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Ch. 14: A Sheep Dog's Life

Watch--His visits to a dew-pond--David and his dog Monk--Watch goes to
David's assistance--Caleb's new master objects to his dog--Watch and the
corn-crake--Watch plays with rabbits and guinea-pigs--Old Nance the
rook-scarer--The lost pair of spectacles--Watch in decline--Grey hairs
in animals--A grey mole--Last days of Watch--A shepherd on old
sheep-dogs


Perhaps the most interesting of the many sheep-dog histories the
shepherd related was that of Watch, a dog he had at Winterbourne Bishop
for three years before he migrated to Warminster. Watch, he said, was
more "like a Christian," otherwise a reasonable being, than any other
dog he had owned. He was exceedingly active, and in hot weather suffered
more from heat than most dogs. Now the only accessible water when they
were out on the down was in the mist-pond about a quarter of a mile from
his "liberty," as he called that portion of the down on which he was
entitled to pasture his sheep. When Watch could stand his sufferings no
longer, he would run to his master, and sitting at his feet look up at
his face and emit a low, pleading whine.

"What be you wanting, Watch--a drink or a swim?" the shepherd would say,
and Watch, cocking up his ears, would repeat the whine.

"Very well, go to the pond," Bawcombe would say, and off Watch would
rush, never pausing until he got to the water, and dashing in he would
swim round and round, lapping the water as he bathed.

At the side of the pond there was a large, round sarsen-stone, and
invariably on coming out of his bath Watch would jump upon it, and with
his four feet drawn up close together would turn round and round,
surveying the country from that elevation; then jumping down he would
return in all haste to his duties.

Another anecdote, which relates to the Winterbourne Bishop period, is a
somewhat painful one, and is partly about Monk, the sheep-dog already
described as a hunter of foxes, and his tragic end. Caleb had worked him
for a time, but when he came into possession of Watch he gave Monk to
his younger brother David, who was under-shepherd on the same farm.

One morning Caleb was with the ewes in a field, when David, who was in
charge of the lambs two or three fields away, came to him looking very
strange--very much put out.

"What are you here for--what's wrong with 'ee?" demanded Caleb.

"Nothing's wrong," returned the other.

"Where's Monk then?" asked Caleb.

"Dead," said David.

"Dead! How's he dead?"

"I killed'n. He wouldn't mind me and made me mad, and I up with my stick
and gave him one crack on the head and it killed'n."

"You killed 'n!" exclaimed Caleb. "An' you come here an' tell I
nothing's wrong! Is that a right way to speak of such a thing as that?
What be you thinking of? And what be you going to do with the lambs?"

"I'm just going back to them--I'm going to do without a dog. I'm going
to put them in the rape and they'll be all right."

"What! put them in the rape and no dog to help 'ee?" cried the other.
"You are not doing things right, but master mustn't pay for it. Take
Watch to help 'ee--I must do without'n this morning."

"No, I'll not take'n," he said, for he was angry because he had done an
evil thing and he would have no one, man or dog, to help him. "I'll do
better without a dog," he said, and marched off.

Caleb cried after him: "If you won't have the dog don't let the lambs
suffer but do as I tell 'ee. Don't you let 'em bide in the rape more 'n
ten minutes; then chase them out, and let 'em stand twenty minutes to
half an hour; then let them in another ten minutes and out again for
twenty minutes, then let them go back and feed in it quietly, for the
danger 'll be over. If you don't do as I tell 'ee you'll have many
blown."

David listened, then without a word went his way. But Caleb was still
much troubled in his mind. How would he get that flock of hungry lambs
out of the rape without a dog? And presently he determined to send
Watch, or try to send him, to save the situation. David had been gone
half an hour when he called the dog, and pointing in the direction he
had taken he cried, "Dave wants 'ee--go to Dave."

Watch looked at him and listened, then bounded away, and after running
full speed about fifty yards stopped to look back to make sure he was
doing the right thing. "Go to Dave," shouted Caleb once more; and away
went Watch again, and arriving at a very high gate at the end of the
field dashed at and tried two or three times to get over it, first by
jumping, then by climbing, and falling back each time. But by and by he
managed to force his way through the thick hedge and was gone from
sight.

