A Dying Breed

It’s easy for a young man like myself to surmise that sheep trialers are on whole an aged, if not aging breed. Their ranks are filled with people my parent’s age and older, the best of the best collect more Social Security checks than they do over-sized prize money checks at trials (not that such photo-op prizes are all that common, most big trials have very nice prizes of polished silver trophy cups, plaques, and belt buckles), and the “Nursery” division is for young dogs, not young handlers.

Sheepdog trialing does not attract many young people, but handlers in their seventies are unexceptional.
– Donald McCaig, The Dog Wars p23

This isn’t too surprising given what it takes to be competitive in this endeavor. You need abundant time to train yourself and your dog. You need sheep and lots of land. You need trucks and trailers and barns and pens and troughs and water and feed. What you don’t own, you have to rent, be it in land or training skill, or sheep. All of these things require a lot of money, and if you aren’t a professional rancher or farmer, all of it comes out of your fun-money budget.

If you are a rancher or farmer, you have to make a living first before you can devote the extra time it takes to polish a trialing career. None of it is easy, convenient, or cheap. Nor is it suited to young folk who aren’t working on a ranch or in some way supported by their ranching parents.

But that’s nothing new. The pictures and stories from the good old days of sheep trials in England tell the same story. Older gentlemen in dapper suits making a game of it out on the fields. It’s always been an older breed, but a dying breed?

Apparently so. A recent New York Times article titled “An Industry Fades, but Its Dogs Carry On” lauds the perseverance of the Sheep Trial despite the marked decline in the US sheep ranching business.

Sheep were an important part of this rural Northern California region after it was settled in the 1850s. But in the last 30 years or so, most local sheep ranchers have been driven out of business by the rising cost of land, predators, the changing American palate and global competition.

Since 1945, the number of sheep in the United States has fallen to 7 million from 46 million, said Megan Wortman, marketing director of the American Lamb Board. With an influx of hobbyists, however, sheepdog trials are a popular vestige of ranching life, especially here at the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show.

“In the 1980s, I would see one or two handlers out of 25 who weren’t ranchers,” said William Slaven, of Yolo County. At this year’s Mendocino fair finals, Mr. Slaven, 79, was one of only two ranchers competing. He and his hard-driving border collie, Roy, herd 500 sheep — down from 1,500 after a pasture fire last year.
– Carol Pogash, NYT, September 21, 2007

This trend hasn’t gone unappreciated by the American trialing community. Donald McCaig quotes almost the same statistics in his recent book:

Sheep numbers in the US have declined from 53 million in 1942 to seven million today. Much of the best western sheep range has been purchased by billionaires and turned into elk and buffalo preserves.

On the East Cost, sheep shearing is a dying profession, and the wool clip just covers shearing costs. Ordinary farmers are turning to hair sheep.
– The Dog Wars p154

For those of you not in the know, “hair” sheep are really “meat” sheep. Sheep that are raised strictly for slaughter as opposed to wool sheep that are sheared yearly for wool production. As most hair sheep don’t need to be sheared and most popular hair sheep breeds are more resistant to parasites than wool sheep, they make ideal “low maintenance” sheep for smaller lifestyle farms.

In the 1940s, there were 300,000 sheep in Mendocino County, said John Harper, a livestock and natural resources adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension at Ukiah. Today, there are no more than 14,000.

Americans’ attitude toward lamb changed after 1945, when soldiers overseas, fed partly cooked mutton, became sick and returned home telling their wives, “ ‘Just don’t feed me lamb,’ ” Mr. Harper said.

The annual per-capita consumption of lamb has tumbled to one pound today from a high of six pounds in the late ’40s, said Ms. Wortman of the lamb board.

Since that era, higher and higher land prices in this region have persuaded many ranchers to sell their acreage, often to grape growers. Those who remain must be innovative to survive.
– NYT 9/21/2007

So if real sheep work is becoming harder and harder to find, and those still in the sheep business are downsizing their flocks and narrowing their focus to serve ethnic meat markets and the organic home grown movement, why are sheep trials as popular as ever?

Working dogs are still used to move flocks of sheep. But for the hobbyists, sheep serve a different purpose: “An awful lot of us now only have sheep to entertain our dogs,” said a finalist [in the Mendocino County Fair trial], Jack Mathieson, a systems analyst.
– NYT 9/21/2007

The hobbyist. The lifestyle farmer. The large and growing segment in the First Estate that thinks and acts like the Third Estate. They are the reason that sheep trials are still going strong, if not growing. The mindset of sheep trial as hobby or sport vs. sheep trial as platonic divination of the perfect border collie breeding stock.

