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Backbone of Britain: Legendary sheepdog handler Jim Cropper speaks of life in the trials

To become renowned around the world for being the ultimate sheepdog handler takes time, effort and natural talent. Emily Ashworth speaks to Jim Cropper about his life out on the trial fields. 

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Legendary sheepdog handler Jim Cropper speak of his life in the trials

You cannot speak of sheepdog trials without mentioning Jim Cropper, a legendary handler UK wide and internationally.


At 78, his skills are still highly sought after, and it is, in fact, a privilege to witness him and his latest protegee, Janine, train and who herself says to watch Jim in action and how effortlessly he works is something to behold.


To watch Jim in action and how effortlessly he works is something to behold.


The son of a miner, Jim still loves at Irwell Farm, deep set in the Lancashire hills where his son, James, and daughter, Linda, run 400 Cheviots across 405 hectares (1,000 acres).


With a towering stature and his iconic crook in one hand, he makes for quite the picture.


But this hasn’t been just a hobby for Jim, after falling in love with sheepdogs when only 10 years old.


He says: “I saw a dog rounding the sheep up on the moors and the first chance I got I bought myself a pup.


“Then, when I was 19, I entered my first trial and somehow managed to win and it gave me a real buzz and a goal to work towards.”


He also speaks fondly of Thomas Longton, a ‘very successful farmer and dog trialer’, says Jim, from Lancaster, to whom he says he owes his early success to.


“He helped me a lot,” says Jim. “He took me under his wing and used to ring me up and say he’d entered me in to a trial and take me all over the place.


“He gave me a great deal of encouragement and I’ll never forget that.”


Jim began to study pedigrees and bought two dogs from Scotland, which, he says, unbeknown to him would mark the first step in his journey to gaining fame on an international level.

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For someone who is respected for his talent as much as Jim, though, he is considerably down to earth.


His fireplace is laden with trophies, but even when asked what his best memories are, his answer isn’t based on a reflection of his own success.


“I like it when I see someone I’ve trained doing well,” he says.


Of course, close behind are coming second in the world trials and partaking in the English nationals.


In 2002, he only missed out on first place in the world trials with his beloved dog, Sid, by a mere half a point, at Bala, Wales.


“I was proud, but disappointed,” he says.


“Sid was a really successful dog too, who’d won thousands of trials. But, there’s nothing we can do. I’m fortunate to have been second.”


There are numerous books written about Jim’s life too, and he has represented England more times than anyone – precisely why Janine feels she is being ‘trained by the best.’


But it is the whole process of buying pup to seeing that dog out in the field that Jim gets a kick from.


“It is a real buzz to get a young dog and bring it up to scratch, and I guess I’ve got an eye for a good dog, too,” Jim says.


“Knowing you can angle 500 sheep and yourself is a good feeling.


“The dog has to have good legs under it and be able to manage big flocks.


“You have to be cool and calm. Do not pass on your excitement to the dog.”


Each year, Deerplay – the moors surrounding Jim’s farm – play host to the Deerplay Hill Sheepdog Trials and choose a charity to donate to.


This time they chose Derian House in honour of a young local boy who lost his life to a brain
tumour, raising £1,200.


The event attracted sheepdog handlers from across the globe.


A much-loved practice, dog trials reach way back to the 1800s, where the first trials were held in New Zealand in 1867. Not long after, Wales held the UK’s first in 1873.


But Jim is pleased to see this isn’t a dwindling hobby confined to those from farming backgrounds.


He says ‘more young people, if anything, are getting involved, and especially more women’.


“At one time, you would have been lucky to see one lady in 100 doing it,” says Jim.


“Now, it’s 50 per cent lady anglers and more like 75 per cent in America.


“And there’s some hard-to-beat young men coming up and you can’t beat youth.”


The life he has led is one which was rather unexpected, and as he ponders how lucky he has been, he puts it all down to the dogs.


“It’s taken me all over the world,” he says.


“I have judged and taught everywhere, from New Zealand to Canada to Italy.


“I’ve had an interesting life.”


So, from one generation to the next, what words of wisdom would he pass on to those who want to follow in his exceptionally big footsteps?


“Stick to it – it’s a life that can take you so many places,” he says.


“Who would have thought buying one sheepdog could make the world of difference to my life?”


After partaking in what must accumulate to thousands of trials, now Jim says he is not as good as he used to be, although there are many who would disagree with that sentiment.


But his passion for dogs will never falter.


“I’ve done it all of my life,” says Jim. “The thing is, I don’t know anything else.”

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