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‘This,’ said Alex, striding into the hay loft and brandishing the wriggling puppy, ‘is your replacement.’
Four bottoms squirmed delightedly. Four tails slapped the straw. Four toothy grins beamed from within their kennels.
The farm collies are an odd bunch. All are practised attention seekers: no opportunity for fuss escapes their probing black-and-white noses. Consequently, on the quadbike, Alex doesn’t so much sit with his colleagues as wear them.
Working dog names need to be clear, short and shoutable. In a break with tradition, the chance misspelling of ‘Flee’ as ‘Flea’ catapulted Alex into the fertile, monosyllabic furrow of invertebrates.
As he tries manfully to prise his pestering dogs away from tourists, his exasperated screams of Flea, Fly, Midge, Tick or Bug often fall victim to selective hearing.
Flea is the oldest, and deaf as a doornail. She’s given Alex 16 years of devoted service – between sneaking off to chase rabbits, sneaking off to be petted, sneaking off to dumpster-dive the castle bins and sneaking into the castle’s guest rooms (any initial delight on the part of the occupants is quickly swapped for wrinkled noses and hand soap).
Nine-year old Tess MKII has multiple quirks, one of which is a hatred for walks. As the other dogs play, sniff and enjoy their free time, Tess MKII sinks into gloomy martyrdom inches from your calf muscles. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – since any chance step backward occasions a mournful yelp.
Like Tess MKII, six-year old Breagha was inherited from the farm manager. As a frequent dispenser of disapproving glances, Breagha is the Hermione Granger of border collies: all rules, ‘doing things properly’ and tutting. Breagha’s chief hobby is gazing adoringly into your eyes, and she will climb all over your personal space to do it.
Tick is two and a half years old. Being part bearded collie, she is largely invisible beneath a shock of straggling grey hair. Tick is always grubby, so it’s hard to discern markings apart from on her face – where careful inspection reveals a white flash.
At such proximity, the casual observer will be startled by two blazing orange eyes, boasting the manic predatory energy of an owl.
Alex has that innate quiet kindness that animals love. He is glacially patient. Clearly, an interest in livestock is a CV booster for any farm dog – but, for Tick, sheep and cattle are an obsession. It’s amusing to watch her slim blue-black form flit between the sphagnum cushions and dripping basalt; while Alex, apoplectic with rage and bulging profoundly at the eyeballs, tries to steady her.
Just as his blood pressure soars to the cusp of hospitalisation, Tick scampers back – all laughing mouth, fidgeting and ill-feigned remorse.
Twelve-week-old Bug is running a charm offensive. Each morning she shuffles on her bottom, tail wagging furiously, to visit the other kennels. Despite this bizarre and recurrent friendship commute, Bug is studiously ignored by her elders.
Bug also loves people, and wants nothing more than to walk sweetly at your heel: praiseworthy, were it not for her habit of dashing between your legs, in an apparent desire to make both heels feel equally appreciated.
While many working dogs live a full and dynamic life, others are less fortunate. Alex lost Midge at 18 months when she fell awkwardly from a rock outcrop. Rendered unable to move or breathe, he comforted his friend until it was time to carry her home.
Sadly, others have been gored by cattle or caught under quadbikes. Indeed, at times, the fleet has sustained only the most tenuous grip on functionality. Peering over her clipboard as three-legged Lynn and bandy-legged Tess MKI shambled out, one vet famously inquired: ‘Well, where’s the A-Team?’
Our girls work a hill farm of 2,325ha. They are integral to the management of some 800 ewes and 200 cattle (largely pedigree Blackface and Highland). The collies are also cherished company in what can be a lonely and back-breaking way to make a living.
Nevertheless, watching Alex roaring at Tick because she won’t listen; bawling at Flea because she can’t hear; swatting at Breagha as she tries to scramble into his arms; tripping over Bug as she runs between his legs; and treading on Tess when he loses his balance … one does wonder how they get anything done.