Border Collies are miraculous animals endowed with superhuman intelligence, according to me. An article in National Geographic from March 2008 confirmed my prejudices. It said they are exceptionally responsive and some can understand around 400 words (the vocabulary of the average two year old).
My brother used to sell and service Hoover equipment around the farms in the Vale of Glamorgan in South Wales. The farmer’s wife would often persuade him to take the latest unwanted litter of puppies. He would pass them on to urban housewives as a ‘special offer’. “Buy a Hoover and get a Border Collie free” was his sales pitch.
I don’t know how many passed through our house before being “placed” but they were all adorable. My mother kept a beautiful tri-colour which we called Lassie. She died when I was in Canada and I was so heart-broken that when I got married I scoured Ontario for our very own Lassie.
I found her on a farm at Jane and Steeles — now a densely populated outer suburb of Toronto. She came with us to Europe and was thrilled when we bought our place in Normandy. It was like having her own private park.
The first “cunning plan” for survival in the depths of Normandy was a creative attempt at a country business. BORDER COLLIES ARE US was to sell different Country Living kits: the Weekend Country Gent Pack was one Border Collie and two sheep. The Smallholder’s Starter Pack was one Border Collie, four young ewes and a ram. The Self Sufficiency Pack was two Border Collies and 20 sheep. Seriously though, I thought, how was I going to survive down on the farm if Ted were away all week?
I still hadn’t solved the problem when I stepped off the plane in Charles de Gaulle airport a few months later. My faithful Lassie, having travelled in a metal cage in the hold, was delivered to the luggage carousel on an airport trolley, whimpering with fright.
I was struggling with the bolts to open the little wire door when I heard a voice say “C’est un Border, Madame?” “Yes,” I replied, “It’s a Border Collie.”
The slight, sandy-haired, one-armed, bespectacled gent who had spoken was a sheep farmer from Perigord. He owned the grandson of the first couple of Border Collies who had been imported into France and was a founding member of the Association Francaise du Border Collie. He gave me his card and thus was born a 30 year friendship with Mr and Mme Simon and the idea of breeding collies for French farmers.
The following summer as we were trundling through Perigord on side roads looking for Oradour sur Glane, we passed a sign saying St Jory de Chalais. “I was sure this was where Mr Simon said he lived,” Ted said.
“We can’t possibly call in unannounced. The French don’t like it,” I said. “Come on, lunch is over. We may just catch them before they begin their afternoon’s work.”
A few minutes later we turned into the courtyard of a gorgeous ivy-clad granite Manor house and as we pulled into the yard, five Collies came bounding out to bark around the van. I stayed put until M. Simon came out.
“Hello, M. Simon, I don’t know if you remember me but we met at the airport last year.” My voice trailed away as his face broke into a wide grin. “Bien sur,” he said. “Of course I remember you. I told my wife all about you and your dog. Come in and have a coffee and bring Lassie.”
Madame Simon was equally pleased to see us and we were introduced to her two daughters and the five very friendly dogs. M. And Madame Simon were originally from Normandy and were thrilled that we were settling in there. The dogs all got on very well but Sari (the grandson of the first pair to be imported into France) remained aloof. Had he been human we would have been treated to a look which read “Another bloody female!” Sari had a toothless grin which he had acquired when, in his younger days, he tried herding the Jersey cow and didn’t manage to avoid her “Bend it like Beckham” back-kick.
Our Lassie was supposed to be in season the following Christmas so we arranged to leave her with Mrs Simon who would oversee the mating. She didn’t come into season so we had to have another holiday in Perigord a few weeks later.
Lassie got the cold shoulder from Sari again until he realized why she had come and invited her into the yard for a frolic where the doggy marriage was duly consummated. They both came back in panting happily.
Sari flopped on the sofa and stayed there despite my over-sexed Border Collie trying to nudge him with her nose and flaunt her back-side at him to get him to go out and play again. He managed another frolic the next morning before we left.
Three months later we had six gorgeous pups fathered by Sari and I could hardly bear to part with them. I kept Sara (named after her famous Dad) and Cariad and sold Pappy, Mac, Boxer and Blackie to sheep farmers in Perigord. As Border Collies were not very well known at that time — not being recognized by the Kennel Club till sometime in the 1980s — I couldn’t get a price that even covered my vet fees. So Cunning Plan Number One was abandoned. Lassie died a few years later leaving a heart sized hole in our lives. Sara and Cariad lived till they were fourteen.
Morwen, the collie we have now, is the product of a bit of in-breeding due to Kennel Club recognition of the race and a big mistake at the breeders. She was the size of a large sausage when I first saw her, having just been born that morning. If I hadn’t taken her, she would have been put down as the breeder had no use for her.
She is terrified of everyone and too nervous to be of any use with the sheep. She is the only autistic Border Collie I know. She can’t stand any activity in the house so, no ironing, no washing, no hoovering, no table setting, no guests. Ted is not allowed to carry ladders or climb them and every cider making moment is supervised.
She tolerates us and is happy to see us but doesn’t like cuddles or fuss. She is highly intelligent and very stubborn. Mrs Simon found her a mate amongst the collies of her vast sheep-farming acquaintance but Morwen didn’t like Patton so she is now 11 and still a Lassie — as bad-tempered an old spinster as you could wish to meet but still a bright and beautiful creature of the Lord God’s making and we love her!
After-note: We obviously abandoned our ‘cunning plan’ too soon given that in this year’s Border Collie sales the two best herders went for over £6000 apiece, according to an article in Daily Mail, Tuesday, July 27, 2010.
All photos by Julia McLean