When David came back that evening he was in a different mood, and said
that Watch had saved him from a great misfortune: he could never have
got the lambs out by himself, as they were mad for the rape. For some
days after this Watch served two masters. Caleb would take him to his
ewes, and after a while would say, "Go--Dave wants 'ee," and away Watch
would go to the other shepherd and flock.

When Bawcombe had taken up his new place at Doveton, his master, Mr.
Ellerby, watched him for a while with sharp eyes, but he was soon
convinced that he had not made a mistake in engaging a head-shepherd
twenty-five miles away without making the usual inquiries but merely on
the strength of something heard casually in conversation about this man.
But while more than satisfied with the man he remained suspicious of the
dog. "I'm afraid that dog of yours must hurt the sheep," he would say,
and he even advised him to change him for one that worked in a quieter
manner. Watch was too excitable, too impetuous--he could not go after
the sheep in that violent way and grab them as he did without injuring
them with his teeth.

"He did never bite a sheep in his life," Bawcombe assured him, and
eventually he was able to convince his master that Watch could make a
great show of biting the sheep without doing them the least hurt--that
it was actually against his nature to bite or injure anything.

One day in the late summer, when the corn had been cut but not carried,
Bawcombe was with his flock on the edge of a newly reaped cornfield in a
continuous, heavy rain, when he spied his master coming to him. He was
in a very light summer suit and straw hat, and had no umbrella or other
protection from the pouring rain. "What be wrong with master to-day?"
said Bawcombe. "He's tarrably upset to be out like this in such a rain
in a straw hat and no coat."

Mr. Ellerby had by that time got into the habit when troubled in his
mind of going out to his shepherd to have a long talk with him. Not a
talk about his trouble--that was some secret bitterness in his
heart--but just about the sheep and other ordinary topics, and the talk,
Caleb said, would seem to do him good. But this habit he had got into
was observed by others, and the farm-men would say, "Something's wrong
to-day--the master's gone off to the head-shepherd."

When he came to where Bawcombe was standing, in a poor shelter by the
side of a fence, he at once started talking on indifferent subjects,
standing there quite unconcerned, as if he didn't even know that it was
raining, though his thin clothes were wet through, and the water coming
through his straw hat was running in streaks down his face. By and by he
became interested in the dog's movements, playing about in the rain
among the stocks. "What has he got in his mouth?" he asked presently.

"Come here, Watch," the shepherd called, and when Watch came he bent
down and took a corncrake from his mouth. He had found the bird hiding
in one of the stocks and had captured without injuring it.

"Why, it's alive--the dog hasn't hurt it," said the farmer, taking it in
his hands to examine it.

"Watch never hurted any creature yet," said Bawcombe. He caught things
just for his own amusement, but never injured them--he always let them
go again. He would hunt mice in the fields, and when he captured one he
would play with it like a cat, tossing it from him, then dashing after
and recapturing it. Finally, he would let it go. He played with rabbits
in the same way, and if you took a rabbit from him and examined it you
would find it quite uninjured.

The farmer said it was wonderful--he had never heard of a case like it
before; and talking of Watch he succeeded in forgetting the trouble in
his mind which had sent him out in the rain in his thin clothes and
straw hat, and he went away in a cheerful mood.

Caleb probably forgot to mention during this conversation with his
master that in most cases when Watch captured a rabbit he took it to his
master and gave it into his hands, as much as to say, Here is a very big
sort of field-mouse I have caught, rather difficult to manage--perhaps
_you_ can do something with it?

The shepherd had many other stories about this curious disposition of
his dog. When he had been some months in his new place his brother David
followed him to the Wylye, having obtained a place as shepherd on a farm
adjoining Mr. Ellerby's. His cottage was a little out of the village and
had some ground to it, with a nice lawn or green patch. David was fond
of keeping animal pets--birds in cages, and rabbits and guinea-pigs in
hutches, the last so tame that he would release them on the grass to see
them play with one another. When Watch first saw these pets he was very
much attracted, and wanted to get to them, and after a good deal of
persuasion on the part of Caleb, David one day consented to take them
out and put them on the grass in the dog's presence. They were a little
alarmed at first, but in a surprisingly short time made the discovery
that this particular dog was not their enemy but a playmate. He rolled
on the grass among them, and chased them round and round, and sometimes
caught and pretended to worry them, and they appeared to think it very
good fun.

