Exploring and exploding myths about Soay sheep: Can they be herded?

Without doubt the longest-standing widespread myth about Soay sheep is that they “lack the flocking instinct of many breeds. Attempts to work them using sheep dogs result in a scattering of the group.” As far as I know, this statement first appeared in an old writeup about Soay sheep on a site associated with the Department of Animal Science at Oklahoma State University. Wikipedia and many others dutifully quote the Oklahoma State site as The Last Word on the impossibility of using a dog to gather up the flock.

As a Soay shepherdess for nearly a decade and the daughter of a large animal veterinarian, I have the deepest respect for ag schools. But my border collie knows the good people at OSU were simply misguided. Molly and I submit the following as photographic evidence of her prowess as the premier stock dog at Saltmarsh Ranch. Click on any of the pictures for a closer look at her work:

Border collie herding Soay sheep

Neither snow nor rain …

Herding a flock of Soay sheep

…nor gloom of night stays a good working dog from the swift completion of her appointed rounds

I put all those pictures up right away on purpose to be sure the core point is clear: Soay sheep can be herded. At our farm, this task is ably carried out by Molly, two Australian shepherds, and a Kelpie. And we are not the only breeders who use working dogs on their flocks. But … Soay sheep do not flock in the same way as other breeds and a dog’s style with Soay needs to be moderated if the dog trained first on other sheep breeds or on cattle or ducks.

Although Soay sheep will in fact flock, as you can see in these pictures, they do not do so as readily or as tidily as the bigger, slower, dumber, and less interesting hulks like Suffolks (no bias in this shepherdess, is there?). Some have called Soay “flighty,” which is not a bad description of their behavior other than when they are under the command of a well-trained stock dog. If our sheep sense danger, or they think humans or other animals are too close to suit them, they will scatter, no question about it. For this reason, dogs need to learn “gentler” approaches to Soay sheep, staying farther back from the animals in most situations, sweeping a little wider, and generally doing nothing suddenly. (Author’s note: how I wish I had a good movie of Molly in action; words are not a good substitute, sorry).

herding big slow sheep

Molly received her early training on big slow sheep

The flip side of the “different” way in which Soay sheep need to be approached by herders is that for dog breeders wanting to expand their prize dog’s skill set, having a few Soay sheep on the property for the dog to practice on may be just the ticket. In fact, the breeder from whom we got Molly as a puppy and where Molly got her initial training on some huge Dorpers eventually bought a few of our sheep after she watched Molly working our flock.

Early border collie training

Nervous shepherd Steve at one of Molly’s first lessons

This dog breeder/trainer used her Soay sheep specifically to provide her customers with the opportunity to have more versatile working dogs.

A word of caution for readers persuaded by the foregoing glowing report of Molly’s talents that they should rush out and buy a border collie: the complete package is slightly more complicated. The good news is their herding instincts are genuine, strong, and immutable. The bad news is precisely the same: genuine, strong, and immutable. It is hard, and sometimes seems impossible, to get them to turn their internal switches off for the night. That said, we cannot imagine life without Molly, either our outside lives with the sheep or inside when the sun sets. There are so many times when a dog can simply go in and move the sheep where you want them to go with no arm-flailing, chasing, or other undignified and generally useless human antics. Before I close this post, I’ll take the author’s prerogative to show off Molly’s related skills (or fixations, depending on your view of border collies).

Molly "herding" at about 8 weeks

Border collies waste no time learning to herd

Molly began herding at about eight weeks, or at least that’s how we interpreted her behavior, in any case the third day after she arrived.

Brave working dog seeks out misbehaving gophers

There must be a gopher in here somewhere!

She quickly moved on to “herding” the gophers and field mice she found in the pastures.

A border collie will sit for hours — literally — staring fixedly at sheep on the other side of a gate, waiting to be admitted so she can get to work. She guards hay bales so they won’t leap out of the ATV. She insists on riding in the tractor to make sure the grizzly bears under the hood don’t get out.

Molly loves the flock's grungy water tanks, alas!

Herding is hard work for a dedicated dog

If we let her, Molly would work until she collapsed of heat exhaustion. Here’s where the water tanks in each part of the pasture come in handy.

We do not leave Molly unattended in with a group of sheep because sooner rather than later she would begin herding them without the benefit of human command and control. But she does go in with us daily when we are working sheep, doing chores, or just spending time with the flock.

Molly remains calm with Soay sheep when not herding them

Adolescent ram checks out the stock dog

Molly and Chestnut meet in the pasture

Nose-to-nose with adult ram, but still calm

When we are with her and with the sheep, Molly will remain quiet and pretty much let the sheep nose around her out without flinching. It’s a level of self-control we sometimes wish we should emulate in our own lives!

Time for a confession: I have no idea whether other breeds of heritage sheep also “lack a flocking instinct” or whether this supposed flaw is unique to Soay sheep. Nor can I provide irrefutable data that champion-quality working dogs who receive extra training on Soay sheep will end up higher in the dog trial standings. What I do know is that our Soay sheep are a delight to behold when any of our farm’s trained dogs put them through their paces. If one of the reasons you have Soay sheep is for the sheer pleasure of watching them at rest and at play and at flocking, you can do a lot worse than having a border collie or Australian shepherd or Kelpie on your farm. At Saltmarsh Ranch, having a faithful herding dog falls squarely on the “plus” side of our life ledger.

For now …

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