Under a Big Sky (Photo: Supplied)
Under a Big Sky (Photo: Supplied)

BooksAugust 23, 2022

That’ll do, Sam: A meditation on working dogs

Under a Big Sky (Photo: Supplied)
Under a Big Sky (Photo: Supplied)

This excerpt from Tim Saunders’ memoir of life on a farm, Under A Big Sky, is an ode to the wily majesty of the working dog and the wolfish ancestors who came before them.

I pushed open the gate, flaky lichen crisp under my fingers. The midday sun hadn’t found the energy to dry the dew on the grass, and moisture soaked through my jeans, turning the tightly woven fabric dark blue.

Sam stood beside me, his ears erect and alert, his black nose sniffing the air. Sparrows huddled along fences, feathers puffed up against the westerly while cobwebs snared sunlight between taut wires.

“Are you ready, Sam?” I said quietly, my voice out of place amongst the whistles and bleating. “We need to shift these sheep.”

A cock pheasant burst into the air behind me, stunning the stillness as his short wings thrashed furiously and long tail feathers trailed like a comet. He flew low to the ground, ungainly and barely clearing the grass, dragging yellow pollen through the air.

It didn’t look like he would gain enough altitude to clear the stopbank. A collision into the side of the ridge seemed imminent as the squat bird flapped his wings faster, gaining height but losing time. It seemed strange that such a beautiful bird could be so ill-designed for flight. Nature toys with us sometimes, gives us just a hint of potential but usually includes a fatal flaw to make us struggle.

“If it were easy, everyone would be doing it,” Dad would say. I remembered this as I watched the pheasant arch his back, lower his thin legs and crash unceremoniously on the top of the stopbank. It seemed so cruel to carry such flamboyant colours on a body with the aerodynamics of a haggis.

The sheep took no notice of the pheasant’s clumsy flight. Sam shivered with excitement next to me, and his sleek black fur quivered. He stared in anticipation at the sheep, his nose twitching. I wouldn’t have to tell him what to do, he already knew instinctively.

I sometimes wonder about the first person who used dogs to herd other animals. All dogs are descended from wolves, but wolves are traditionally more interested in eating sheep than chasing them through gates. Sam is a Border collie, one of the most useful breeds of heading dog in the world. Heading dogs use their nimble and quick movements to control animals, as opposed to huntaways, which are primarily employed to move animals by barking. The word collie actually comes from the old Celtic word for handy.

Tim Saunders, author of Under a Big Sky (Photo: Supplied)

The relationship between humans and dogs is fascinating.

“They can trace the lineage of Border collies back to one dog in England in the late 1800s,” Dad had told me. “His name was Old Hemp. He apparently had a natural affinity with sheep. Knew how to handle them. Used to watch the flock when he was a puppy and learned their ways. His owners bred from him, and that trait became the Border collie we know today.”

It wasn’t long before a few descendants of Old Hemp were shipped to New Zealand, where rebellious sheep soon came under the spell of strong-eyed dogs. Even today, the names of these pioneering dogs are whispered with reverence at dog trials. Old Hemp. Hindhope Jed. Ness, Old Bob and Moss of Ancrum. I wonder what that would have sounded like when shouted across the paddocks.

“Get in behind, Moss of Ancrum, ya dopey bastard.”

Sam looked up at me and cocked his head.

Most of the sheep in the paddock had their heads down, chewing grass. Starlings, fist-sized bodies black and shimmering, lounged on the ridged spines of sheep like minuscule cowboys. The sheep, unperturbed, ignored their passengers.

“Steady, Sam,” I said as he pawed the ground.

A hawk sliced the air above us, his sleek shadow sweeping over the grass, warping in the furrows and creases of the earth. His sharp eyes searched for food — a mouse, maybe, hidden in the rank grass. Or a baby hare. Kāhu’s undulating flight took him up and down the entire paddock in just a few seconds, the sun’s warmth let him catch a spiralling thermal. I thought of the pheasant’s clumsy aeronautics. Nature obviously does get things right sometimes.

“Right away, Sam.”

My voice hung low and calm in the air, like fog over paddocks, but the effect on Sam ignited his nerves. He shot across the grass, a black-and-white blur too quick for the eye. Rye grass parted as he moved covertly, a silver shimmer glimmered over the paddock.

Sam slunk close to the ground and circled the sheep around the flock’s right flank. I was watching the result of a million years of evolution, a wolf’s instinct to hunt coupled with humankind’s predisposition to harness nature’s designs. Even at speed through the paddock, Sam’s sleek muscles rippled down his back. He was perfectly balanced for ruthless acceleration and nimble turns, blending in with the grass and the dappled light until almost invisible. Designed for speed and stealth, conceived to hunt and muster.

I thought about Old Hemp, his predilection for herding. His owner, Adam Telfer, had recognised his dog’s character and bred from it to produce what is now basically a wolf without the bite. Early humans led nomadic lifestyles, moving with food sources. They were hunter-gatherers who adapted the cooperative hunting methods of wolf packs to fine-tune their own skills. Somehow, around 15,000 years ago, wolves were assimilated into human tribes. No one can agree how, or even why, this happened. Perhaps the wolves assimilated us.

Sam snaked through the grass as the sky deepened to a rich azure above us. He was around the back of the flock in seconds, and the sheep moved as if they were one. Their heads flicked up, grass still clamped in masticating jaws, and they swelled across the paddock in a wave. Sam emerged from the grass, rising from his crouch to full height. There was no barking, no biting. No bullying. He used nothing but pure energy to assert his authority, to communicate exactly where he wanted them to go.

The sheep churned in a circle, slowly moving towards the gate like a twisting storm system. There was instinct involved here, an ancestral memory that sheep at the centre of the flock were less likely to be eaten than those at the edges. The flock funnelled through the gate, spreading quickly across the new paddock, already distracted by fresh grass. They dispersed, lowered their faces into the meadow, regained a natural social distance.

“That’ll do,” I said to Sam. But he was already sitting in the gateway, aware the work was done. He didn’t need me to tell him that.

The new grass would give the sheep a boost of fresh feed. I’d leave the paddock behind us to recover, regenerate, revive. Sam leant against me, his heavy head pressed into my thigh. The white fur down his chest, bone-coloured and streaked with dust, moved slightly in the breeze like the imperceptible shifting of clouds.

Under A Big Sky by Tim Saunders (Allen & Unwin, $34.99) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

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