David Kennard – a Shepherd’s Success Story
When sheep farming took a downturn at the start of the millennium, North Devon shepherd David Kennard took diversification to a whole new level, with phenomenal success.
When the door to the kitchen banged open, the man who entered was well over six feet tall and nearly as broad as the doorframe. I smiled politely and gripped his huge outstretched hand. David Kennard, the man behind the name on the dust jackets of two bestselling books and the phenomenally successful Mist television series smiled back, a warm smile that reached all the way to his eyes.
The commotion drew the attention of two black and white collie dogs, who managed to raise themselves from a comfortable spot in the corner of the kitchen where the spring sun leaked in, and ambled over.
"It's a funny thing about sheepdogs," David said, scratching the top of each of their heads before sending them back into their corner - a command they only half-heartedly accepted by pretending to head off, only to swing around after a couple of paces. "They reach a point when they decide enough is enough, and then one day they simply retire themselves."
The two dogs are Gale and Swift, stars of David's books, who are both now self-retired and who prefer to spend the day sunbathing and eating, rather than running around working sheep.
How many dogs does David own? "Nine," he answers, raising his eyebrows. He then goes through the list, naming names like a teacher reliving a boisterous lesson in the staff room. And then he reaches Mist. "When I first filmed Mist, she was just an eight-week-old puppy. I had a good feeling about her, but nothing more than that. Yet she's turned out to be the best working dog I've ever had. What are the chances of that?
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"The thing with sheepdogs - with any dogs for that matter - is they are not robots. To be good, they need to think for themselves, to have the ability to look at a situation, analyse and assess it, and then act.
"I was working Mist one day. She had a dozen or so sheep gathered on the moor and was bringing them in. They were a good half mile out on a path between gorse and bramble, but I could see pretty well. I gave her the left command. She didn't react. I gave it again. Still nothing. So I reinforced it, really gave it to her hard. She went left, and the sheep bolted off back the way they had come. The thing is, she wasn't disobeying me, it was just that she could sense where the sheep were likely to go, and she knew if she went left, they would disappear off. She was correct, I was wrong. When you can say that about a dog, you know they're special."
A story to tell, a way to tell it
It's been a busy couple of years for David. So how does he feel about it, the fame, the television series - how does it feel to switch on the TV and see yourself? He doesn't say anything, just smiles and shrugs and almost looks embarrassed. I feel silly for asking the question, but his answer, although not verbal, says a lot about the man.
With the first series of 'Mist' due out this month on DVD, and the second ready to hit our screens on Channel 5 around the same time, David comes across as a man who has a wonderful story to tell and has simply found a way to share it. The TV, the books, radio, magazines and newspapers, they're just ways of him saying 'Sit down and listen to my story'. And we do, in our millions.
But there is no mistaking where his passion lies. Watching him work Mist makes you realise that when people talk about the bond between man and dog, this is what they mean. His dogs are always aware of him, listening, concentrating, ready to do anything he asks. He tells of a dog who once got trapped up a cliff and he called it to jump down into his arms. It did. Now that's trust!
But with that level of trust must come a massive sense of responsibility. "It does, but you know your dog," he says. "Some are soppy. If you tell them to run off the edge of a cliff, they would. Others wouldn't go near it. Partly it's me predicting them, partly it's them predicting me. When it works, it works beautifully."
However, success hasn't come without its disappointments. "About ten years ago I decided to do a sheepdog display here at Borough Farm. I think three people turned up," he laughs.
Now David regularly holds sell-out displays at the farm and at Dunster Castle and special events in and around the county. "It's fun," he says. "I take five of the dogs - Jake, Fern, Eddie and Moss, a six-month-old tearaway who just causes chaos - because although people love it when things go well, they adore it when things go wrong and a dog dive-bombs into the midst of the sheep or jumps into the audience. Oh, and of course the star of the show, Mist."
The displays are unfailingly entertaining, often with David working two dogs at the same time, or rounding up ducks and running them between groups of children. He even plays sheepdog rounders with two dogs in a race against each other, cheered on by the crowd. He always finishes every event by showing what sheepdogs are all about, gathering 200 sheep from more than half a mile away and controlling them all the way back.
But the best thing about the display is his commentary. Both chatty and intimate, it gives an insight into the minds of his dogs, which, if you've seen anything of the Mist series, is hilariously accurate and uncannily human.