Beardies are more than just sheep dogs given the chance they will work most stock. Their natural way of working, upright & nosiy means that they can be a great asset in a stockyard or working with cattle. I am grateful to Lynn Dumbrell (Bethlyntee Bearded Collies) for allowing me to reprint her interesting article below in which she talks about her Beardies who regularly work the cows on the the family farm in West Sussex. To the best of my knowledge Lynn's girls are the only KC registered Beardies to work cattle on a daily basis.
(Apologies for photo quality by enlarging them they have lost definition)
CATTLE DOGS & MUCH, MUCH MORE
Rounding up a Straggler Meg (Ch B Summer Breeze) encouraging a straggler to re-join the herd.
To work livestock with dogs you first have to understand your dog and most importantly the livestock you intend to work. I have worked with cattle for 40 years, so feel I understand them quite well, at times almost intimately you might say! However, we only started working dogs with our cattle some 32 years ago and that was with a German Shepherd, who required directing much like a Border Collie. When we got our first Bearded Collie, Beth, (Sunbree Such Delight) I had to learn a different way of working, since a Bearded Collie is an independent worker, quite happy to work away from the handler, using its own initiative to know instinctively what to do and when to do it. In fact I quite often got the impression that Beth would have preferred it if I had stayed at home!
Our German Shepherd, Folly, was getting older and it was quite obvious that she was suffering with arthritis, so when we came to think of bringing on a replacement we decided to go for another breed, without the problems of hip displasia and arthritis. In my naivety I started looking at breeds that were known to work cattle and felt that the Bearded Collie would probably fit the bill. At this point it is important to remember that I was not into showing. In fact had never been to a dog show in my life and thought that if a book stated a specific breed had been bred to perform a specific task then any dog of that breed would be able to accomplish said task. I thought it very odd, therefore, when Mrs. Barbara Iremonger was a little curious, to say the least, when I rang and said “I want a brown Bearded Collie bitch to work cattle on our farm, do you have any puppies?” I still to this day don’t know why it had to be brown; could it possibly be that our cattle are varying shades of brown? Who knows, if we had Friesians perhaps I would have started off with a black and white Beardie and my love for the dark brown Beardies within our breed would not have begun at all.
Barbara spent a long time on the phone to me that first time quizzing me on why I wanted a Beardie and what made me think that a Beardie would work cattle. Obviously my answers satisfied Barbara because she told me that she had a litter but they were only a week old, but if I wanted to come and have a look she might consider letting me have one of the two brown bitches.
Little was I to know that in that litter was a brown and white lady who was to change my life, rule my heart in so many ways, teach me so much and encourage me to learn more about all dogs, but Bearded Collies in particular. However, things didn’t look so good when I first introduced her to the cattle. In fact I thought I had made a big mistake. Upon her first introduction to our cows at about 12 weeks of age Beth took up position behind my legs peering at them nervously, refusing to come out and face them.
Now at this point I have to explain that cattle are not the brightest of animals, but they do possess a sort of basic cunning. For instance, they always know when the electric fence has been switched off and choose that moment to break it and go where they are not required. If you don’t have a dog with you they spread themselves across a field and let you spend hours walking backwards and forwards trying to drive them out of the field. Cattle will also behave in different ways, depending on how they have been handled, so the cattle on our farm will behave differently to those on our neighbours’ farms. Our cattle are fairly docile around people so to get them to move you usually have to shout at them. This is where the dog comes in. A Beardie is a barker, it has been bred into them over hundreds of years and in fact a good barker was worth their weight in gold, for two reasons. One it would get livestock moving that were tucked in the folds of the hills and it would also let the shepherd know where the dog was. Nothing gets our cows moving quicker than them hearing one of the dogs coming to get them in.
Team Effort - Abbey (B Hold me Tight) & Maddie (B Rhapsody in Blue) pushing the herd through the last gate before the milking parlour.
