The 2023 World Sheepdog Trials got underway yesterday (Wednesday, September 13) at Gill Hall Estate, near Dromore in Co. Down.

The event will continue through until Saturday afternoon (September 16) when the World Singles Champion dog and handler will be crowned. Up for grabs is a first prize of £3,000.

This week’s activities at Gill Hall constitute the Olympic Games of the trialling world. The event is held every three years. However, the Covid-19 pandemic forced a major realignment of the championship’s schedule.

Sheepdog handlers from around the world last came together, in a competitive sense, back in 2017. The year in question saw the Netherlands hosting the World Championships.

Thereafter Covid-19 kicked in 2020 and again the following year, when the event should have been held in England.

Brian Kelly, secretary of the committee organising the Gill Hall event said: “We were asked to come on board and host the 2023 World Championships 16 months ago.

“The approach was made on the back of Gill Hall Estate hosting an International Sheepdog Trial back in 2018.

“There has been a 25-strong committee of people working on the event since the request came through from the International Sheepdog Society. We were delighted to get on board from the outset.”

A total of 240 dogs and their handlers, representing 30 different countries, will be taking part in the competitions planned for Gill Hall Estate this week.

Attending this week’s World Sheepdog Trials event at Gill Hall Estate (l-r): Robert Oliver, Portadown; Nigel Watkins, Wales; and Allistair Lyttle, Kesh, Co. Fermanagh

“Day One sees 120 dogs competing, spread across three fields. The same format is followed on Day Two when the remaining 120 dogs compete,” Kelly continued.

“The top seven dogs from each field over the two days, go forward to the semi-finals on the Friday. That makes a total of 42 animals.

“A total of 16 dogs take part in the final class, scheduled for Saturday.”

According to Kelly, the standard of challenge confronting the dogs increases significantly as they move through the competition.

Sheepdog trials

Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales are each represented by 21 handlers and their dogs. Each competitor is allowed to compete with two dogs.

National competition trials competitions are held to allow for the selection of the handlers that take part in the world event. 

“One Irish handler has won the World Championship crown up to this point – James McGee, from Ballybofey in Co. Donegal, back in 2011,” Kelly explained.

Co. Offaly hosted the World Sheepdog Trials back in 2005. The organisers are anticipating crowds of up to 15,000 at Gill Hall over the coming days.

Gill Hall Estate – the perfect location

Allistair Lyttle, from Kesh in Co. Fermanagh is a member of the committee organising the events planned for Gill Hall Estate this week. He is also taking part in the competition in his own right.

“It’s a tremendous honour for Northern Ireland to be hosting the 2023 World Championships. And Gill Hall is the perfect venue,” Lyttle explained.

“The estate has tremendous facilities. What’s more, all the trials locations are in tip-top condition.”

According to Lyttle, it has taken a tremendous, cooperative effort to get this week’s event over the line.

Enjoying this week’s World Sheepdog Trials (l-r): Cindi Minto, Idaho; Brian Kelly, secretary of the organising committee; Jaenne Surrett, Idaho

A case in point has been the sourcing of 800 ewes from sheep producers across Northern Ireland.

“We have been able to source the sheep form a number of flock owners. These include, O’Kane Brothers, from Ballymena; Robin McNinch, from Larne and Frankie McCullough, from Dromara in Co. Down,” Lyttle said.

“Ewes are chosen for the championships because there is more of them to select from at this time of the year.”

Lyttle is quick to confirm that sheepdog trialling is an extremely popular sport in Ireland.

“Events are taking place around the country every week of the year,” he said.

“Up to 70 dogs could be taking part in each of these competitions, all of which wil attract large crowds of spectators.”

Lyttle went on to point out that trialling competitions are open to border collies only.

“A good dog could sell for up to £25,000,” he continued.

Young handlers

15-year-old Peter Óg Morgan, from Castlewellan in Co. Down will be pitting his wits against 14 other competitors from around the world in the Under-18 International Young Handlers Championship at Gill Hall on Friday.

He has been working with dogs at home for as far back as he can remember. Previously his father – also Peter – had won the Irish National Championships back in 2021. He went on to take the reserve at the International Sheepdog Trials, held in Wales later that same year.

Peter Óg will be competing with the eight-year-old collie, Tip.

Peter Óg Morgan, from Castlewellan in Co. Down, his mum Bronagh and their border collie, Mossee

The Morgans run 550 Lanark Blackface sheep on their home farm.

Peter Óg believes that a champion dog brings a combination of ‘brains’ and breeding to the table.

“A young dog will quickly confirm whether it has the interest and the ability to work with sheep,” Peter Óg explained.

“By the time it is 18-months-old, it will be well settled. A dog will really come into its own at around four-years-of-age.

“Border collies are very intelligent dogs and are continuously learning.”

The training process starts by putting a young dog into a circular pen with a group of sheep. By using this type of enclosure, the sheep cannot bunch into a corner; they will always be facing the dog.

Young dogs are first taught to ‘stop’ on command.

Some dogs will lie down on hearing this command; others will remain standing. After that, a range of verbal commands are given to the dogs. These include ‘come-bye (move off to the left) and ‘away’ (move off to the right).

Anderson Pacheo, from Brazil, competing at Gill Hall Estate with his dog, India

Peter Óg continued: “Handlers will use a combination of whistles and verbal commands to dogs. Whistles are used when dogs are at a distance from their handlers.”

Sheepdog handling in Poland

Toamasz Nowakowski is the sole representative from Poland taking part in the competition classes at Gill Hall this week.

He lives close to the city of Warsaw.

“Initially, I got involved in dog obedience classes and graduated from there to sheepdog handling,” he explained to Agriland.

“There are approximately 30 handlers who take part in open handling classes that are held at locations across Poland.

“Rather than hold one-day events, as would be commonplace in Ireland, sheepdog handling competitions held in Poland take place over an entire weekend.”

Most of Poland’s native sheep breeds were killed out during World War II. Those left were cross bred with sheep from other parts of Europe in the years that followed.

Tomasz Nowakowski, from Poland, competing at Gill Hall Estate with his dog, Pete

The Wrzosowkas is the oldest native, ovine breed in Poland. According to Toamasz, they are a very “primitive” type of sheep.

He arrived in Ireland with his four-year-old dog last Thursday, Pete. Bred in Wales, the collie was brought to Poland as a pup.

The last few days have given the handler and his dog an opportunity to get acclimatised to Irish sheep trialling conditions.

“When we left Poland the weather was very warm relative to the conditions here in Ireland. This should not present a problem to the dogs. Had they been travelling from a cool climate to hot conditions, the change in weather would impact on their performance.

“Sheep in Poland tend to be heavier than the sheep here in Ireland. Irish sheep also tend to be more responsive to the dog.

“So, we will just have to wait and see how we get on over the coming days,” Toamasz concluded.