The rancher’s helper

Managing livestock with border collies at Tango Farms

Colleen Duncan and two of her border collies, Fly (left) and Lucy.

Colleen Duncan and two of her border collies, Fly (left) and Lucy.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Colleen Duncan stood in a pasture at her Honcut property while demonstrating the skills of one of her border collies. The dog, Fly, listened as Duncan barked out commands—“Come-bye,” she called, and the dog ran far into the field and circled halfway around a flock of sheep, just a small portion of her livestock.

Then, using a shepherd’s whistle, she directed the dog to drive the animals forward to a specific spot. “That’ll do,” she said, and the black-and-white Fly came back to her master. Duncan turned around to face this reporter, looked up in the sky, and calmly commented on some commotion across the street: “That doesn’t look good.”

Indeed, in the distance, across the country road from Duncan’s place, smoke billowed from a just-started fire. Within seconds, the smoke grew darker and rose higher, more visible through the grove of eucalyptus trees shading this portion of Tango Farms in the small town south of Oroville.

Duncan started walking briskly toward the smoke, casually noting that she had another flock in a field adjacent to the one becoming engulfed in fire. She unleashed a different dog, Lucy, a red-and-white border collie, and headed straight through the shin-high, bone-dry grass for the sheep and the growing flames in a field beyond them.

Tango Farms sheep.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

As she began calling out commands to Lucy, fire engines roared nearby. Moments later, an air tanker began dropping loads of fire retardant as a spotter plane circled the area.

Duncan knew exactly what to do to get the flock in fast. She was in 4-H as a kid and understands the way sheep think, and she’s worked with border collies for decades. The dogs, she said, are highly intelligent, energetic and eager to have a job. That’s why they often don’t make good pets, she warned. The athletic breed of stockdog—also known as the Scottish sheepdog—was developed in Northumberland and is named for its origins on the border of Scotland and England.

Before the fire broke out, all of Duncan’s five dogs, including Tango, the border collie after whom her farm is named, jumped high in their kennels, as though to say, “Pick me!”

“They want to be the one that you’re working,” she said, as she let out Lucy and Fly. “It’s always ‘me, me, me.’”

Duncan’s work with her dogs is practical. She trains them to herd her flocks—about 100 head this time of year, including the lambs—but she also participates in and helps organize sheepdog trials around the North State, including an event at Patrick Ranch during the Sierra Oro Farm Trail Passport Weekend in early October.

Duncan investigates a fire approaching one of her flocks.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

The competitions are enjoyable for the average spectator and allow working sheepdog owners such as Duncan to show off their animals’ skills. As a matter of fact, she and Lucy were named Reserve Champions at the Sonoma County Fair Sheepdog Trials on July 24. The idea is to duplicate the scenarios the dogs would experience in real life—corraling sheep into pens, running them through gates or, say, separating a ewe and lamb from the herd and bringing the pair in from the field.

Border collies aren’t the only breed of stockdog to enter the events. Others include McNab crosses, Australian kelpies and Welsh corgis.

Duncan doesn’t train other people’s dogs for a living—she works full time at Oroville Hospital as a controller. She does, however, volunteer her expertise to others, including the members of Chico State’s Stockdog Association. For about five years, she helped them train their own dogs. One of the students is now a professional trainer in Nebraska, she noted.

Duncan’s the treasurer of both the Northern California Working Sheepdog Association and the Redwood Empire Sheepdog Association. She has a lot of familiarity with the sheepdog world of the latter region because she lived for many years in Santa Rosa and Ukiah. She moved to Butte County in 2009, and settled in Honcut about three years ago. She chose her 25-acre property there, in part, she says, because it was a good setup for the sheep and dogs, and also an ideal place to hold clinics

She’s trying to bring more competitions to Butte County and the region’s agricultural community—both as education and entertainment.

The fire across the road from Duncan’s place ended up charring about 15 acres. Fortunately, a low-lying wetlands area kept it from spreading farther west toward Tango Farms. During the ordeal, Lucy, who fetched the sheep and drove them back home, didn’t balk at the nearby flames or smoke.

About an hour after the high point of the blaze, as a helicopter dropped water from a bucket onto the last patches of the vegetation fire, Duncan said that, were it not for the dogs, she’d still be out in the field trying to gather her, as she put it, “contrary creatures.”

Sitting in a chair on her front porch, surveying the scene, she summed up how helpful the dogs are to the operation: “They just make life easier all the way around.”