"Watch," said Bawcombe, "in the fifteen years I had 'n, never killed and
never hurt a creature, no, not even a leetel mouse, and when he caught
anything 'twere only to play with it."

Watch comes into a story of an old woman employed at the farm at this
period. She had been in the Warminster workhouse for a short time, and
had there heard that a daughter of a former mistress in another part of
the county had long been married and was now the mistress of Doveton
Farm, close by. Old Nance thereupon obtained her release and trudged to
Doveton, and one very rough, cold day presented herself at the farm to
beg for something to do which would enable her to keep herself. If there
was nothing for her she must, she said, go back and end her days in the
Warminster workhouse. Mrs. Ellerby remembered and pitied her, and going
in to her husband begged him earnestly to find some place on the farm
for the forlorn old creature. He did not see what could be done for her:
they already had one old woman on their hands, who mended sacks and did
a few other trifling things, but for another old woman there would be
nothing to do. Then he went in and had a good long look at her,
revolving the matter in his mind, anxious to please his wife, and
finally, he asked her if she could scare the crows. He could think of
nothing else. Of course she could scare crows--it was the very thing for
her! Well, he said, she could go and look after the swedes; the rooks
had just taken a liking to them, and even if she was not very active
perhaps she would be able to keep them off.

Old Nance got up to go and begin her duties at once. Then the farmer,
looking at her clothes, said he would give her something more to protect
her from the weather on such a bleak day. He got her an old felt hat, a
big old frieze overcoat, and a pair of old leather leggings. When she
had put on these somewhat cumbrous things, and had tied her hat firmly
on with a strip of cloth, and fastened the coat at the waist with a
cord, she was told to go to the head-shepherd and ask him to direct her
to the field where the rooks were troublesome. Then when she was setting
out the farmer called her back and gave her an ancient, rusty gun to
scare the birds. "It isn't loaded," he said, with a grim smile. "I don't
allow powder and shot, but if you'll point it at them they'll fly fast
enough."

Thus arrayed and armed she set forth, and Caleb seeing her approach at a
distance was amazed at her grotesque appearance, and even more amazed
still when she explained who and what she was and asked him to direct
her to the field of swedes.

Some hours later the farmer came to him and asked him casually if he had
seen an old gallus-crow about.

"Well," replied the shepherd, "I seen an old woman in man's coat and
things, with an old gun, and I did tell she where to bide."

"I think it will be rather cold for the old body in that field," said
the farmer. "I'd like you to get a couple of padded hurdles and put them
up for a shelter for her."

And in the shelter of the padded or thatched hurdles, by the hedge-side,
old Nance spent her days keeping guard over the turnips, and afterwards
something else was found for her to do, and in the meanwhile she lodged
in Caleb's cottage and became like one of the family. She was fond of
the children and of the dog, and Watch became so much attached to her
that had it not been for his duties with the flock he would have
attended her all day in the fields to help her with the crows.

Old Nance had two possessions she greatly prized--a book and a pair of
spectacles, and it was her custom to spend the day sitting, spectacles
on nose and book in hand, reading among the turnips. Her spectacles were
so "tarrable" good that they suited all old eyes, and when this was
discovered they were in great request in the village, and every person
who wanted to do a bit of fine sewing or anything requiring young vision
in old eyes would borrow them for the purpose. One day the old woman
returned full of trouble from the fields--she had lost her spectacles;
she must, she thought, have lent them to some one in the village on the
previous evening and then forgotten all about it. But no one had them,
and the mysterious loss of the spectacles was discussed and lamented by
everybody. A day or two later Caleb came through the turnips on his way
home, the dog at his heels, and when he got to his cottage Watch came
round and placed himself square before his master and deposited the lost
spectacles at his feet. He had found them in the turnip-field over a
mile from home, and though but a dog he remembered that he had seen them
on people's noses and in their hands, and knew that they must therefore
be valuable--not to himself, but to that larger and more important kind
of dog that goes about on its hind legs.

