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Backbone of Britain: Keeping traditional sheepdog skills alive

With a number of titles under her belt, Julie Hill is looking to inspire generations to come. Hannah Park visits the renowned sheepdog trainer.

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Julie Hill.
Julie Hill.

Described as the tourist route to Edinburgh, it would be difficult not to be taken in by the picturesque landscape which surrounds the A7 as it winds its way through Northern England into the Scottish Borders.

 

Pulling into Carcant, Heriot, it is hard to believe Scotland’s capital is some 20 miles up the road, as a breadth of open hill surrounds the farmyard.

 

The landscape here is steeped in heritage, custom and traditions which have passed down through the generations of shepherds who have farmed it and, despite modern intervention, the need of a working dog in these parts is as strong as ever.

 

Julie Hill has worked with Border Collies for almost 40 years, working, training and breeding dogs from her roots in Southern England before moving up to Scotland in the late 1980s.

 

She is well-known and respected in sheepdog circles and on the trailing scene, remaining the first and only woman to win the supreme international championship in 1996 since it began more than 100 years ago, as well as one of the few who has won the supreme and international brace championships.

 

But for Julie, the real passion is not the titles; it is keeping this rural skill alive in a way which credits this very heritage.

 

And it is one she has been honing for most of her life, after she began working with dogs shortly after leaving school.

 

After being given a pup from an accidental litter, she was hooked – and it did not take long for her to take up shepherding full time so she could spend more time doing what she loved – working and training the dogs.

 

She says: “Growing up on the outskirts of town, I didn’t have anyone to teach me ’stock sense’, so I put a lot of hours in at the start, learning from my mistakes as well as the stock I was working with.

 

“I would be working and training my dogs at work, but also spent every evening out training different dogs to try to learn how best to communicate and get the best out of them.

“That was my social life.”


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She sought training through the agricultural training board and got involved in the trialling world close to where she grew up in the East of England.

 

Competing on a regular basis soon translated into titles, opening up opportunities to travel throughout the UK as well as overseas, working as a shepherd and training others.

 

“I still get a kick out of the dogs showing me how clever they are,” says Julie.

 

“They all have their own personalities and they are all good at different things.

 

“It’s quite a sight to see them working together as a team but, to achieve that as a handler, you need to understand their instincts, ability and intelligence. It’s one of the first things I teach.

 

“A handler also needs to understand stock to be able to recognise when a dog is right or wrong – I want a dog to be able to think for itself.

 

“I will put in hours of basic training in the first few months of a dog’s life to teach it about stock behaviour, about what is and isn’t acceptable, a lot of which is done through body language.

 

“Working dogs, and especially those out on the hill, need to have formed that built-in ability to take over if they’re out of sight for a while, or weather conditions make it hard for them to hear commands.

 

“I reiterate to everyone I teach that mutual respect takes time to build up and how crucial it is to get these basics right, so the foundations are in place and can then be be built upon.”

 

After settling in the Scottish Borders, Julie became a tenant at Carcant farm in 2005 where she has set up her own sheepdog training school and runs 350 breeding ewes plus 100 followers across 243 hectares (600 acres) of mainly hill ground, with her partner, Bobby Henderson.

 

“You will never be able to do on a quad bike what you can get a dog to do on the hills and it will never be the same aid as a dog,” she says.

 

“Through my training, it is this value I want to pass on to the handlers, to promote an understanding of the innate ability of the dog.

 

“The competition [sheepdog trials] will always be a good way to test the skills of a working dog and highlight its strengths and weaknesses.

 

“A good hill dog will have the skills it takes to do well in the trials but, increasingly, people are getting better at training dogs and it is important the inherent abilities of the dog are not lost, as skills cannot be passed down through the handler.

 

“The atmosphere and cameraderie at the trials is a great thing, though.

 

“Farming can often be a lonely place, working long hours alone, so this friendly and welcoming atmosphere can be a lifeline.

pic 1

Young Handler group 2018/19 left to right: Tyler McKinlay, Emma Henderson, Amy Lochhead, Rachel Brett, Kirsty Cameron, Kelly Blackwood, Scott Lindsay, Alan Maclarty, Robert Forrest.

“With more people moving around for work and other commitments, it provides a good platform to meet others and get involved in a local area, especially for young people.”

 

Julie continues to compete successfully nationally and in her local Lanark, Lothians and Peebles sheepdog league (LLP), which recently created its young sheepdog handler award, thanks to the generosity of Suffolk-based farmer Stephen Cobbald, who began sponsoring young handlers to undertake training from Julie at Carcant in 2016.

 

Stephen has a lifelong passion for sheepdogs, working with them as well as trialling in the LLP, which he did alongside his daughter, Charlotte.

 

Stephen and Charlotte regarded the Scottish Borders as their second home and both competed, harbouring a great affection for the Scottish hills and the trialling scene in the area.

 

Charlotte, however, tragically lost her life at the age of 17 after a battle with mental illness, and Stephen was determined to do something positive for the league after concerns over the lack of young people getting involved.

 

With this in mind, he has committed to sponsoring a group of young handlers aged 26 and under, each year over a 10-year period.

 

The group undertakes six days of training from Julie at Carcant farm throughout the winter months, with support from local handler, Jacquie L’Etang.

 

And the group’s popularity has more than doubled since Stephen committed to the sponsorship four years ago.

 

He says: “Charlotte loved her dogs and sheep farming, and I am passionate about doing something positive in her memory.

 

“A good working dog is essential for a shepherd and without one opportunities are few and far between, especially in the Scottish Borders. It is one of the first things most prospective employers will ask.

 

“There is so much pressure on young people today and so many temptations for them to go down the wrong path in life, but handling a working a dog is good, clean fun.

 

“I want to help young people and give them an opportunity to succeed at something they enjoy doing, so they can enjoy life.

“After spending time with the members of the LLP league, I couldn’t sit back and do nothing when it was clear there were concerns about its future and the numbers of young people coming through.

 

“It is fantastic to see the popularity of the Young Handlers group growing every year, with huge credit to Julie and Jacquie who work so hard to make it a success.”

 

Julie fondly recalls what a pleasure it was to work with Charlotte, too.

 

“Charlotte had a tremendous natural ability with the sheepdogs and was happiest when here at Carcant and competing in the LLP,” says Julie.

 

“Thanks to Stephen’s tremendous generosity, we are seeing increasing numbers of young people keen to be involved in the young handlers training and our group size has more than doubled since we started with the 2016/17 intake.”

 

The sponsorship covers training for a group of up to 12 individuals in the winter months, to coincide with the LLP nursery league which usually runs from November to February.

 

While there is no obligation for young handlers to run a dog in this, many do so and have made fantastic progress.

 

“Through this and the course, they help and encourage each other, as well as introducing others to the trials, which will ultimately secure its future. It’s fundamentally down to Stephen’s generosity and support.

 

“It is brilliant to see increasing numbers of young people keen to get involved in the league.

They are the future.”

 

 

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