Mackenzie Country farmers’ undying love for working dogs
Steve Kerr takes on four dogs in a bid to win an elusive national title at the New Zealand Sheepdog Championships in Taumarunui. Photo/Tim Cronshaw
Working dogs are an important part of Steve Kerr’s life on the farm and in competitions, writes Tim Cronshaw.
Steve Kerr grew up in the sprawling Grampians resort in Mackenzie Country when it was not unusual for more than 40 farm dogs to work in the backcountry at one time.
As far back as he can remember, they’ve always been around him, Kerr says.
Ask him how many dogs he has now and he’ll throw up “about 10” as a round number. Push him a little and he’ll admit there’s a little more to it.
“There’s everything from an old pensioner on the doorstep to some youngsters who are just starting to leave now and are only a few months old.”
Except for the pensioner, they are all here to work on the farm, but many of them are also groomed for the sheepdog shows.
The elder Mack – basking in the sun – never quite achieved national honours, but came close and was allowed to see his life on his doorstep as a reward for his hard work.
This is the case for most of the dogs at Berkeley Downs, a 580ha sheep and beef farm run by him and his Welsh-born wife, Sue.
The property extends from flats to Tuft Country at the foot of Mount Dobson near Fairlie in Mackenzie Country.
With the farm at around 450m above sea level and the highest point at 760m, it is considered a summer safe farm.
The 2,300 Romney-Texel ewes and 700 piglets are grazed with 250 to 300 Angus cows and beef cattle.
“With the altitude here and the latitude, the winters are quite long and we are budgeting to feed ourselves 100 days during the winter.”
The dogs’ main workload is in the mountainous region, as much of it cannot be navigated by ute or farm bike, so it is traveled on horseback or on foot.
Kerr enjoys working with dogs on the farm as much as in the competitive arena at dog trials.
“Obviously people who love sheep and beef and working dogs love animals. For me, I can’t remember when I wasn’t with them.
“I grew up with them and have been fascinated with dogs for as long as I can remember. You kinda train a dog and take it forward and you want it to be a good farm dog, so it’s is a natural progression as you go to the next stage.
“You could go to the pub and argue about which dog is better and everyone loves sports and competition, so it’s a natural progression to want to get out there and compete,” Kerr said.
The Huntaway brothers Bully and Dodge, since deceased, were probably his best performers.
Bully won a South Island title in 2011 and came second in the zigzag at National Trials the following year and fourth on the straight, missing out by half a point.
Dodge also secured a South Island title and finished fourth in the New Zealand final.
The hunt for the elusive victory keeps him active in dog trials.
“We will sooner or later, I guess.”
He is preparing for the National Sheepdog Trials and will take three hunts and a lead dog – Pip – who made the cut.
At the South Island Championships, held at Earnscleugh Station near Alexandra, he came away with good success, winning the zigzag chase and placing third in the straight chase.
Only 0.75 points separated him and Wairoa’s Ned George from the zigzag title.
He says it’s a dog trial – often decided by the narrowest of margins. It’s not for the faint of heart or those with nerves.
“There are 309 registered hunting dogs – I think – and they have all qualified to make it, so everyone has a chance.
“Being in the top seven out of 309 is good and you have to manage not only your dog but also three sheep and the nature of what they decide to do, so there are quite a few things that can go against you.
“But the other side is that they’re working well and they’ve had a bit of success this year, so you go there with reasonable confidence.”
Southern zigzag champion Holly will be looking to win the national title and Charge will join her for the straight chase. Both are still relatively young.
“At 4 or 5 they start hitting their straps and hopefully there will be a few good years with Holly and Charge because they are both 5.
“Obviously there’s still day-to-day work to do and some practice working the sheep like you would in a dog trial as opposed to the hustle and bustle of the yards, but not too much for them. They’ll pretty good and you don’t want to bore them or overdo it.”
Another young fighter who is only 2.5 years old also managed to qualify and there are high hopes for him as he is showing promise from the start.
