A tradition of teamwork

by Andy Bryenton

This year’s Courtenay A&P Show will feature all the classics of a Kiwi agricultural festival — time-honoured traditions, which celebrate the skill and dedication of animal breeders, crop growers, gardeners and craftspeople. Moreover, besides all of these sits a peculiar contest which can trace its roots back to this part of the world.

Sheepdog trials seem to be an age-old part of the farming calendar — a logical sport to arise from an area where sprawling sheep stations and rugged terrain made working with horse and dog a mainstay of the rural life.

The sport’s ancestry goes back only 150 years, give or take a year — and it’s Canterbury which lays claim to the first ever records of shepherd and dog working together for sport rather than out of necessity.

There are those in the northern hemisphere who will tell you that the Welsh invented sheepdog trials and that the first organised event was in Bala, North Wales, in 1873. As far back as 1868, there are reports of friendly contests between skilled teams of dogs and masters held in Wanaka and Te Aka.

Dig a little deeper, and a mythic component overlays the true story of proud sheep station men showing their dogs’ skill and obedience for bragging rights or a pint or two.

It’s almost certain that every sheep station worker in the south had heard of James ‘Jock’ MacKenzie by the mid-1860s. Superhuman drover, cunning sheep rustler, and wily evader of the law that he was, one of his biggest claims to fame was the way his dog Friday could obey his commands to move sheep with almost supernatural finesse. Perhaps this amazing animal, now immortalised by a statue that’s a national icon, was instrumental in showing the way toward just what a good team of dog and trainer could achieve. Certainly, through the years this part of the world has seen competitors both human and canine who is worthy of MacKenzie’s long-reaching legend. It’s certainly something to think about when watching the Courtenay A&P Show’s sheepdog trials this year — in the land which saw the beginning of this worldwide phenomenon.