Waiting to start at the Henley trials
Sheepdog trials at Henley
By Ollie Williams
Shepherds and spectators gather in a field near Hambleden, just outside Henley-on-Thames, each summer for the annual sheepdog trials. Henley could soon host a national championship, but is there trouble ahead for the sport?
"I only came into this when I retired. I'm not a farmer, I worked in a factory nearly all my life."
Colin Turland is one of the competitors at Henley's annual sheepdog trials, held at Greenlands Farm.
Many of those competing are shepherds by trade and have been for decades. Colin's late awakening to the sport is less common.
"I used to go out at weekends when I worked in a factory and if there was a trial on like this we'd come and watch it. I thought I'd love to have a go."
Colin bought a suitable puppy, hired two acres of land and acquired six sheep. He says that's all he needed to get started.
"I was running a dog in a competition after about eighteen months.
"The old ticker was going when I first went out. I thought, 'What am I doing out here?', but I had a very good puppy. She was a good dog."
Colin says the picturesque nature of today's competition has drawn him here.
"This is a very popular event. It's a beautiful setting and a good viewing field for spectators."
Entrants guide sheep around a course into a pen.
In fact the event has become so popular with competitors that John Hives, chairman of the organisers, told me he's hoping to host the prestigious national championships soon.
"It's a possibility because this is getting better known. The more success we have with this event, the more likelihood of a major championship coming here.
"We try to put on a good day for everyone and the setting here is second to none. It's probably one of the nicest sites in the south of England."
John's colleague Donald Dawes is enthusiastic about the prospect of the nationals coming to Henley.
"Every time these boys come here they ask if we'd consider it.
"We haven't yet - I didn't think we were at that standard - but they keep coming back because they like the field, and they keep telling me if we could extend it to the top of the field it would be marvellous."
So on the one hand the future of sheepdog trials in Henley could be very bright. The nationals would bring thousands of spectators over the three days they are held, with over 150 dogs involved.
Competitors travel from across southern England.
But on the other hand the trials face the spectre of a shepherd shortage - young people simply don't have the time or inclination to get involved.
Desme Smith is on the organising committee. She comes from a farming background but fears the decline in farming is mirrored in the popularity of the sport.
"There's always the worry that in 20 or 30 years' time, this event won't take place any more," she tells me.
"The youngest member of our committee is in his mid-fifties. People have to work now to pay mortgages, there's not enough time to do any voluntary work, and that is indicative of society as a whole."
"It's the time," agrees Colin Turland. "Everybody's all go, go, go, there's so many other things to do, other sports they play. This doesn't fit into their lives."
Donald Dawes even implores me to take up dog training.
"Youngsters don't go into farming and we've got a big problem," he admits. "They don't want to come out and work seven days a week.
"When you're a shepherd you're never off, you're at it the whole time. You've always got problems - they're terrible things, sheep, for getting problems.
"The way farming's going at the moment it looks as if this might die out."
And though John Hives reckons the sport has plenty of puff left, he concedes it requires dedication few people can now match.
"It's not as simple as just having a dog and a few sheep. Once you've got sheep you've got a total commitment to them."
The sport is having trouble attracting youngsters.
So with all this in mind I spoke to Desme Smith's daughter Elinor. She first turned up at sheepdog trials to help her mum organise it two years ago. Now she's studying IT at university but has again come to lend a hand.
She says she does have an interest but could never take that any further.
"I wanted to see what it was all about - and I like the film 'Babe'! I wanted to let a pig in but my mum wouldn't let me.
"She grew up on a farm but I'm not really related to farming or the countryside."
I make the point that competitors like Colin Turland have trained dogs without any connection to agriculture, but Elinor refuses to be swayed.
"I'm scared of dogs, for a start. They smell a bit.
"It's good to look at and a good laugh but it's hard work as well. These farmers work 20 hours a day.
"None of my mates have a clue about sheepdog trials. And anyway, ten minutes then you've seen one and you've seen them all."
Not only are younger people eschewing the sport, but Donald Dawes argues technology is making the sheepdog slowly redundant.
"I wouldn't say it's a dying art but what's happening is no one is training as many dogs as they used to because the quad bike's taking over.
"Dogs ride on the back of a quad bike and the shepherd just sends the dog off if a sheep is straying away."
With shepherds finding mobility far easier to come by, fewer dogs are being trained.
Dogs are trained on ducks then graduate to sheep.
But this cloud has a financial silver lining: Colin Turland tells me he's just sold one of his dogs.
"You can get £4,000 or £5,000 for a top dog - if you can buy one," he tells me.
When I express surprise at the sums of money involved, Colin explains that the scarcity of well-trained dogs is making them a valuable commodity.
"I was offered £3,000 for a young dog earlier this year and she was only a novice. I can average £800 or £900 per dog.
"This chap here," he continues, gesturing to the shepherd currently at work in front of us, "paid £3,000 for one of his dogs. It's because good dogs are so rare.
"You could have been training the dog for three years, you want a return on investment."
The beauty of sheepdog trials is that this is as far as money has affected the sport.
And it is difficult to see how, in a world where young puppies are trained to herd ducks before graduating to sheep, that will ever change.
John Hines agrees: "There's not a lot of money in it, it's just the enjoyment.
"It's a wonderful thing to do and a lovely sport to witness. It's anything but commercialised."
last updated: 31/03/2008 at 13:42
Have Your Say
Did you attend the sheepdog trials in Henley, or have you attended similar events elsewhere? What did you think? Let us know your thoughts...