In fact, McCaig points out that the AKC now hosts twice the number of herding events as the USBCHA hosts traditional sanctioned trials. Although comparing the two is an apple vs. orange debate, the AKC’s herding-with-training-wheels events are still venues that will allow city folk to cut their teeth on sheep and a few graduates of AKC trials are now making their way into the big leagues of the USBCHA trial circuit. McCaig calls the AKC herding events “insular and invisible,” because they don’t draw large crowds like the traditional sanctioned trials do, but his focus on the celebrity of trialing only supports my position that many trialers think and act like dog sport athletes rather than clerics of the sacred order of the traditional working sheepdog.

Sheepdog trials are not self-referential: they are designed to produce dogs useful in the practical world.
– Donald McCaig, The Dog Wars p23

I don’t think what McCaig says is true, and herein lies the great philosophical divide between the First Estate and the Third Estate. The First Estate holds on to the notion that what they are doing has a higher, almost religious purpose to produce the platonically ideal Border Collie that will serve the needs of the shepherd first and foremost. But existentially, breeding dogs that win sheep trials produces dogs likely to win sheep trials. And sheep trials are not the same as daily work, a topic I will cover in upcoming posts.

The growing or sustained interest in sheep trials does not come from people becoming more interested in becoming ideal shepherds with ideal dogs to preserve the history of rural Border Collies, but dog sport people interested in another venue to challenge themselves and their dogs. This doesn’t mean that the romantic notion of a shepherd out on an emerald field doesn’t add to the fun of the sport.

Grant Colfax…described the sheepdog trials as “a moment where everything seems to be in balance.” As he stood in front of football bleachers, where more than 1,000 fans cheered the dogs and their handlers at the center of a bowl of bucolic hills, Dr. Colfax said: “It’s what everyone wants America to look like. It’s an illusion we all collectively embrace.”
– NYT 9/21/2007

Although the glory days of the American sheep rancher have passed, by most accounts the working Border Collie community still has dogs as good as they ever were and venues to prove it. And everything old is new again, and perhaps the future will be kind to the sheep rancher. Donald McCaig sure thinks it will:

In the next twenty-five years, the Border Collie should be affected favorably by trends that will challenge most everything else.

American agribusiness famously requires more than one calorie of energy to produce on calorie of corn. Global warming, skyrocketing Chinese and Indian energy demands, declining oil reserves, and wild fisheries will bring severe droughts and the end of cheap energy, water, and protein.

Necessity has always been the Border Collie’s friend. Since sheep (and goats) are adapted to low energy rearing on marginal land, what is ruinous for agribiz and confinement rearing should serve sheep and sheepdogs–despite the likely demise of the goosedog industry. (When protein gets expensive enough, people won’t chase geese, they’ll eat them.)

When plastics cost more, wool might even be valuable again.

These same predictable conditions will affect our trials. As sheep and goat flocks increase in nubers there should be more trials, and “for-profit” trials may coexist with traditional hosted trials. The days of the behemoth RV are numbered. When gas hits $10 a gallon, we’ll be pulling dog trailers behind eentsy teensy little cars. We won’t be able to travel as far or campaign as hard as we do now. Regional finals will replace today’s national trailer race and who knows, maybe regional teams will share a bus to the Nationals.
– The Dog Wars p157

Donald notes happily that the last two years have shown a 10% increase in the number of breeding ewes in the United States. This is an early indicator that ranchers are looking to meet forecasts of increased demand with a greater supply of sheep.

Our breed’s strongest defense is the farmer and rancher’s need for useful–not AKC-titled–sheep and cattle dogs. Without sheep, the breeding, training, and keeping of sheep-dogs loses its rationale.
– Donald McCaig, The Dog Wars p.154

Lets hope that Donald is right about increased sheep production and wrong about the rationale for breeding, training, and keeping Border Collies. Because if he’s wrong about sheep and right about the rationale, then the Border Collie is going to die out along with the American sheep rancher.

McCaig is myopic and tunnel-visioned when looking at the rationale for the Border Collie. I firmly believe that the modern Border Collie has cut the umbilical cord with sheep, and although we may go back from time to time for guidance and motherly sustenance, the Third Estate of the Border Collie is poised and capable of producing quality dogs that are no less agile, intelligent, trainable, and keen as the dogs produced by the First Estate.

McCaig might be right that these dogs are no longer “sheep dogs,” but the docking of “sheep” doesn’t mean they are simply “dogs” and pale imitations of their ancestors any more than you can call a fighter jet a pale imitation of the Wright Flyer or an HDTV a pale imitation of shadow puppets made by candle light. The Third Estate has plenty of words that can be used to replace “sheep,” and it is in that diversity and specialization that the dogs and our interest in them will live on.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.