had just bought a Border collie puppy and that there was still one pup left, a female. I had always wanted a collie but I hadn’t been settled enough to have a dog in the past. But now they were right for my new life in the mountains so I went to see it. I can’t say it was love at first sight, as it was in a dirty barn and she was just a ball of dirty fur herself. I didn’t choose her, in a way she chose me. So I took her home where she crept under the table and didn’t want to come out. The first thing she needed was a good wash and then eventually a name. I think naming a dog is rather a special thing, just like humans. I wanted a Welsh name but not the usual Fly, Nell, etc, and it was some time before I could give her a name
One day I came out of the house and a neighbour shouted “Gwynt yn yr Mynydd,”
”Pardon” I said “It’s windy on the mountain,” she said again, in English
“Oh yes”, I replied “what was that word again?” “Gwynt, is the Welsh word for wind”
Now, my new young collie was so fast that she ran like the wind, and I liked the name Gwynt or as she became known Gwynty. (Which really in Welsh says house wind, but never mind that)
I didn’t mean to go into farming I just wanted to try the “self sufficiency” which was very vogue in the 70’s (and probably is again now.) The chance of a farm house in the hills with an acre of land came up so I sold my village cottage and bought it. But along with the house was the opportunity of renting another 60 acres of hillside so I took that as well and bought a small flock of sheep.
So I had my Border collie first and then came the farm, then the sheep. It wasn’t a fully working farm. It was very run down without a complete single wall or fence apart from the boundary. But for me it was a natural progression from walking the hills with a dog for pleasure to farming the hills with some sheep and a dog. And that’s how my love affair with the land and dogs began, all quite by chance, as they say.
Gwynty was a wonderful dog, eventually! There were a great deal of teething problems and frustrations in our “working relationship” mainly due to my ignorance. I tried to find someone to help me with training, but whenever I asked neighbours for tips on how to train a dog there was always a “sharp intake of breath” followed by slow shaking of heads as though there was some voodoo or magic involved. I now know that there are really only a few good sheep dog trainers (more of that later). In fact the simplest way many farmers train their own dogs is to run a pup alongside an older dog to learn. But I hadn’t got an older dog to use.
Any way through trial and error and lots of tribulation we got there and I have many stories of Gwynty but there isn’t time here to tell it all. Just one story though, which shows how well she had progressed, and how eventually the dog may know best.
One day I was moving the sheep across the farm and we were both behind the flock moving forward. Suddenly Gwynty was off and away trying, I thought, to head the sheep off which I didn’t want. I called and called for her to come back but she ignored my calls. Eventually she did come back with all the sheep in tow. By now we were much further on and I could see then, that the very far gate of the farm boundary had been left open and the sheep were trooping out of the farm. Somehow Gwynty knew this and she had ignored me and raced out and brought back the whole flock of escaping sheep. From then on I had more faith in her.
Due to personal family reasons I had to leave the farm and North Wales and it would be 20 years before I would be back. In the meantime I moved to Warwickshire and after a disastrous time pig farming I eventually went back to teaching and just had a smallholding. Gwynty had had a litter of, can I say, crossbred Border collies, I kept one that was given the name of Bess as it was the Jubilee year of Queen Elizabeth.
Eventually Gwynty died. aged 12, but I still had Bess which eased the pain of losing my Gwynty. Bess was probably the easiest going dog I have ever had (probably because she was a border collie cross!) She worked sheep a little but then just became the family pet really. But we were back climbing the hills which she loved to do and she would be out with us when we went rock climbing. She was so good you could leave her at the foot of the cliff and find her still there when you got back. Or if it was a small cliff she would always find a way around the back and come to the top to meet you. She didn’t like coming to the edge, she would just make sure you were OK and then go back down. One time we went up the side of Snowdon to a ridge. Took off our sacks and told Bess to stay while we dropped down the other side to do a rock climb. We were away for hours but when we got back to the top there she was sitting by our rucksacks as cool as cucumber! She was a beautiful girl, very popular with all my climbing friends.
Then she developed liver failure and it was only a matter of time. When the time came I insisted that the vet came to my home to put her to sleep. She died in my arms. Needless to say it was very,very traumatic. I buried her alongside her mother on our land.
We decided not to have another dog for a while. So then came the gap year, and our 3000 mile cycling trip around New Zealand and Australia, which obviously is another story.
Thanks for reading.