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Suffolk puts on a show as major sheepdog event, the English National Sheepdog Trials, arrives at Haughley Park

PUBLISHED: 16:36 28 July 2017

English National Sheepdog Trials at Haughley Park near Stowmarket. Sheepdog Udale Olá keeping the flock in check. Picture: GREGG BROWN

English National Sheepdog Trials at Haughley Park near Stowmarket. Sheepdog Udale Olá keeping the flock in check. Picture: GREGG BROWN

England’s top sheepdogs descended on Haughley Park, near Stowmarket, yesterday for the first of three days of major competition. The English National Sheepdog Trials brought together the cream of the country’s working dogs in Suffolk for the first time. Sarah Chambers reports.

English National Sheepdog Trials at Haughley Park near Stowmarket. Pictured is Harry Briggs with Ernie the sheepdog. Picture: GREGG BROWNEnglish National Sheepdog Trials at Haughley Park near Stowmarket. Pictured is Harry Briggs with Ernie the sheepdog. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Suffolk was treated to some stunning displays today (Friday, July 28) as a major three-day celebration of sheepdog skills kicked off.

The English National Sheepdog Trials arrived in the county for the first time in its history - much to the delight of visitors and the county’s sheep farming community.

In tandem with the event, expected to attract thousands of visitos over the three days, Suffolk on Show brought a rich array of foods, arts, crafts, displays and entertainment to complement the spectacle.

For many, it’s likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the event, which continues to be staged at the magnificent Haughley Park, near Stowmarket, over this weekend, on Suffolk soil.

English National Sheepdog Trials at Haughley Park near Stowmarket. Picture: GREGG BROWNEnglish National Sheepdog Trials at Haughley Park near Stowmarket. Picture: GREGG BROWN

And there was a local handler and dog, Max, to cheer on in the shape of Ed Hawkins, who is based near Hadleigh and reached the semi-finals of the 2017 World Sheepdog Trials in the Netherlands two weeks ago. He competes again on Sunday with his other dog, Troy.

England’s 150 top sheepdogs and their handlers face a challenging course - with some “feisty” Suffolk-raised sheep to contend with, supplied by Suffolk sheep farmer Ed Thornalley.

But Tom Huddleston, chairman of the International Sheep Dog Society, said this was just the way they wanted it.

Over the past 20 years, Tom, who is from Lancashire and put on an impressive display of skill with his sheepdog, Udale Olà, in the break, has attended many nationals and was impressed with what he saw at Haughley Park.

English National Sheepdog Trials at Haughley Park near Stowmarket. Enjoying the days activities is the Joscelyne family. Picture: GREGG BROWNEnglish National Sheepdog Trials at Haughley Park near Stowmarket. Enjoying the days activities is the Joscelyne family. Picture: GREGG BROWN

“The field really is quite majestic. It’s beautiful to see. It’s a lovely piece of classic parkland - lots of ups and downs, plenty of places where the trialling could go wrong,” he said.

“The sheep themselves are very well trained and have quite a bit of independent spirit so they are very good sheep.”

Sheepdogs have to take the sheep through a series of gates in a particular order before guiding them into a pen, or splitting them off as required. For each error they are marked down and handlers stay in contact via a series of whistle signals and voice commands, which can be unique to each dog. Every time the sheep fail to travel in a straight line where this is required, points are deducted by the judges, and the tasks must be completed within a set time. Completing the course requires skill - and good luck.

Commentator Noel Armstrong, of Surrey, said the competition was top quality, but it was the sheepdogs, rather than the handlers, who were ultimately being scored.

“These people have to be of a certain standard even to compete in a national,” he said. “The handler has to control it, but the dog has to have some strength and power to corral those sheep.”

Conditions at Haughley Park were “absolutely perfect”, he added.

Ed Hawkins, who trained celebrities for the ITV show Flockstars, said staging the event had taken a lot of work.

“It’s good to be able to put something back into the sport,” he said. “People wouldn’t necessarily associate sheepdog trials with Suffolk - it’s good to have awareness of it.”

Event organiser Bob Wilden said the feedback he had received about the event was “all positive”.

“It’s a relief and a great pleasure because obviously what we really want to do above everything else is to introduce local people from Suffolk to the sheepdog world and to see the top dogs in action,” he said.

“Because sheepdog trials are centred in the north, to be asked to host a national was a risk because this is the decision the national president makes. Obviously his decision has been vindicated because, dare I say, we have put on a very good sheepdog course and put some good sheep in front of the shepherd, and everyone is happy with the result.”

Tickets are available online at www.suffolkonshow.co.uk for £10, or £12 on the day. Children under 16, dogs on leads, and car parking, are all free.

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