Always up for a challenge, Belgium-born Laura Hinnekens is making her mark on the UK trialling scene despite some language barriers. Hannah Binns caught up with her to find out more.
Born and raised in Brussels, Belgium, Laura Hinnekens caught the working dog bug in 2010 after buying her first pup to help shepherd a local vet’s farm.
After months of watching YouTube videos of sheepdog triallers and training tips, in 2012 she contacted Michael Davidson, Wooler, about helping work on the farm to gain some experience.
It was a decision which kick-started her love affair with Scotland.
She says: “The farm was a magical place and I could not believe I was lucky enough to help shepherd around 10,000 sheep.”
But the stay saw Laura railroaded into her first sheepdog trial from her shepherd colleagues.
“Even though I did not want to do it, I could not say no due to the language barriers. My English was not that good at the time. But I absolutely loved the challenge and knew this was something I wanted to keep doing,” she says.
Despite her three-year course in agronomy in Belgium, Laura continued to visit the UK to learn more about running dogs and gain shepherding experience.
She says: “As part of my university degree, I did my seven-month apprenticeship in 2014 on UK sheep farms seeing various systems in action.”
It was during this stint she qualified for the last place on the Belgium team and took part in the World Sheepdog Trails, which were held in the Scottish Highlands.
“I was delighted to be a part of it and felt honoured to represent my country,” she adds.
In 2015, Laura left Belgium after sitting her last university exam, heading to the UK to work as a shepherdess.
“It was quite daunting as I only had £200 and spent a few days living in my van, but I knew I wanted to work in the UK as a shepherdess and I was determined to make it work, regardless of any language barriers and culture changes I encountered,” she says.
A year later, Laura ran her first ever brace competition with Meg and Fudji.
“It was my first national competition and I felt so scared as the field was extremely tricky and unbalanced. But I wanted to give it my best shot, despite the shaking legs. While I did not place, the crowds and competitors were so supportive.”
In 2017, Laura qualified for the Scottish team at Nationals with Meg, and this year saw Laura and Zorg place sixth at the Scottish Nursery Finals and qualify for the Four Nations Nursery Finals.
Comparing the UK and Belgium trialling scenes, Laura highlighted the difference in cultures.
She says: “Belgium is not really a sheep country, and the sheep are dogged much more than in the UK, so trialling over here feels much more exciting and unpredictable – it is more of a challenge, which I love. Also, trialling days in the UK offer a chance to learn and pick up different techniques through watching some of the top handlers running their dogs.”
A firm favourite trial for Laura is Inverlochlarig, Scotland.
“Inverlochlarig was the first hill trial I entered but I still enjoy the challenge it poses. It is a big course, which means everything can go wrong on the day.”
Now working as a self-employed shepherdess, Laura has built up a strong flock of 500 Cheviot Mules with help from Andy and Lynn Barr, Quothquan, Biggar, Scotland.
She also works with partner Euan MacKinnon, who has his own flock of sheep, to produce and market Lawhill Lamb meat boxes, and she aspires to run her own hill farm in years to come.