There is always a sad chapter in the life-history of a dog; it is the
last one, which tells of his decline; and it is ever saddest in the case
of the sheep-dog, because he has lived closer to man and has served him
every day of his life with all his powers, all his intelligence, in the
one useful and necessary work he is fitted for or which we have found
for him to do. The hunting and the pet, or parasite, dogs--the "dogs for
sport and pleasure"--though one in species with him are not like beings
of the same order; they are like professional athletes and performers,
and smart or fashionable people compared to those who do the work of the
world--who feed us and clothe us. We are accustomed to speak of dogs
generally as the servants and the friends of man; it is only of the
sheep-dog that this can be said with absolute truth. Not only is he the
faithful servant of the solitary man who shepherds his flock, but the
dog's companionship is as much to him as that of a fellow-being would
be.

Before his long and strenuous life was finished. Watch, originally
jet-black without a spot, became quite grey, the greyness being most
marked on the head, which became at last almost white.

It is undoubtedly the case that some animals, like men, turn grey with
age, and Watch when fifteen was relatively as old as a man at sixty-five
or seventy. But grey hairs do not invariably come with age, even in our
domestic animals, which are more subject to this change than those in a
state of nature. But we are never so well able to judge of this in the
case of wild animals, as in most cases their lives end prematurely.

The shepherd related a curious instance in a mole. He once noticed
mole-heaps of a peculiar kind in a field of sainfoin, and it looked to
him as if this mole worked in a way of his own, quite unlike the others.
The hills he threw up were a good distance apart, and so large that you
could fill a bushel measure with the mould from any one of them. He
noticed that this mole went on burrowing every day in the same manner;
every morning there were new chains or ranges of the huge mounds. The
runs were very deep, as he found when setting a mole-trap--over two feet
beneath the surface. He set his trap, filling the deep hole he had made
with sods, and on opening it next day he found his mole and was
astonished at its great size. He took no measurements, but it was
bigger, he affirmed, than he could have believed it possible for a mole
to be. And it was grey instead of black, the grey hairs being so
abundant on the head as to make it almost white, as in the case of old
Watch. He supposed that it was a very old mole, that it was a more
powerful digger than most of its kind, and had perhaps escaped death so
long on account of its strength and of its habit of feeding deeper in
the earth than the others.

To return to Watch. His hearing and eyesight failed as he grew older
until he was practically blind and too deaf to hear any word given in
the ordinary way. But he continued strong as ever on his legs, and his
mind was not decayed, nor was he in the least tired. On the contrary, he
was always eager to work, and as his blindness and deafness had made him
sharper in other ways he was still able to make himself useful with the
sheep. Whenever the hurdles were shifted to a fresh place and the sheep
had to be kept in a corner of the enclosure until the new place was
ready for them, it was old Watch's duty to keep them from breaking away.
He could not see nor hear, but in some mysterious way he knew when they
tried to get out, even if it was but one. Possibly the slight vibration
of the ground informed him of the movement and the direction as well. He
would make a dash and drive the sheep back, then run up and down before
the flock until all was quiet again. But at last it became painful to
witness his efforts, especially when the sheep were very restless, and
incessantly trying to break away; and Watch finding them so hard to
restrain would grow angry and rush at them with such fury that he would
come violently against the hurdles at one side, then getting up, howling
with pain, he would dash to the other side, when he would strike the
hurdles there and cry out with pain once more.

It could not be allowed to go on; yet Watch could not endure to be
deprived of his work; if left at home he would spend the time whining
and moaning, praying to be allowed to go to the flock, until at last his
master with a very heavy heart was compelled to have him put to death.

This is indeed almost invariably the end of a sheepdog; however zealous
and faithful he may have been, and however much valued and loved, he
must at last be put to death. I related the story of this dog to a
shepherd in the very district where Watch had lived and served his
master so well--one who had been head-shepherd for upwards of forty
years at Imber Court, the principal farm at the small downland village
of Imber. He told me that during all his shepherding years he had never
owned a dog which had passed out of his hands to another; every dog had
been acquired as a pup and trained by himself; and he had been very fond
of his dogs, but had always been compelled to have them shot in the end.
Not because he would have found them too great a burden when they had
become too old and their senses decayed, but because it was painful to
see them in their decline, perpetually craving to be at their old work
with the sheep, incapable of doing it any longer, yet miserable if kept
from it.


W. H. Hudson