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Sheepdog trainer, Brendan Ferris, knows how to train border collies to become sheep dogs. We watched him at a sheepdog trial, at the Kells Sheep Centre, on his farm in County Kerry Ireland.

Brendan Ferris with his dogs at Kells Sheep Centre
Brendan Ferris with his dogs at Kells Sheep Centre
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Where is Kells? Located on the Ring of Kerry, in Southwest Ireland, Kells is on the N70, halfway between Cahersiveen and Glenbeigh. Kells Sheep Centre was one of the stops on our Celtic Kerry Footsteps tour.

When we met Brendan Ferris, he was carrying a shepherd's crook walking cane, below a hill dotted with grazing sheep. With a delightful Kerry brogue, he introduced us to his trained border collies, Bess and Max.

Lying on their bellies, the black and white dogs were loaded like coils ready to spring at their master's command. Originally called Scottish sheep dogs, border collies are energetic descendents of Viking reindeer-herding dogs.

Border collie commands

"Ireland has no wolves, coyotes or bears," said Ferris. "Sheep respond to border collies because they think dogs are predators. When the dogs rest, the sheep go back to grazing."

The border collie trainer explained that he could signal three dogs at once, because each border collie responds to different commands. "The four basic signals are: stop, foreword, left and right."

Brendan Ferris instructs sheep dogs to watch sheep in field.
Brendan Ferris instructs sheep dogs to watch sheep in field.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Sheepdog trial

How do farmers round up grazing sheep for sheering in June? To demonstrate, Brendan Ferris whistled tweet, tweet and Max swiftly bounded up the slope to herd the flock to the right.

"Steady, Max. Steady. Sit down." Max dropped to the ground and obediently rested on his belly. "When we move sheep over long distances, we need to let the sheep dogs rest."

Ferris whistled a different signal and Max stalked the sheep, half-crouched, like a wild cat. The Scottish blackface mountain sheep turned left.

Border collies, Max on left, Bess on right
Border collies, Max on left, Bess on right
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"It's the position of the dog that determines the direction of the sheep," said Ferris, after whistling left, then right, instructions to Max and Bess. "I hope that's clear before I make the sheep dizzy!"

Border collie training

Because a dog can hear seven times better than a human, Brendan Ferris spoke softly and still elicited responses. Max never took his gaze off the sheep. "When I go out for a Guinness, he watches over my drink the same way," quipped the farmer.

How does a dog trainer teach border collies to be so responsive? It takes about 1-1/2 years for them to reach their maximum potential, according to Ferris. "Border collie puppies learn a bit at a time, with lots of repetition."

"I assess border collie puppies gradually, for natural talent, starting at four months of age. Some don't listen. Others are too aggressive. I pass those on to cattle farmers who need more aggressive dogs."

Can an older border collie train a younger dog? No, according to Ferris, because each dog has to respond to unique signals. "I want the sheep dogs to bond to me."

Life span of a border collie

"Border collies work for eight or nine years, but they have a life span of 15 to 17 years," he explained. "I always have four sheep dogs trained and two learning at all times."

You can train both male and female border collies to be sheepdogs. "I'm an equal opportunity employer," he said with a grin.

Identifying Irish sheep breeds with cane
Identifying Irish sheep breeds with cane
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Irish sheep breeds

Ferris also opened our eyes to the many breeds of sheep in Ireland. Using his shepherd's crook, he pointed out a Friesland sheep.

"Her milk is used to make cheese. The Wiltshire sheep, next to her, is the only variety that doesn't grow a coat, so it's raised for lamb."

Aran sweaters

We knew that Ireland had sheep for wool and meat, but we didn't realize that different varieties of sheep produced wool for different purposes. Ferris explained that Herdwick sheep wool is used to make carpets and that Jacob sheep have two-color wool, which is good for making sweaters. (The black and white sheep also have two pairs of horns, one set in the normal location, and the other curling down to their jaws.)

"Our native Galway sheep are from West Ireland," he said. "Families in the Aran Islands knit fishermen's sweaters from Galway wool. Each family makes Aran sweaters with distinctive designs."

County Kerry sheep, painted with colors (raddles)
County Kerry sheep, painted with colors (raddles)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Border collie information

During a Q&A session after the sheepdog trial, Brendan Ferris gave us more information about border collies and herding sheep. We wondered why sheep in Co. Kerry had splotches of pink, blue, red and green paint marks (called raddles) on their woolly coats.

"Colors identify the flock's ownership, when they are grazing on communal land above fenced pastures," he explained. "The same colors are passed on from grandfather to father to son."

"How does a farmer know how many sheep are on a hillside?" asked Bennie, one of the participants in our Kerry walking tour. Before Ferris responded, Bennie answered: "Just count the legs and divide by four."

Stuffed sheep toys in Kells Sheep Centre gift shop
Stuffed sheep toys in Kells Sheep Centre gift shop
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Everyone laughed. As we departed Kells Sheep Centre, Brendan Ferris gave us a last bit of advice: "Go out and eat some lamb for dinner to support our industry."

Kells Sheep Centre is open between May and early October, from 9:30 am until 12 noon. The gift shop sells sheepskin rugs, tweed jackets, milk chocolate lambs and stuffed plush toy border collies and woolly sheep.


Tourism Ireland: www.discoverireland.com

More things to see and do in Ireland:

Irish Breakfasts at Ireland B&Bs

Bodhran Lesson - Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry Ireland

Derrynane House - Caherdaniel Ireland National Park

Southwest Ireland - Dowsing for Water and Earth Energy

Puck Fair Festival - Killorglin Co. Kerry Ireland