We were out walking in sheep country this week. My dog, Saffy, is a well-behaved cocker spaniel but I put her on a lead if we’re in a nature reserve or around farm animals. She knows how to look invisible in a field of cows and does her best not to out-stare sheep and I’d say, as a veteran guidebook researcher, she’s pretty experienced around livestock.
Like most outdoor dogs, she has moments when the lure of a pheasant or the trail of a rabbit is too hard to resist and she has a doolally five minutes. In nature reserves, there may not be obvious animals or birds but I don’t want her to disturb nesting sites. As a pet owner, it’s a good idea to be familiar with how your dog’s breeding might affect their behaviour in the countryside: even the friendliest pet can be unpredictable when their natural instincts are aroused and a few cocker spaniels have a tendency to chase cows and sheep so I take no risks. Where she needs to be under close control, I always put her on a lead. If a problem arose in a field of cows, I would drop the lead as a cow is unlikely to chase a person provided they stay calm, and Saffie would certainly reach the nearest exit faster without me, but, in a field of sheep I wouldn’t let go.
Sheep attacks have been on the rise, causing distress not just to the animals but to the farmers, vets and other hikers. Sheep are easily brought down by a dog, which will often injure or even kill it. The owner themselves is often shocked to see their lovable dog behave savagely and horrified to find themselves powerless and unable to stop the slaughter. It’s a year round problem but in spring, sheep are most vulnerable, perhaps pregnant or having just given birth. A dog running loose in a field can cause panic, injury, early labour and fatality for ewes. Nobody wants to be the owner left saying, “But I didn’t think my dog would ever … ”
So, imagine my dilemma when a young border collie appeared in a field of sheep. It must be the farmer’s dog, I thought. A tractor rumbled in a nearby field and the collie looked over her shoulder and lead us towards the next stile on the High Weald Landscape Trail. Saffy, who was on her lead, and I followed quickly, both thinking it would be a good idea to leave this dog behind. We’ve met our share of protective dogs and this one seemed to be showing us off its property albeit in a good-natured way. I closed the gate quickly but like a magician, Misty popped up on the other side and, with a friendly grin, leapt up to lick my hand. Another field of sheep and, this time, Misty authoritatively jogged off to investigate a few corners. Huddles of sheep jogged out of her way but didn’t seem alarmed. Again, I assumed she was the farm dog.
She followed us beneath stiles and gates, through hedges and over a footbridge. In one field, our trail was unclear but Misty knew the way. Goodness, I thought, this is a big farm.
And then we passed a house and the man looked askance at Misty.
“Isn’t she the farm dog?” I asked.
“She’s from a neighbouring farm,” he answered, “I hope she’s good with sheep.” He hurried away.
Suddenly I felt responsible. We’d almost reached town and I wondered what to do if she kept following us. I couldn’t leave her loose among the sheep and truth be told, once upon a time, I’d quite fancied a border collie as a pet before I discovered their tendencies to herd children, become bored and need oodles of daily work or exercise. Still this dog had a lovely temperament and if she needed a home …
Then, I discovered a collar and tag beneath her ruff and, within minutes, was speaking to the owner who asked if I could stay with Misty until she drove round. She sat beside Saffy but then wandered again and I was relieved when the farmer appeared. He advised me he’d seen the owner walking round and also said he’d observed us walking through his fields earlier and wondered what was going on. His Land Rover boot was packed with his own team of dogs who were off for a swim. Misty was duly reunited with her owner who thanked us: the dog’s friendly nature was something of a problem and she has a tendency to wander.
Saffy looked relieved to see the back of Misty, and as we headed wearily for our car, I had to agree, that perhaps, another dog would be superfluous.