When does a sheepdog become a cattle dog?

Carew excels at a new form of herding

Some of the fences around our rented patch of land have been in a state of disrepair for several years. They're normally capable of keeping the sheep in, but sadly lacking when it comes to keeping cattle out.

Cattle grazing in our sheepdog training field
A tranquil scene, but cattle in a sheepdog training field can cause all sorts of problems. (Click to enlarge).

The hedge between our old orchard and the field below us is particularly bad and, for many years before we occupied the ground, cattle and sheep just wandered at will through the gaps in the hedge. When we took possession we stretched some wire netting along the hedge, tied it to the bushes (there were no fence posts) and ran an electric fence wire over the top.

This has worked quite well most of the time, but it was a nuisance because nettles, brambles and other growing shoots in the hedge needed regular trimming back to prevent them from shorting the electric fence and rendering it useless.

An additional problem with electric fences is what happens if a dog touches it! It's bad enough for a dog to get an electric shock when it's out playing with other dogs, but if you're trying to teach a dog to get sheep away from a fence and it happens to contact the fence, it'll probably be some time before you manage to get the dog to go between the sheep and a fence again.

In recent times David, the farmer, has grown arable crops in the field below us and rather than keep patching it up, we removed the ageing and unsightly electric fence altogether.

Two sheepdogs attempting to move cattle which have strayed
Carew (left) and Madge attempt to move the stubborn cattle which have strayed into our field. (Click to enlarge).

This spring, David drilled barley under-sown with grass on the field. I realised that the barley was intended for silage rather than grain, and after that, the grass would either be grazed or cut for silage too.

I hoped it would be for silage because that would mean there wouldn't be cattle in the field, but just in case, I began to make plans for the most economical way of stock-proofing the fence.

Sure enough, the barley was harvested a few days ago, and to my surprise, some young cattle were introduced into the field the same day. Being busy with other work, Gill and I were unable to do our fence repairs in time, and within twenty four hours, the cattle came into our field and made themselves at home.

Sheepdog Carew shows determination when it comes to moving a stubborn heifer.
Head-to-head. Carew gets tough with a stubborn heifer. (Click to enlarge).

They're a real nuisance. Not only do they eat huge quantities of grass, they trample everything, including sheep hurdles and water troughs. They can cause a huge amount of damage in a very short time, and they leave behind great pancakes of splodgy green dung that the dogs love to eat and, worse, roll in. Of course, a good sheepdog shouldn't be distracted by such temptations when it's working, but our dogs go out into the field recreationally as well as to work, and if they've been rolling in cow dung we'd rather they kept their distance!

Having cattle in a sheepdog training field can be a big problem. Some dogs will be frightened to go near the cattle, others may chase the bovines in preference to sheep and some might simply learn to ignore them completely when, at some later date, you might need them to work cattle.

Sheepdog Carew learning to herd cattle
Once Carew realised she could move this heifer, her confidence grew quickly. (Click to enlarge).

The sheep will also learn that in amongst the legs of their ruminant companions is a great place to hide from a dog that doesn't want to go near cattle, so we made it our priority to drive the beasts out of the field, and then make the boundary stock-proof.

I've used Ezra (Carew's litter brother) for herding cattle in the past, but he gets too excited and becomes very difficult to control. Carew, on the other hand, has previously come with me as though she wants to help, but as soon as she got near the cattle and realised it was them, and not sheep that were the object of my attentions, she ran back to the yard.

More recently, Carew has at least stayed with me, and even attempted to help a little. This time though, she was a star. At first I thought she was more "pushy" with the cattle because our Terrier X Collie Madge was there, but Madge very soon decided that cattle herding was not for her and disappeared, while Carew went from strength to strength.

Sheepdog Carew facing two cattle which are looking back at her through the fence.
"And don't even think of coming back!" Carew faces a defiant pair of cattle through the fence after she's driven them back to their own pasture. (Click to enlarge).

Carew realised that if she dodged, weaved, growled and nipped enough, even the most stubborn beast could be turned and made to move away from her.

I was able to control her with her normal working commands, and once she understood that I wanted the cattle to jump back over the fence where they'd jumped in, she began herding her charges towards the gap even without any commands.

Full marks to her. All the cattle were pushed back into the field they came from, and Carew kept them at bay while Gill and I spent the rest of the day repairing the fence. It's now virtually stock-proof (well, as long as they don't push through the nettles at the end of the field next to the lane - we must do that section next!).

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