A stream of expletives left my mouth. But who could blame me? After all, a dog had just bitten me in the eye. How had the day gone so wrong? Earlier that afternoon I had been standing in the dip of a rolling pasture in the Forest of Bowland with farmer Thomas Longton, president of the National Sheepdog Association. I was immediately transfixed at the magic of man and dog working together to herd sheep.
It’s a skill that Thomas is passing on, and not just to his own progeny. He trains the working dogs of tomorrow and an assemblage of two-legged young handlers. Commanding a pair of collies and 15 sheep with Thomas’s soft tones is impressive – being half-Greek my natural instinct is to shout.
Fast forward a few hours and an order came through from Countryfile HQ to re-shoot a link for the programme. We needed some sheep – check, a field – check, the same sunshine as earlier – negative, and a sheepdog – nope. We had a problem.
From the corner of my eye I spotted a dog with grey whiskers in a cage over by the farmhouse. Could this be our saviour? It turned out that Jip has a few anger-management issues. Either that or he just didn’t like me. I crouched down in the mist, patting his head affectionately as Gary the cameraman set up the shot. The old dog looked at me panting softly before, without warning, baring his teeth in a gruesome grin and biting into my eyebrow.
The worst thing was – as I swore like a sailor – that Gary’s camera had been pointing at a flock of Soay, so the moment won’t be appearing on any out-take shows any time soon. My choice language did get captured by the soundman though.
It’s typical. This year I’ve hiked across Africa tracking leopards, adventured through snake-infested Thailand and encountered a Russian Border Patrol. How ridiculous that my only injury was sustained at the gnashers of a manky old Lancashire sheepdog. The entire affair is now officially known as Incident 003330 at the Beeb and one day may make it into a BBC Health and Safety film, alongside the now famous footage of Anthea Turner’s hair catching fire, live on Blue Peter.
I bet Chris and Caroline Hodgkins’ sheepdog wouldn’t have invaded my ocular periphery like that. They won this year’s Sheep Farmer of the Year award at the Farmers Weekly Awards, which I had the great pleasure to host at a grand hotel in London a few weeks ago. One thousand jubilant exuberant farmers and FWAGs (farmers’ wives and girlfriends) filled the space to the barn door and beyond. Adrian Ivory was Farmer of The Year last year; he and his wife Kate are a picture book couple of farmer and FWAG, a charming smiley couple who rightly revel in this accolade.
It was a night of genuine emotion and elation; the winners and finalists were proud of their participation and although there was a real sense of rivalry, this was a happy bunch of competitors. Nick Padwick, who runs the Stoughton Estate in Leicestershire, took the big prize this time and couldn’t have been happier, being described as “a hardworking farmer who likes nothing better than to deliver good quality crops efficiently and profitably”.
I think I held my ground well with the farming community that night. One lovely lady caught me in the traps and said her husband would be very upset that he’d missed me so we called him from the loo to berate him for his no-show (he had been counting sheep or something). It was a wonderful night and I hope they invite me back next year.
This feature was taken from issue 29 of Countryfile Magazine. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today.
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