Counting sheep in Ireland

It’s a job reserved for the agile and obedient Border Collie dogs — and they do it best

There were three of them. I watched the trio as it moved with the confidence and precision of soldiers in a military operation. One of them was obviously the leader. She made the most strategic moves; the others complemented the manoeuvre by moving in tandem.

The leader’s eyes were fixed on another group standing nonchalantly. I counted 16 or 17 in the cluster, babies included. Carefully, moving in quick sweeps around the flock, the leader herded them out of the safe confines of the shelter into the open field. Bumping along against each other, heads lowered in submission, the subjects moved, almost as one entity, into the green open area. All through, the three guards kept a close watch, surrounding the members under vigil, ensuring they moved as directed.

I watched the scene like a person under a spell. It was a cold, windy day in Caherconnell, on the western coast of Ireland. And I was part of a large group that had gathered to watch a demonstration of sheepdogs herding their flock out to graze in the pastures and then corral them back into the pens. John Davoren, the master of the dogs, is a landowner who has been training canines for close to four decades. He said it was his way of preserving a way of life in rural Ireland.

Davoren, who is in his 50s, directs the dogs — Border Collies, a breed native to Ireland and Scotland — through calls, words and a series of sharp whistles that convey different messages to the animals. His all-girl pack of three — Rose, Lee and Sally — was all ears for the masters’ voice. Under training for over five years, Rose, quite naturally, was the leader of the pack. The other two — in Davoren’s words — were the able apprentices. The trio ran and jumped on cue with the speed of a fast-moving machine, eliciting smiles and exclamations from the onlookers.

Unlike other dogs, Border Collies communicate to the sheep with their eyes, holding the gaze and willing the sheep to obey. They are taught to circle the sheep from a safe distance, ensuring they do not scare the cattle.

Davoren’s next trick was to show how the dogs separate the flock. He settled on three sheep standing in a corner and proceeded to command Rose to herd them out. The two others, equally eager and attentive, held back the rest. The three sheep, now huddled on one side of the fence, looked unperturbed by the number of eyes fixed on them. It seemed they knew they were mere props in the whole act.