‘I would never have sheep without border collies’
The Greenfield Recorder, June 24, 2017, by Andy Castillo
CONWAY — Tilly, a female border collie, streaked across a pasture at Little Brook Farm on Russell Street recently, herding three sheep into a small enclosure.
Nearby, farm owner Kristen Whittle blew a long, wavering whistle. Tongue out and panting, Tilly stopped suddenly and dropped into a crouch, the sheep crowding into a huddle.
“Border collies have a natural instinct to go around livestock and bring them back to you. We mold that instinct into something useful — go fast, go slow, a number of different commands,” Whittle said, watching as Tilly stared down the nervous sheep, tail twitching, anticipating the next command.
“We use ‘come by’ (circle clockwise) and ‘away to me’ (counter-clockwise), and add in the whistle because it carries a lot more distance. The more you work your dogs, the more precise they become,” she continued.
Originally from what’s now the United Kingdom, border collies were bred to herd sheep. Whittle has been working with the dogs since the 1980s, when she managed the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s barns. For 13 years there, she ran the farm and directed up to seven working dogs herding sheep. In 1985, she purchased Little Brook Farm at 23 years old, and has trained border collies locally ever since.
These days, Whittle — who also works as an elementary school nurse after going back to school in the 1990s — has two collies, Tilly and sister Jemma, to manage 24 ewes and 39 lambs. Sheep are a major source of the farm’s revenue. Occasionally, the dogs put on herding demonstrations at events including Northampton’s Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival, held annually at Look Memorial Park.
“They have an incredible work ethic. They would rather work than eat or rest. I would never have sheep without border collies. They make it so much easier,” Whittle said.
When not herding sheep, Tilly and Jemma take on different roles at the 10-acre farm — sometimes as sled dogs for campers who attend Little Brook Farm’s farm camp.
Throughout the year, mostly in the summer, the farm hosts weekly camps from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for children ages 6 through 12. It’s a combination of Whittle’s two career backgrounds, as a farm manager and school nurse.
“(Campers) help with the chores, feed sheep, goats, chickens, duck, geese, and horses. Every week brings its own flavor,” Whittle said about the camp experience. There, children get a chance to learn how to interact with animals and experience life on a farm. In total, the farm has about 16 goats, 20 turkeys, three horses, two guard llamas and “half a dozen ducks.”
“One of my goals is to teach kids about agriculture,” Whittle continued, “that if they choose to be a meat eater, they should know where their food comes from.”
The border collies are also a part of that education, providing demonstrations and acting as animal ambassadors.
“I take all the campers and put them in a circle, and (the border collies) move the sheep around them,” Whittle said.
Farm Camp will be held this year June 26 through 30, and then two weeks in July. For more information visit www.littlebookfarm.com.