Sheep, dogs head baaahhh to Strang Ranch
Bridget Strang expects her family’s ranch in Missouri Heights to be a three-ring circus Tuesday through May 9. She wouldn’t want it any other way.
Strang is hosting a benefit sheepdog trial in advance of holding the prestigious 2014 National Sheepdog Finals in September. The benefit this month is intended to raise funds to help present the national event in the fall.
The benefit has attracted a field beyond Strang’s expectations. There will be 60 handlers with 90 dogs competing in the open division plus younger and less experienced dogs. There are entries from both coasts plus Texas and Colorado.
The event is free, and Roaring Fork Valley residents are urged to attend to educate themselves prior to the national finals in September. Bring a lawn chair and sunscreen, Strang said, but leave your own dog behind.
Two fields of about 50 acres each will be used to accommodate all the handlers and their dogs. Both will be in use Wednesday and Thursday. A New Castle rancher is supplying 260 sheep, about 80 percent of which are yearling ewes that didn’t breed.
“They’re still a little bit silly,” Strang said. “They have yet to spend a summer on the range alone.”
That means they have little experience getting hassled by a predator, such as a coyote. That makes them a little less predictable in the competition. Many will be skittish of a dog.
The other 20 percent of the sheep are older ewes that tend to want to bunch up when confronted and match a predator, or a dog, with numbers. It’s called the flocking instinct.
Handlers like it when their group of five sheep in the competition includes some older ewes because it binds the group more closely and, in theory, makes it easier for their dogs to herd the animals. It will be purely luck of the draw whether any particular handler gets an older ewe.
The trial will culminate May 9 with a “double lift” competition for the top 20 dogs. That ratchets up the difficulty because a dog must fetch one group of sheep, bring them to the handler, spot a second group far out in the field, then leave the first group to fetch the second group and bring them all together.
Strang said the trial also would include a “marked shed” competition where the dogs must cull out specific sheep and put them in a pen. For example, the dog might have to separate out five specific sheep out of a flock of 15.
“They freak out. It’s a total clutch situation,” Strang said, apparently referring to both dogs and handlers.
Strang will make time to compete with her one experienced dog and three younger pups despite putting on the event. She said she enjoys working with the highly intelligent and talented dogs in a situation that balances their discipline and instincts. The trials present issues that pose a challenge even for the most experienced ranch dogs.
“They’re a little bit contrived,” Strang said of the trial events, “but they’re based on things you have to do on a ranch.”
When a dog works on a ranch with 400 sheep, it often must use its instincts to get the job done, Strang said. But the trial events often require more finesse.
“The dog that wins the sheepdog trial is not always the most aggressive,” she said. The sheep recognize an aggressive dog, and that can cause them to scatter.
Strang and her core group of volunteers have hosted a handful of prior events sanctioned by the U.S. Border Collie Handlers Association, including the 2011 National Sheepdog Finals. It’s not all just fun and games. Aspen Valley Land Trust, which preserves open space and agricultural lands, is a beneficiary of proceeds. Strang also has formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that educates people about the western Colorado ranch heritage and promotes land conservation.
The 2014 National Sheepdog Finals will be held at Strang Ranch on Sept. 9 through 14. More information on that event can be found at http://www.sheepdogfinals.com.
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