A Word with Martin Andrews about using Hebridean Sheep to train sheepdogs

By David Braithwaite

Martin Andrews is a long standing member of the Hebridean Sheep Society and keeps his Longmorn flock at his and Jean`s Bull Ghyll Farm, that looks out across a landscape where the Yorkshire Dales fold into the Cumbrian fells near Kirkby Stephen. Not just that the landscape is stunning but the famous Settle to Carlisle railway line runs right past the farm … with steam engines often passing it is a real treat.

Martin has been breeding and training top class working and trialing sheepdogs since he was a young lad. In fact, it was this interest that got him into Hebrideans. His first successes in the show ring however was with Kerry Hills; in 1961 at the age of 16, Martin took all the major show trophies with a pair of Kerry Hill gimmers, including the Royal, and Supreme Championship at the Three Counties.

But it was sheepdog training that I wanted to discuss with Martin and I went along to Bull Ghyll armed with pen and paper and a number of questions.

How long have you been training sheepdogs?

I started when I was 10 years old and still in short trousers. My first dog was called Jock and he would ride on my pony, called Freda; much as the dogs today ride on quad bikes. Freda was my transport to school and she would spend the day in a little paddock at the back of the post office just by the school. I took to working dogs like a duck to water. My father quickly learned that he could rely on me to gather the sheep. I remember one day in class at junior school when there was the sound of hobnail boots clonking down the corridor and came a knock at the door. I was surprised to see my dad pop his head round. He was ruddy faced and had one hand on the door knob and the other clutching his rolled up cloth cap. "Sorry to bother you Miss Flint" said farther, "But I need to take Martin urgent like". For a second poor Miss Flint, who had had to stop her maths lesson, must have thought there had been a tragic accident. "The sheep have been out all mornin and they`ll be `arf way to Ludlow by now and I need Martin and his dog pronto!" father appealed. I was excused and excited to be leaving arithmatic behind to be off with father on a real emergency. It wasn`t long before I was actually trialing and I think I was just eleven and a half years old when I took part in my first sheepdog trial.

When and why did you get your first Hebrideans?

It was quite a while ago when I got my first Hebs from another dog trainer. They were cheap and I thought that the black sheep would show up well on the hill. Later, I also got a number of pedigree sheep from Ken Foster who was shepherd at Highgrove and managed the Prince of Wales` flock. Ken was originally from the same village as me, Clee St. Margaret in Shropshire and we knew each other very well.

What were the characteristics that you recognised in Hebrideans that make them so good for the job?

I was delighted when I realised as I watched the Hebs on the hill from the farmhouse, that they stayed in a bunch and didn`t spread out like the white sheep. This would be ideal for teachingdogs how to extend their out-run as the Hebrideans would be nicely set up for them out on the hill.

Not only do the Hebs stick together but I also quickly realised that they flow really well too and move freely as the dogs go round them. This builds confidence in a young dog and their interest in moving sheep grows. Many heavier, white sheep soon get sticky and might be quite stubborn if they detect that the dog has not got the confidence to shift them. This can be off putting when a dog is young and still under confident. Additionally, a small training group of Hebrideans, six or so, will be very thrifty and can quite easily manage on a relatively small training field. Whereas six larger sheep might soon run out of keep.

Do different age and sex groups of Hebrideans respond differently to the dogs? If so, how do you apply this to the task of training young dogs?

I like to start a young dog on a group of ram lambs. I will select a dog for training as soon as it is showing any kind of interest. This can be as early as four months old. Certainly by ten months old I like to start a dog off. The ram lambs are ideal at this early stage as they are quite docile and much quieter than other groups. This means that they will not gallop off across the field at the first sight of the young dog. Sheep that head off like that would set the little dog off chasing the sheep and is a bad way to start any training.

Gimmer lambs are much more mobile and once a dog has learned its sides [the commands for clockwise and anti-clockwise round the sheep] it can now get behind the sheep and work them back to me.

Are there any behaviours that Hebrideans exhibit that are disadvantageous to sheepdog training?

Not behaviours as such but I would never train dogs where there are four-horned rams as there could quite easily be an accident with the forward facing horns and a good sheepdog is many times more valuable than a good four-horned Hebridean ram!

Another point worth remembering is that it is better to let dogs experience white sheep as well as black ones. It just might be that as a young dog goes through its training it might become fixated with black sheep if that is all it has known. It is much better to mix things up and give developing dogs a lot of variety which includes not only different sheep but also different terrain and scenarios.

Have you any interesting/amusing stories from your many years of sheepdog training?

