Crowds flock to Castle Howard for the English National Sheep Dog Trials

Astley Ned eyes up the competition at the English National Trial

Astley Ned eyes up the competition at the English National Trial - Credit: Archant

150 dogs ran out over three days

Phil Drabble was an unlikely TV star but, at the peak of his fame, the quietly spoken Black Country boy’s show, One Man and His Dog, attracted a massive eight million viewers (about the same as Downton Abbey).

Today, common or garden sheep dog trials, which happen every weekend of the year around the country, draw smaller crowds – occasionally little more than one man and his dog – but remain an important part of rural life, reflecting a strong working partnership that man and beast (or shepherd and collie) have enjoyed for centuries.

Around 5,000 people turned out to see the recent English National Trials on the Castle Howard estate in North Yorkshire, where 150 dogs ran out over three days. It was, by modern standards, a good crowd, with people of all ages enjoying the unique sporting spectacle.

To qualify for a run at the national, the competitors had to win three local open trials, ensuring only the best dogs and handlers were on show. The 12-15 minute Castle Howard course, which the competitors studied the night before as the judges talked them through the scoring system, included all the usual trial tests of gathering, fetching, driving (the sheep, not a tractor), shedding and penning.

The five highest scoring competitors from each of the three days win a place in the England team and have the honour of representing their country at the International Trial. The top three at Castle Howard were Jed Watson and Gwydr Zac, Emma Gray and Tweeddale Jamie, and Ricky Hutchinson and Sweep, who all went on to compete at the International against teams from Wales, Scotland and Ireland at Tywyn in Gwynedd, north-west Wales (where Ricky and Sweep were placed 13th overall).

If the name Emma Gray sounds familiar, it’s because she was one of three professional shepherds who trained celebrities like Tony Blackburn, Lesley Joseph and Amanda (appropriate name alert) Lamb on ITV’s sheep dog show Flockstars.

‘The celebrities clearly didn’t have a clue, but it certainly didn’t do the sport any harm,’ said Alec Mosey, who farms in North Yorkshire, just outside Gilling, and is chairman of the English National Trials committee.

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‘Emma is one of a growing number of ladies taking part now. When I started, there was rarely more than one lady competing, but now I’d say about a third of the competitors are women.’

While women’s representation is growing, there remains a problem with numbers overall. Unfortunately, there are simply not enough young people coming through the ranks.

‘Farming is tough and there are fewer people working with sheep because they’re not profitable,’ Alec explained. ‘We’re getting more hobbyists coming but, if we’re not careful, numbers are going to continue to slide.’

Training a sheep dog takes time and effort and, while you don’t have to have your own sheep to do it, a friendly flock certainly helps.

‘Like any sport, if you want to be good you have to practice,’ said Alec. ‘And you have to be able to work well with your dog. To make a strong connection, it’s best to get them as a pup. You can start training them properly when they’re about a year old and, if they’re good enough, they can be ready to run at the national when they’re four or five.

‘If you don’t have your own sheep, a dog can be scared of them when it comes to a trial, or they can come in too strong and excitable. They need to concentrate, listen and have a really good temperament.’

For Alec and most modern competitors, that means the dog has to be a border collie.

‘They’ve been bred for this work and have done it for generations,’ he said. ‘Some are good trial dogs, others work best on the farm. The best can do both.

‘Border collies are observant and clever, and not too strong with the sheep. For me, there’s no other dog that comes anywhere near them.’

A good, trial-winning sheep dog is worth around £3,000, with the world record standing at about £15,000. Most competitors take on a border collie as a pup, build a relationship with it for the first year, train it hard for six months, then start competing when the dog is about 18 months old.

‘The dogs love it. It’s bred into them; it’s what they live for,’ said Alec. ‘It’s a shame when they’re sold as pets. They need a purpose, to work and to use their energy and intelligence.

‘They are, in my opinion, the most intelligent dogs. They’re always listening and thinking but, if they don’t agree with your commands, you’ve had it. You can make them go, but you can’t make them come back if they don’t want to.’

The sport remains relatively strong in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Lancashire, but as people have less time to spend training dogs and fewer farmers work with dogs, favouring quad bikes to round up their flock instead, it is inevitably changing.

‘It’s a British sport, but other countries are taking it up and making it their own,’ said Alec. ‘It’s growing on the continent, across Europe, in New Zealand, Australia, North and South America; all over the world.

‘It will never die off completely in this country, but it will have to change. We need to bring in more families with extra stalls, food and events around the trials. We got very positive feedback from the Castle Howard trials, which just goes to show that if you get people along they enjoy themselves.’

So, where is the next generation of competitors going to come from? Alec has two sons – a project manager and a geologist – and a daughter, who’s busying raising her own brace of boys.

‘My sons are probably not going to follow me into farming, my daughter’s too busy with her own family at the moment and it’s too early to tell with my grandsons,’ he said. ‘But you don’t have to be a farmer to run out a sheep dog. It’s like football; everyone can have a go if they want to, but not everyone will be great at it.

‘You can spot a natural a mile away. They understand the dog and the sheep, they know where everyone is going to go and they are in control every step of the way.

‘It might just be a man, a dog and a plastic whistle but, when it’s done properly, it’s quite a spectacle.’

To find out where to see sheep dogs in action, visit Ryedale Sheep Dog Society’s website at

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