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Shearing SheepMy walk with dogs

For most of my life I grew up in a city called Bloemfontein in the Free State Province, South Africa. When I was about sixteen I visited some friends on a sheep farm near Bloemfontein. I saw a sheepdog work there for the first time and I was fascinated. It was a kelpie cross and he had two commands, one was to go to the front, and the other was to go behind the sheep. This dog did an amazing job and I could not see how it was possible to work sheep without him.

Never did I think that this first encounter with sheep and dogs would change my life from city boy to sheep farmer and dog trainer. On my first day I ended up in the shearing shed trying to shear a sheep. It looked so easy, but it was only many years later that I learned how to do this job properly. These first encounters with the farming business made such an impact on me that I decided to make it my career.

After my years of national service, which were compulsory in those days, I went to Grootfontein Agricultural College for a two-year diploma in agriculture. If you wanted to learn anything about sheep and practical farming this was the place to go. Grootfontein is situated in the North Eastern Cape, in an area called the Karoo. The Karoo is a vast area with an arid climate; its vegetation consists of various types of little shrubs, which are high in protein and ideal for extensive sheep farming. Grootfontein College is also renowned world wide for its research on sheep and goats.

After I completed my studies I started to work for one of the local farmers in the nearby Middelburg district. It was then that I got my first border collie. I was in charge of about a 1500 merino sheep, which we ran mainly on irrigated pastures. I remember clearly one day I was walking to gather sheep with my dog Billy. Suddenly he took off and went around the sheep and started bringing them to me. I knew nothing about sheepdogs, but I figured that was the right thing for the dog to do. Over the next two years Billy and I taught each other how to work sheep properly.

Life was lonely for a young man on that remote area, and locals would make plans to get young people together from time to time. This is how I met my wife, Elmarie. We immediately liked each other and 9 months later we where married. She had grown up on a farm in the Hofmeyer district, not far from where I worked at that time.

One day my neighbour saw my dog working, he was very impressed and asked me to train his dog. I took it to a small kraal where I had a few sheep and started to try a few things with the dog. His name was Rex. In the next few weeks I managed to get the dog to go around the sheep on a little outrun and put a few commands on him. The owner was very happy with the result and he managed his dog very well from then on. It was about this time that I heard about sheepdog trials. I went to visit Con Kingwell, who lived in Graaf-Reinett at that stage. Although retired, he still trained a few dogs even though he was well into his seventies already. Uncle Con was one of the original guys who started to trial in South Africa in the sixties. We had a great time with him and after watching my dog he said that I should enter a trial as soon as possible.

The first trial I went to was in 1996 at Tobie Lubbe's farm in the Burgersdorp district. I did very well and won the Beginners class. I was hooked. It was here that I saw a Brace competition, where you work two dogs together, and I decided that I would like to do that one day.

During this time we moved to a farm near Noupoort called “Holbrook”. It was a mountain farm of about 5000ha. It was famous for being the coldest place in the district, and cold it was. At this stage I bought a pup called “Jessie”.

We ran about 1200 Dorper ewes and 50 cattle and there was lots of work for a dog. Then tragedy struck, Billy died of an autoimmune disease. My heart was broken and it felt liked my hands had been chopped off. Jessie was only 6 months old when this happened and thinking back, she just stepped up and started to work for me right away. She was always keen on sheep from the age of 6 weeks and she was a quick learner. Thinking back I realize that I made some huge mistakes in her training, but still she turned out to be an outstanding dog and a true champion (read more in The Dogs Profiles).

I think the success I had with her drew me even more into dogs than before. I just could not wait for the next trial to go and run my dog. She did well from the start and one of her greatest achievements was to win the Dog of the Year (most outstanding dog over a year) trophy 5 times.

I saw a dog called “Bob” at Tobie Lubbes farm, which had been brought out by Paul Turnball to compete in South Africa in 1995. After competing with him, Paul sold Bob to Tobie. Although several people struggled to handle Bob, I liked what I saw and decided to breed Jessie to him. Out of the first litter I kept a male “Lad” and a female “Jan”. This specific breeding seemed to suit me well and I had a lot of success with this line. I then decided to train dogs for a living. However the time for such a decision was not yet right. People were still reluctant to pay money for good dogs. In later years this changed and as labour became scarcer the demand for dogs kept growing.