Let me begin by saying: on a Wild West Irish Tour, like most things, it’s important to forget whatever you think you know, and go with the flow. In line with that, forget everything you think you know about sheepdogs – not the big, gray and white behemoths bounding through the grass, or the heelers from Down Under. No, this is more along the lines of James Herriot with an Irish twist, a black and white beauty racing herds of fluffy sheep across agate terrain. It’s happy open mouths and sudden stillness; with whistles and calm commands met with fond affection when dogs deliver well.
Under the watchful eye of Martin Feeney of Atlantic Sheepdogs, it’s an art.
To farmers such as Martin, however, it’s not just an art form – it’s a livelihood for the wool, meat, and motherhood market, one passed down through generations [Martin is a 4th generation sheep farmer] that runs in the blood as it runs in the landscape like Ireland’s many rivers. In fact, it is in part the art of sheep-herding that has helped shape that landscape: between the 1,000 sheep he himself owns, Ireland’s 32,000 sheep farms, and 8 million sheep at peak times in Ireland, they’re bound to have an impact on the terrain. They are, in fact, what helped shape mountains such as Benbulben with their grazing – keeping the land intact while sculpting its greenery.
The top of Benbulben, coincidentally, is one of the places where Martin [and generations before him] put his sheep to graze. There are no fences, says Martin – “somebody owns everything,” he adds, gesturing to the fields. “A strip here, a strip there.” His fields, for example, are interwoven from a farm that split – two strips for Martin, some for a neighbor, and a strip on the mountain, and so on. Each sheep has an identifying marker on their wool significant to the farmer who owns it.
This collaboration of land and unspoken law between farmers; of color-coding one’s sheep and organizing them on the mountains they graze upon, is a phenomenally complex thing that Martin explains in the simplest terms – this is his everyday. Martin is a man of numbers, able to rattle off statistics and kilos and facts with precise focus and boundless enthusiasm when it comes to the sheep biz. The enthusiasm and focus is matched, seemingly, only by his dogs.
And the use of the sheepdog, while an old world endeavor, has a new twist: border collies, named as such for the border between Scotland and England, with the “collie” coming from the Irish Gaelic for “useful”, theoretically.
And how useful they are – these are whip-smart dogs who are trained not only to follow spoken commands but particular whistles as well; each individual to the respective dogs for optimal herding purposes. The dog of Martin’s my group of Wild Westies had the pleasure of meeting was a nine-year-old dog named Jack, who just so happens to be #7 herding dog in Ireland, and #23 in the world. Not too shabby – and boy, could he put on a show.
What’s perhaps most incredible about Jack, though, is his unfaltering loyalty to Martin – Martin had the Wild Westies test this by saying the commands he used for Jack, and the dog wouldn’t respond to anyone but his master. It might be common knowledge, but for those who aren’t dog folks – to gain the trust of an incredibly bright dog like a border collie and influence that dog from the perspective of a master [to an animal that can oftentimes come off as “masterless”] is a huge deal. Jack, like most border collies in herding families, is a splendid combination of agility, fealty, early training, and natural instinct to guard the sheep. Under Martin’s careful direction, Jack performs incredible maneuvers on hairpin turns and unexpected guiding changes.
There is so much to experience with Martin Feeney and Jack; the sheep and the farm – nestled in the Heart of the Wild West, the whole effort is poetry in motion, written into lush countryside lovingly cared for by families who keep up the traditions of herding and farming; improving them, even. While Martin carries a staff of hazel and ram’s horn [good for grabbing sheep by the horns or gently catching a little lamb’s neck], he also employs the use of a whistle whose sound can travel a remarkable distance. Old traditions are renewed, rather than stagnant – and Martin brings new life to them with his educational insight, his ability to both inform and entertain, and in maintaining a wonderful relationship with the land, his livelihood, and of course, his beloved dogs.
It’s really something you’ve got to experience in person – the fleeting blurs of black and white; the effortless ballet of woolly and wild, and to listen to Martin’s fascinating discussion on what he does for a living.
– Sam Fishkind.