THE OLD WELSH BOB TAIL CONNECTION
by Ann DeChant
Working Aussie Source editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a travelogue about a visit to England and Wales in September 1989. At the rainy International Sheepdog Trials, the DeChants get wet, so rather than sleep in their van, they decide to look for a place to spend the night.
. . . We asked the men behind us if they knew of a place where we could stay for the night. Then fate took over, and we met Mr. William Rigby. He told us that his daughter, Jan, had a Bed and Breakfast in an old stone barn on his Cefn-Yr-Erw Farm, in the Swansea Valley, about a half hour away. We arranged to follow Ron Morgan, Mr. Rigby’s friend, to Cefn-Yr-Erw, while he had his broken truck towed home. When we asked Ron Morgan if he lived nearby as we thanked him for leading us, he answered that he lived a half hour in the other direction! We checked into a comfortable room and had fish and chips for dinner in the dining room,, which was formerly the horse stable. After Mr. Rigby got his truck home, got dry and had his supper, he came to find us. We talked in the lounge by the coal fire until 11:00 p.m. He has been training dogs for 55 years.
I showed him the only Aussie photo that I had with me, that of Diamond Aire Sundewette, a black tri bitch owned by Marie Murphy, out of my Raven and Mari’s Max. His immediate response was, “That’s an Old Welsh Bob Tail.” With shock I told him it was an Australian Shepherd. He said that it looked just like the black and tan Welsh Bob Tail on the neighbor’s farm. Just then Jan walked through and he showed her the photo, asking what breed it was. She said, “Looks like t’ dog next door.” We sat amazed as we learned the following about this breed.
They are usually black and tan, and almost all have natural bob tails. They do not dock tails of those that are born with them. He said they are a very pure breed, where the Border Collie is a “made” breed. When he told us there were a lot of them on farms in the area, he promised to take us to two farms in the morning. He had the utmost respect for these dogs, having owned some himself. He said they are very versatile and could put your chickens in the coop and then take your cattle to market.
They were drovers’ dogs in the past. Drovers would collect groups of cattle from many different farms and put all these strange cattle together into one herd, to take them to the buyer’s farm. They had to take them down the road past all the farms along the way. He said sometimes they make excellent “front” dogs. These dogs stayed in front of the flocks of sheep going to market and fought off any dogs which they passed, and then returned to the front. They would also stop in the farm driveways until the flock passed by to keep them from turning in. It was the “front” dog’s job to lead the flock where the shepherd wanted them to go. Shepherds often had an Old Welsh Bob Tail for the “front” and a Border Collie for the back. But many used Welsh Bob Tails only, because some individuals have strong ability in one job or the other. Some are just as good at either position.
He went on to say that they are a tough using dog, who could guard the farm and help with the livestock. They are a more useful farm dog, in some ways, than the Border Collie. They are more apt to grip the nose of a cow going astray. They had it all over the Border Collie for dealing with ewes with lambs because they would make them move instead of eying them on the fence. They also tended to shoulder the lead sheep instead of grip.
They are not as good at outwork as the Border Collie, which has been selectively bred for that purpose.
Many current-day Welsh farmers in certain parts of Wales have both kinds of dogs for each need. He said one of the ones at the farm nearby used to be his, and you couldn’t beat them. He was very, very positive about these dogs! He said again that he was sure that’s what my photo was! I’m sure you can see why I sat listening with my mouth gaping. I have heard all of the virtues extolled before — about Aussies!
The next morning Gene and I had our Welsh breakfast (one scrambled egg, lean bacon–no fat, potato pancake, fried tomato, toast, juice and tea). Mr. Rigby took us out to see his Swaledale sheep. He got this hardy breed from North Wales because of their ability to withstand weather, now that the barn is a Bed and Breakfast. I know he was proud of his sheep, but I’m sure that his real purpose was to show off his Border Collie, Ben. He was the BEST dog that I saw working on the trip! Yes, including all the ones at the trial. I asked why he wasn’t in the trial. Mr. Rigby said, “He’s not registered and there’s them that’s glad he’s not.”
Then we went down the road to the neighbor’s farm, and Mr. Rigby went over to the dog house in the field and pulled a black and tan bitch out of it. Though not exactly “show type”, I have seen many Aussies that look the same. The enclosed photos are of a bitch that was very unhappy that strangers were on her property. Her tail was indeed a natural bob.
We then crossed the road and Mr. Rigby called to Turk, who came out of the shed. As you can see in the photo, he was a beautiful blue merle with lots of white trim. He has a long tail. Turk didn’t bark, but he wasn’t comfortable with us looking at him either. Mr. Rigby also said, “Sometimes they have a silver eye.” Neither picture of the dog is in a good pose unfortunately, but we had to take what we could get.
. . . . I also went to speak with Iris Combe, author of Herding Dogs, Their Origins and Development in Great Britain. I asked her what she knew about the Old Welsh Bob Tails. She did not cover them in her book, but she had heard about them. She figures that they are descended from the Pyrenean Sheepdog because of their natural bob tails. Ireland and Wales were landing places for priests who came from France and Spain centuries ago. Another fact is that many Welsh went to Australia and America and may have taken these bob tails with them. She wondered aloud whether the German Coolie wasn’t this breed.
this article was originally published in the January-February 1990 Aussie Times