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Stackyard News Sep 09

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    Down Shep! Dog Handling Course for Shepherds

This week sees the end of a six week training course for 5 men, 3 women and their dogs in the middle of a Northumberland Field. Named in honour of the nation's most famous sheep dog, the Down Shep course has taught the next generation of North East shepherds how to handle their dogs on their home ground. And the end result? These collies now run rings around the sheep rather than their owners.

Neil Harkness, Ash & Tony Iley

Neil Harkness, Ash & Tony Iley

The course held at Shirlaw Hope Farm in Longframlington caters for trainees with a wide range of abilities and has attracted people from all walks of rural life aged between 20 to 30. Each trainee brings their own dog and both dogs and owners are put through their paces by Tony Iley, international trialist, judge, author and sheep farmer.

One student, Neil Harkness from Blaydon, who has his own dry stone walling business explains why he enrolled: "To further my career as I needed to expand my rural skills. I love working with my dog Ash and to enable me to continue training my collie at home I have bought ten of my own sheep from Tony Iley. All I want to do now is to become a shepherd.”

The Down Shep course was made possible with assistance from LandSkills North East, an organisation committed to providing training for those in working in agriculture and forestry in the North East. LandSkills North East, is managed by Lantra on behalf of One North East and forms part of the Rural Development Programme for England, (RDPE) funded by the EU.

Landskills North East has recently announced that farmers and foresters in the region will benefit from £500,000 of funding this winter, providing access up to 70% of funding towards training activities. The money is part of a national £4m rollout with Lantra Sector Skills Council holding a number of activities during the first ever LandSkills Week (28 September – 2 October 2009) to highlight what this funding can offer farmers, growers and foresters in six regions across England – including a visit to the Down Shep course.

Project Manager Peter Nailon said: ,"In an area renowned for its sheep farming, it is vital that dog handling skills are passed onto the next generation of farmers and shepherds, no-one is going to employ a shepherd if they can't work with a dog. When NNATA approached us we were delighted to provide 70% of the funding for this course as it means people can train locally and at a reasonable cost."

This course is a partnership, a marriage made in a field, Dog and Man need to work together. Real beginners start by introducing their dog to sheep penned in a small enclosure and walking the dog around the outside teaching it basic lie down, right and left commands.

They then progress to working in an enclosed yard reinforcing the basic commands with the dogs bought into close contact with about ten sheep. As the dogs find this more exciting they may have to be started on a check line before being allowed total freedom of movement to do the same exercises in the open field. Once they have reached this stage, exceptional dogs and handlers can choose to progress to a sheepdog trial course or increase their shepherding skills still further.

The NNATA provides affordable, local training for farmers and those involved in rural businesses. Because there is no other training of this sort in the area, the first course which finished on September 23rd proved so popular that the NNATA (North Northumberland Agricultural Training Association) has organised a second course. Due to start in October, this will further refine the skills of the original group and train another 6 handlers and is already fully booked.

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