So, going back to Beth’s first introduction, I realised that all I had to do was to get her to bark on command. Once this had been learned I took her out once more and this time you could see her brain working. The first bark had the cows backing away, the second bark had them turning away from her and the third had them moving. From then on Beth never looked back and by the time she was a year old she had cattle sussed. Beth and I learnt to handle difficult situations together. You have to be aware of your dog, you learn to “read” them. This comes from constantly watching and seeing how your dog reacts to all different kinds of situations. Once you know how your dog will react you can ensure that it is in the right place thereby reducing the risk of things going wrong. When things do go wrong and believe me they can, then they go really wrong in a big way and it is usually down to the handler reading the situation wrong. I remember once seeing Beth being kicked hard enough to send her flying through the air and knowing it had been my fault. I had given her an instruction whilst moving some young beef animals and it had distracted her enough for her not to see the hoof coming towards her. Believe me it didn’t happen again. I learnt very quickly that day when to keep quiet when working with my dog. Beth, being Beth, bounced back and sorted the animal out. Any dog that works livestock has to assert itself with the animals, much like we have to, just so that they know who is the “boss” and liberties are therefore rarely taken.
Moving cows that are used to dogs is very rarely a challenge to a good dog, but things tend to get interesting when there are younger animals to contend with. Cows are milked twice a day and even first calving heifers get quickly used to seeing the dogs around. However, problems do arise when you only move some cattle perhaps twice a month to fresh grazing. These animals never actually get used to dogs and the dog has to reassert its dominance each time. Once dominance has been sorted, the dog needs to be kept back allowing the animals to form a “herd” and then driven in a quiet manner. Push them too hard and you will then spend the next half an hour getting them back into a group. Young calves are by far the worst and more often than not we will not even use the dogs to move them. Our calving takes place in the autumn each year, so the first time the calves see grass is in the spring of the following year. Although they are loose housed, nothing equips them for the wide open spaces of a five-acre field and they tend to go really silly. To start with calves do not know the meaning of a “herd” and tend to gallop individually to the four corners of a field. Since they don’t know what grass is they don’t even put their heads down to eat, in fact when they first go out we give them hay. Should they come across each other again, before ripping through the fences, they immediately panic since they do not recognise each other, despite the fact they have spent the last six months together. Dogs at this point would be of no use and just add to an already explosive situation. However, even calves get used to seeing the dogs since they usually accompany us when we are out working, whether it is mending fences, unblocking water troughs or driving the cows to and from the milking parlour.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have started with a dog such as Beth. She knew instinctively how to work different kinds of stock. With a stubborn cow Beth would go in at the cow barking frantically until the cow finally gave in and moved off. With young stock she would keep her distance, always the same, only going forward when she felt it was right for her to do so. Watching her once with 20 calves that had escaped from one field, brought home to me what a very special dog I had. Against all odds Beth kept the calves bunched up against the fence, and every time one came away from the herd Beth would gently and silently walk towards it until it had turned around and joined the others. This happened time and time again but gradually she got the bunch of calves turning, much like a whirlpool, and moving along the fence line towards the gate. It took Beth nearly 20 minutes to get the calves to cover a distance of perhaps 50 yards, but she knew that if she had pushed them too hard they would have split and ran off and we would have had to start all over again. Not once during this exercise did I feel the need to interfere; Beth was totally in charge of the situation.
Job Done - Meg having got the herd through the gate is waiting for Lynn to catch up!
You very soon learn the mettle of your dog when faced with danger and this happened when Beth and myself found ourselves in a very tricky situation. Our neighbour leased grazing out to a friend who kept a herd of single suckled Charollais cattle. This means that they are left with the cows until they are approximately nine months old and have hardly been handled. They are then weaned off the cows and left to graze and to their own devices. Charollais cattle are a European breed and are enormous, i.e. at twelve months they probably weigh nearly half a ton. Some fifteen of these cattle had managed to cross the stream dividing our farms, but there was no way they were going to go back the way they had come. The decision was therefore taken to drive them down the tracks to our farm buildings at which point it was hoped we would be able to load them up into our neighbour’s lorry and he could drive them home.
Somehow or other all the men had gone on ahead to open the gates etc., and Beth and I found ourselves alone driving the cattle forward. The track is lined with barbed wire, which was totally overgrown with brambles; in other words, there was no exit. One of the gates must have crashed open and the cattle turned and stampeded towards my dog and me. Neither of us had anywhere to go, except under the hoofs of these very frightened animals. Beth charged forwards, stiff legged, and barking frantically, then backing up, only to go forward again and again, still barking. I just stood and watched, only joining in once the cattle had begun to slow up, waving my arms and shouting at them. That day my Beth saved my life.