Back in the days when I was a lad there was still quite a lot of congenital blindness in Border collies and I had trained my blind dog Vic, by Alan Jones`s Roy from North Wales, to my commands and could get him weaving in and out of obstacles on the farm. A reporter from the local paper had heard about this and came and did a piece about me and Vic that went out in the next edition. Mr. Burns the Headmaster of my school had read this and called me into his office. "Andrews, I`m fascinated by your ability with sheepdogs. I would like you to give a demonstration to the whole school on the school field with one of your working dogs and a flock of sheep" the Headmaster instructed. And so it was; the day came and I had set up a pen and driving gates on the school field. The whole school stopped for the afternoon and turned out on the school field to watch. Even the dinner ladies and cooks stopped their work and in their haste left the large double doors to the canteen that opened onto the school field, wide open. My father had brought the sheep down to the school in the morning and handed my dog Moss, who was by Jim Wilson`s Moss from Innerleithen, to me as the sheep were let lose across the open field. As I watched them run I realised that father had brought a group of `North Walian` sheep off the hill that had hardly ever been `dogged`.

I set Moss off on his out-run and he lifted the sheep beautifully but they were heading back towards the gathered school pupils at a bit of a gallop. As they headed towards a group of school kids some of the boys got over excited and started waving their arms about and shouting. The sheep were now galloping in the opposite direction and straight for the school. I was quick to give Moss a command to get round them but the sheeps pace was quick and as he reached them they were right in front of the canteen doors. I reversed the command to get Moss to the other side of the sheep with the intention of getting them clear of the school. Moss`s traversing movement had the effect of turning the sheep straight in through the canteen doors and into the dining hall. A great cheer went up from my fellow pupils. They believed that in some rash anarchical moment this was all intentional and I had neatly put the sheep into the dining hall to make some ultimate rebelious point to the school establishment. Tables, chairs, water jugs, culttlery were all upside down, what a calamity. But I was a hero as somehow I had earned much respect from my fellow school pupils; to the disapproval of Mr Burns. After this, pretty girls who I had hardly dared to look at, greeted me with broad smiles and big lads who I thought were bullies would shout "Martin" when they saw me and give me a chummy slap on the back.

But my fame was short lived as that was my last year at school and that August I was put to work on the home farm at Clee St. Margaret where I spent the rest of my `working life`, and many a happy day was had toiling on the land.

When looking for a young dog to train up, what advice can you share?

Well I am never bothered by the colour of the dog or even coat type. Neither I am bothered by the sex although if I was needing a sheepdog to undertake some physically demanding work, like a lot of hill work, then a dog would be my preference because of the need for stamina. I would try not to take a pup that was cowering at the back of the pen, and for a novice handler, a pup that come bounding up might end up being a bit of a handful for a first dog to train. The tail will tell you a lot too and I avoid pups that are carrying their tail tucked under their belly as this to me is a sign of a nervous/highly strung dog. It is good to spend a bit of time observing puppies before you buy, never rush in. Always be wary if someone offers to give you a dog, unless you know them and or the dog well.

When you start training make sure that you have plenty of time to devote to the task, once a week will simply not do. This isn`t that you need to be pushing the puppy along quickly but rather you are just plodding away at the basics. If for whatever reason something goes wrong and the puppy reverts to a bad habit such as cutting in front of the sheep, then take the training back a couple of stages and start to build up again. Always try to build confidence in the dog. A common mistake is taking the dog to work before the necessary training is in place. You are likely to ask the dog to do things under the pressure of needing to get sheep in that is just not ready for. This can lead to huge frustration when things don`t go right and will set the dog back. This isn`t to say that a dog shouldn`t be stretched. Any training programme should endeavour to keep challenging the dog at the right moment in its development. But this should be without any pressure when things are not going right as this will allow the handler to be in a much calmer frame of mind. Staying cool will help your dog stay cool which is the place you want it in.

There is a balance to be struck when starting a young dog off between freedom and discipline. At the start I like to keep a dog moving fairly freely and give it plenty of opportunity to express itself. I don`t really start the stop commands until quite a bit into a puppy`s training. I always speak to them quietly as this makes them listen. I do have a scowling scolding voice reserved for when the puppy does something wrong when I know it has already learned what the right thing was. What I find endlessly fascinating is how every puppy is different. You learn most of the traits over time but these come in varied combinations in every dog ... and of course, there is always something that will surprise you even when you have had a lifetime’s experience. The challenge I enjoy is working out just what makes each individual puppy tick. Once I have worked that out then their tailored training programmes fall into place.

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