Posted April 17, 2018 17:32:45
The traditional bush pastime of the sheep dog trial is evolving into a city sport, with women from the city swelling the ranks of newcomers.
A mobility scooter whirrs across the immaculate Memorial Recreation Ground in Molong, shadowing three sheep and a quivering border collie.
It's the NSW Three Sheep Dog Trial Championships and this entrant is competing from his scooter.
"This is really a senior sport," NSW Sheepdog Workers Inc President Ann Wherry said.
"Trials are held during the week and a lot of people have to work … the sport will go on, but I'm concerned it will get smaller."
The three sheep dog trial is in undoubtedly in trouble.
Dwindling rural ranks and an aging trialling community raise the question as to whether the modern world has simply moved on.
It's a trend witnessed by Cobar farmer, trainer and former national champion Mick Hudson.
"A lot of children of farmers don't go back to the farm these days; they have jobs, they're not on the farm," Mr Hudson said.
But salvation appears to be brewing in the most unlikely of places.
There's been a large uptick in people from Sydney taking up the sport and the majority of these are women, with 41 per cent of this month's National Championships competitors being women.
"We've had a huge influx of women; at the moment it's almost a majority — ranging in age from 15 to I'm not going to say," Ms Wherry laughed.
Mick Hudson agreed.
"I train people to work dogs and I get quite a few people coming out of the city," he said.
"[A] lot of ladies; if that's their hobby and they like doing it, I'm going to support them and help them and hopefully introduce more people to the sport.
"I think the Sydney people are looking for something to do — they enjoy their dogs."
Metropolitan members are typically arriving at the sport via herding — an entry level activity that provides an outlet for working dogs living in the city.
Working breeds such as kelpies and border collies are famously intelligent.
Those kept as pets do well with regular stimulation and city dog lovers are keen to provide an appropriate level of care.
"I got my dog just to be a pet but because she's a working breed, I was introduced to the sport of herding," Sydney competitor Pauline Raleigh said.
"Then I found out about three sheep trialling. It's a lot harder than herding but we're trying.
However, there is a flipside.
The growing number of city-based competitors means there's an increasing number of pet dogs in what is still a professional arena.
Working dog bloodlines are refined over generations and a good dog is big money.
A purpose-bred kelpie sold for $15,000 earlier this year.
Sydney trainer and breeder Jess Kimpton believed this presented another threat to the future of the sport.
"The Sydney community is actually pretty big and a lot of people start off with dogs that aren't necessarily purpose-bred," she said.
"We need a few more people to get out there with dogs that are purpose-bred for it.
"These are genetically tested, good quality dogs, and we need to be maintaining that."
A sport with a basic equipment list that includes three sheep, one dog and an acre paddock obviously presents challenges for someone on a quarter-acre block.
Training opportunities are limited to weekends at a handful of Sydney clubs and sheep have to be begged, borrowed or shared.
"It's hard for the city people to have access to stock," Ms Wherry said.
"You need quiet sheep to train your baby dogs, but after that you need sheep that ask questions.
"Most city girls are in similar situations; they are living in building blocks.
"It does curtail the amount of training you can do and the sheep you have access to."
But rather than penalise their city colleagues, rural attitudes have been progressively encouraging.
Perhaps appreciating the sport will need to diversify to ensure its longevity and knowledge shared between town and country.
Jess Kimpton agreed.
"When we first started eight years ago it wasn't super supportive," she said.
"Because we hadn't come from the country, why were we doing this?
"But as we've shown that we are serious about this sport and we want to keep it going and maintain the history, it's been a lot more supportive.
"It really is quite welcoming."
Working dog trials conjure up romantic visions of a bygone era.
"It nearly puts a chill up your spine that we've managed to keep a part of Australia alive. It's our heritage — what did we grow up on? The sheep. The sheep dog," Ann Wherry said.
But increasingly, the job of keeping this Australian bush classic alive is falling to those in its cities.
Dog lovers and breed enthusiasts are taking up the mantle of the pastoralist, as cities expand and rural centres contract.
"The serious pro triallers that are always at competitions … they are dying off. We need to step up, get better and fill their shoes," Sydney competitor Tsuey Hiu explained.