“He’s very easy to work with. You give him commands and he’s very responsive and not stubborn so he won’t take over.
“He’s a pretty big dog with a bigger bark than the other two and he also seems smart enough to read sheep and anticipate where they’ll move next.
“They all have that to some extent, but he just seems to have a bit of class or the X factor.”
The young dog will receive more training ahead of the New Zealand Championships, being housed at the Taumarunui Collie Club from Monday May 30 as he is younger.
A high-level dog must find the right balance between following instructions and guessing its owner.
“It’s a bit of both and it’s really good if they can pull it off on their own. But at some point you have to stop them and ignore them.
“In the zigzag the sheep walk in a line to sets of pegs and they almost get out of it and they go away. But they need to be able to turn the corner to the next set of pegs so if you can’t override and say ‘change gear’, they’ll try to keep balancing them and going up the hill and missing the stakes.”
Left and right controls on whistle calls let them quickly know where they went wrong.
Earnscleugh Station Merinos were used at the Central Otago event, which suited Kerr as he grew up with the breed, but Romney sheep will be used at Taumarunui.
It also suits him quite well, because they have Romney-Texels.
He also had his fair share of success in head events and made a national second round.
Four-year-old Pip qualified for both the short-head and long-head events, so it’s going to be a busy week.
It’s her idea of the perfect beach vacation.
His father, who won a South Island title and placed fourth at the national championships, ran Grampians Station for 31 years.
The family lived on the 19,000 ha resort with 18,000 merinos and mestizos and a large staff.
“There would have been over 40 dogs the whole time. There are pictures of me petting dogs and playing with sheepdogs that I can’t even remember.
“I’ve been having fun and training them on sheep since I was 7 or 8 years old. I grew up in this high country – that’s where the spark came from. There were shepherds and dogs everywhere.”
Many test dogs have passed through the station and it would have rubbed off on him too.
His father bought a block closer to Fairlie and eventually managed to own a 200ha farm.
When his father died, Kerr and his wife returned home to grow it in partnership with his mother, before selling it for Berkeley Downs.
Kerr left school at 16, his father having found him work as a shepherd in Culverden under Tug Burrows. It turned out to be a blessing.
Romney’s former stud breeder had a reputation for training young dogs and Kerr learned a lot from him.
That’s why he spends a lot of time organizing dog training days — either in a Tux-sponsored role or on his own, he says.
“Helping people is human nature, isn’t it? I wanted to give back a little for the sponsors, who do a lot for the championships.
“The other thing is I’ve had a lot of help from Tug Burrows and my dad, especially with the dogs, so I owe it to them and a few others to give back a bit. I like helping young people because someone helped me When I was young.”
Berkeley Downs is too wet to race Merinos, but the Merino bond continues, with Kerr having partnered Wairua Merino Stud for the past two years with Russell Smillie.
“There are two things I love – obviously sheepdogs and I grew up with merino sheep at Grampians Station and there was a merino stallion there.
“Showing sheep is a bit like doing trials and in those days showing sheep was huge and we were taking sheep to the Christchurch show and trying to win a prize.
“So I’ve always enjoyed that part and then you breed and mate to select the ram for an ewe and try to breed something better and I’ve always enjoyed that part.
“I have always liked the stallion side of sheep.”
The stud is based at Smillie’s Hakataramea Valley Merino Farm and was purchased from a retiring breeder.
The 300 mated ewes produce fine 19-20 micron wool for clothing and he and Smillie have slowly increased their sales.
It makes life busy and taking several weeks off every year for sheepdog competitions isn’t easy, so he’s grateful to his wife Sue for looking after the farm while he’s away.
Kerr says the country sport is well known to struggle with numbers, but dog trials are holding up — in part because young women are entering the sport and starting to rise through the ranks.
It looks like the next generation of Kerrs will contribute to this while continuing the legacy of dog trials.
Eldest daughter Ginny follows her mother, having gone horse riding, and George is doing an engineering apprenticeship, but Sophie, 16, is crazy about dogs and has already taken part in a few events.