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July 23, 2014

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Border collie Spot keeps his herd moving at a special demonstration at the Symphony by the Lake event at Chetola Resort Friday. Jeff Eason photo

Originally published: 2013-08-01 08:40:53
Last modified: 2013-08-01 08:43:24

Sheepherding demos give viewers a look baaaaaaack in time

The shepherd.

It’s a profession so ancient that it is mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament of the Bible and in Aesop’s fables.

And it’s still around. As long as there is a demand for wool for clothing and lamb for the plate, there will be shepherds.
Bill Coburn, a shepherd from Windy Knolls Farm in Laurens, S.C., came to the High Country this week with his grandson, Daniel Blackshire, to give a demonstration of how he utilizes the skill of trained border collies on his sheep farm.

“I’ve been raising sheep and training border collies for 20 or 25 years. I also train dogs for other people and travel around giving demonstrations and competing at festivals, ”Coburn said.

Friday’s demonstration was at Chetola Resort in Blowing Rock during the annual Symphony by the Lake event.

“My dogs are trained to respond to both whistle commands and voice commands. They also know by how I use the whistle if I am commanding Luke or Spot,” he said.

Border collies Luke and Spot responded to nearly a dozen different commands during the demonstration, including stay, sit, move herd right, move herd left and bring the herd home. They were so finely attuned to the commands that Coburn could get the dogs to bring the entire herd of seven sheep to a certain person in the audience.

According to Coburn, it takes about two years to fully train a border collie in highly skilled shepherding techniques.

“They’re at their peak when they are about 4 or 5 years old,” Coburn said. “But I’ve got one back home who is 15 who can do as well as any younger dog. Unfortunately, he is practically deaf now.”

The sheep raised at Windy Knolls Farm are called Katahdin sheep, a special breed that is raised for its meat rather than for its wool.

“They get an extra coat of wool in the winter that they shed in the spring,” Coburn said.

Coburn also sells border collie pups whenever there is a litter at the farm, but insists he is not in the dog breeding business.

“I have a list of potential buyers,” he said. “We just had a litter a few weeks ago. We had seven of them sold but the litter was only of four.”

Coburn said that his list of potential buyers included people who wanted either a male or a female.

The person at the top of the list would have pick of the litter and the person after that would have second choice. The person who had the rights on the last pup of the litter could defer to be at the top of the list for the next litter, if the last pup was not the sex that they desired.

During the demonstrations, Coburn let adults and children pet the sheep but warned them not to bend down to do it.

“If you lean down, they might try to butt you in the head,” he said. “And believe me, it’s going to leave a mark.”

For more information and stories, see The Blowing Rocket.

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