Each of my Beardies worked differently and depending upon what was required, dictated which dog we used. Katie (Sunbree Shades of Silver of Bethlyntee) a repeat of the mating which gave Barbara Beth’s litter, was never a strong worker but could always be relied upon to give a hand when things got tough, and once again here we had a dog that “knew” when that was. Emma (Thymewinds Temptress of Bethlyntee) never had the stamina to go on for hours, but she was brilliant at cutting out certain cattle from a herd
From Katie’s first litter we kept a slate bitch, Sadie, (Bethlyntee And I Love Her) and a brown bitch, Abbie (Bethlyntee Hold Me Tight). Sadie wasn’t particularly interested as a youngster but came to working as she got older. Abbey however took to it right from the start and was an extremely strong bitch, especially in a difficult situation where another of the dogs was having a problem. Abbey was in there, sorting out the problem and once again knowing instinctively that "something" needed to be done and getting on and doing it without any prompting from us. Abbey’s method was very often the short, sharp, shock treatment, but it worked every time. She used to sit on her grooming table at shows and people always remarked what a “little sweetie with her soft melting expression.” Yes, but when there are cows about we knew different, didn’t we Abbey?
Katie produced a blue bitch in her second litter, Maddie (Bethlyntee Rhapsody in Blue) and she was the nearest we had to Beth in her approach. It was fairly obvious from a very early stage, 10 weeks of age to be precise, that Maddie had a great interest in the cows. She would sit out in the yard and watch them in their holding pen whilst they waited to be milked. I first put her on a long lead and just walked behind the cows, watching Maddie trot backwards and forwards along the line of cows, driving them back to their field. I introduced her to sheep for the first time at the Southern Counties Bearded Collie Club’s Herding Instinct Day where she obtained her Instinct Certificate at seven months of age, despite the handicap of me knowing very little about sheep, except perhaps that I didn’t like them very much!
Maddie displayed a trait which none of the other Beardies had, and that was a willingness to go out and around and bring livestock towards me. Our Beardies had only ever wanted to drive the cattle but here was a dog that would bring them to you. I thought it would be different to try working sheep with
Face Off! Maddie holding her ground in the face of opposition!
Maddie, even though we didn’t have any, and travelled some 80 miles every Saturday to a shepherd who had agreed to give us lessons. It was an extreme learning curve, since I was finding out about the sheep at the same time as getting my dog to do what was being asked. Maddie was brilliant with 40 or 50 sheep, and would have been great with a large flock, but six or seven sheep usually ended up in the next field, because she was just so dominant and refused, despite varying degrees of persuasion to keep ‘off’’ them. Maddie once again was an “in your face” type of dog, brilliant in difficult situations but somewhat lacking when it came to subtlety. Interestingly enough, Maddie would work both sheep and cattle, whereas the others, who never came into contact with them viewed sheep with what can only be described as disdain, almost refusing to admit their very presence. This has been demonstrated on more than one occasion when I have taken them along to a sheep herding day only to be totally humiliated, but as it was usually amongst friends it didn’t seem to matter very much and besides which the Beardies couldn’t have cared less!
Although I thought of my dogs as “working” they shared our house with us, living in harmony with each other, never a cross word. They were quietly content with their life, but were always ready to work and come milking time there was always one of them trying to get out of the back door with you. Never in all the years I have worked the Beardies with our livestock have I ever known one of them to draw blood, despite being sorely tempted on more than one occasion!
This article is written in memory of a very special brown and white Beardie who had the darkest of brown eyes that looked into your very soul. I lost my Beth on the 1st July 1999, just 10 days before her 14th birthday and despite the fact that I have had many Beardies all of whom I love, my home and my heart still feel very empty. I was once asked “if you love Beth so much how can you bear the thought of her maybe getting hurt?” Beth’s life revolved around her work on the farm, she lived to work and anyone who saw her working quickly realised that. Beth was a once in a lifetime companion and I feel deeply honoured to have shared her life with her.
Lynn Dumbrell Copyright 2011