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Saturday, 25 October 2014

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Cumbrian farmer mixes his business with a hobby

Yew Tree Farm sits on the edge of Rosthwaite in the heart of the Borrowdale valley and is where sheep farmer Joe Relph lives with his wife, son and 10 of his workmates.

Farmer photo
Joe Relph and his dog Mac

As we sit chatting at his kitchen table Joe’s colleagues can be heard barking outside.

They are the Border Collies he needs to keep control of his 2,000 Herdwick sheep. They are not just colleagues but his best friends – and are among those who know him best.

“I spend most of my working day with them,” Joe points out. “I think the world of them, and I think they’ve come to think a lot of me.

“If I came round the corner they would all come rushing up to me. They are great companions. They are all part of the family.”

The connection between the 55-year-old farmer and his dogs is so strong that they can always tell how he is feeling.

“If you’re nervous or stressed they can pick up on that. They know when you’re having a good or bad day, and you know when they’re having a good or bad day.

“There is a real bond between the dogs and me.”

Joe and his wife Hazel are well-known for their friendship with Prince Charles who is a regular visitor to their home, but it’s the dogs he wants to talk about today.

On Monday, some 50 other sheepdogs and sheepdog handlers from across northern England and southern Scotland will descend on his farm for the sheepdog trials which form part of Keswick Agricultural Show.

The show itself has had to be cancelled this year due to the condition of the showground – but the sheepdog trials are still going ahead and Joe will be competing as well as hosting the event.

He’ll also be taking part in next year’s World Sheepdog Trials, which are coming to the Lowther estate near Penrith. There will be competitors from 24 different countries and two of Joe’s dogs, Mac and Eve, will be among them.

Sheepdog handling is a sport Joe showed a talent for early on. At the aged of just 11 he won a local trial in Threlkeld, competing against adult handlers, and he continued competing and winning trials throughout his teens.

It is in his genes and in his upbringing. His father Charlie and great-uncle, also Joe, were both lifelong sheep farmers and sheepdog trial competitors. Charlie used to work as an organiser on the BBC’s long-running TV series One Man and His Dog and his great-uncle often took part in the national sheepdog trials in Hyde Park in London, which regularly attracted crowds of 10,000.

So it was natural that he would follow them. Since leaving school in Keswick he has worked on the farm, marrying and bringing up his own family in Borrowdale.

“It’s all I ever wanted to do, and it’s still what I want to do,” he says. “I’ll carry on as long as I can.”

And his workforce are completely devoted to him.

In the wild, dogs live in packs and look up to one pack member as the leader – the top dog, as it were. Then, when they are domesticated, they look up to their owner in the same way.

“The scientists say they regard you as the pack leader,” he says. “But whatever the reason for it, they are very loyal to me.

“When they are tired they keep going to please me. If you haven’t got that bond with them you’re not going to get the best out of them.”

Joe has the same affection and loyalty towards the dogs – for all his workmates have guaranteed job security.

“Once you get attached to them you keep them and you could never part with them.”

From working with the dogs every day, Joe has come to know each one personally. He knows they are individuals, each with their own characters.

One of his dogs, Fan, is very talented but also very shy.

“Fan has a lot of natural ability. But not everyone can go out and mix with people.

“When she’s away from home at a sheepdog trial, and there are a lot of people around and an announcer on a tannoy system, she can become frightened.

“It’s exactly the same for some handlers. Handlers can get nervous, and the dogs are no different.”

Another dog, Bet, is a very boisterous animal. “Nine out of 10 dogs get excited when they go away to trials,” he adds. “If you’ve got a dog that’s already lively you can guarantee it will be even livelier at a competition. Bet is the liveliest dog I’ve got.

“You find they settle down with age.”

Sheepdog trials are not just a sport but a practical skill. All shepherds and sheep farmers need dogs to control their herds, so most of the tasks at sheepdog trials are similar to those they do every day.

At a trial, handlers normally have to direct their dogs to fetch sheep and bring them towards him, and sometimes into a pen, through gates or around an obstacle. They may also have to separate one or more sheep from the rest of the herd.

The handlers use whistles and commands such as “come by”, meaning move left, “away”, meaning right, “walk up”, meaning move towards the flock, and “get back”, to move away from them.

Joe had to stop competing in trials for a time in his early 20s, as other priorities took over. He and his wife Hazel have two children, a daughter, Rachael, who is now married, and a son Stephen, still at home, and the demands of bringing up a family and earning a living got in the way of the sport.

Then in 1999 Joe’s father died – and he decided it was up to him to carry on the family tradition.

“It was something our family had always done,” he says.

“I had three good dogs so I thought that if I was going to start again that was the time to do it.”

As guiding sheepdogs was part of his daily life, it was second nature to Joe, and to his dogs. “It was just a question of spending some extra time with them, and knocking a few of the rough edges off.

“Sometimes they can be a bit tighter on the right or the left. To compete they need to get it perfectly and need to be under really good control.

“Any spare half-hour I have I’ll take the dogs out and do some training. But it’s a hobby that fits in with my working life. You have to have good working dogs to take part.”

One of the skills many competition dogs also need is an “eye” – the ability to control sheep by looking straight at them. Sheep are nowhere near as intelligent as dogs, though Joe points out: “They are not as daft as people think they are either.

“If a dog isn’t up to it the sheep can find that out. Some dogs have got authority and some haven’t.

“The secret of being a good dog handler is to get the best out of the dogs you’ve got, to know what their faults are and to be able to make up for them.

“Dogs are at their best when they are about five years old. That’s when you know how good they are going to be.”

Of course some dogs turn out to be better than others, and one particular star among Joe’s dogs is Liz. Though 11 and a half now – which is elderly in dog terms – Joe says: “She’s a fantastic dog. She’s had a lot of success.”

But he tries not to show any favouritism. “They can get very jealous,” he warns. “They would growl at each other and they would fight if they got the chance, so I try not to put them in that situation. They’ve all got separate kennels.

“I don’t like to have dogs in together in case they fall out.”

The close attachment Joe feels for his sheepdogs inevitably leads to some sadness too. His co-workers may be his best friends, but the lifespan of a Border Collie is about 12 to 16 years, so over time he has lost many to old age.

Yet like all country people Joe is philosophical about it.

“When you come from a farming background you get to know the reality of life and death – you see it on a day-to-day basis.

“As long as they have a good life and live to a good age, that’s all you can hope for.”

The Cumbrian Championship Sheepdog Competition takes place at Yew Tree Farm, Rosthwaite, on Monday. It begins at 8.30am and is likely to continue for most of the day. It is free to spectators.

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