GUY HULL - DOG BEHAVIOURIST
In 1797 the first merino sheep, a few dozen, arrived at the penal colony at Sydney Cove in New South Wales, the British Empire’s most isolated and neglected outpost. Just 83 years later in 1880 there were 75 million merino sheep in the seven thriving Australian colonies of New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Western Australia. The burgeoning colonies rode the merino hands and heels to prosperity, and ultimately, federation, nationhood, and the complete domination of the international wool trade.
And directing the course of that careering ride, working in the dusty haze ran the ubiquitous Australian collie, the dog that controlled the intractable merino and superseded every other sheep dog type, the Kelpie. The little Kelpie, disproportionately influential during that grand era was the one component that made sheep management possible in the most hostile and uncooperative of environments. Wool growing in Australia could not have reached its stratospheric heights without the Kelpie.
In anyone’s estimation, the Kelpie was a work of genius. That a working dog designed in freezing, wet, windy, far northern Scotland excelled in Australia’s stinking hot, flint-dry, burr infested, hostility, beggars belief. It was extremely tough work for any dog. But the Kelpie is not just any dog. There is no more adaptable species than the canid, and there is no more adaptable canine than the Kelpie. In the matter of a few short decades it not only acclimatised to Australia, but it adapted and changed in form to suit the environment in which it worked. That incredible adaptation included a working style that allowed it to learn to make its own decisions and work far more independently than its progenitors and other contemporary British cousins.
To excel in the work expected of it, the Kelpie adapted to Australia to such an amazing degree that it took on the form of Australia’s native canine, the dingo. This is the simple explanation for the Kelpie’s superficial dingo-like appearance. It is lanky and spare and developed an appetite for endurance in the most oppressive conditions that no other working dog could compete with. It is certainly understandable that some people assume the Kelpie was derived from the dingo, but it is not so, and DNA testing has proven it beyond any doubt.
Hybridisation with the dingo certainly has occurred. It is not crossbreeding. The dingo is not a dog, but technically a wolf, despite its very dog-like appearance. That hybridisation may have naturally occurred on occasions, and we certainly know that some prominent Kelpie men in the 20thcentury, by their own admission, tried the experiment. It has never proven to be of any benefit to the Kelpie. In fact, it has proven to be a needless waste of time. The Kelpie cannot be improved by adding non-working blood, and worse, the blood of a wild, essentially untrainable canid to a sophisticated working dog.
Australia’s wool industry matured in the tough days of pioneering red dirt empires from scratch; years of ceaseless daylight to dark labour, always on short rations. The Industrial Revolution may have made the lives of the upper and new and rising middle classes easier in big towns and cities, but it offered little comfort to the man carving a living out of the bush. It was a time of manpower and horsepower and bullock-power, leather, wood, chain and rope, blood, sweat and tears, and the constant battle against an unforgiving environment that did not welcome intruders.
Men did their own work and were slaves to the axe and crosscut saw, the adze, and splitting wedges. The land was cleared by hand. Most of the trees of Australia’s interior are the driest and hardest in the world. Chopping concrete could not be much harder. Across the semi-viable interior men endured unending days of blisters and callouses and aching muscles, ringbarking or felling millions of trees to create an artificial sea of rough, barely viable rangelands. In the rare good seasons, it sustained the merino invasion, and in the bad ones, it killed sheep by the million. Timber was also needed to build station infrastructure: homes, sheds, woolsheds, sheep washes, and yards were all hand-built out of local timber, rough-hewn or dressed. And all the while the flocks, shepherded in small, manageable numbers, needed protecting and management.
The seeds that grew into the Kelpie were planted during the age of shepherdry. The daily workload of the Australian shepherd’s dog, while more labourious than its British rellies, was hardly arduous. Poking along at a pedestrian pace behind a manageable-sized mob of shepherded grazing sheep would not have been too taxing on a good day even given Australia’s often nasty environment, though summer would have been a trial, particularly when droving. Environmental and climatic issues were the Australian shepherd’s dogs’ biggest challenges. They got by alright.
Five strands of wire put paid to that happy little milieu. Mile upon mile upon countless mile of boundary and paddock fencing superseded the shepherd, shifting most of them sideways to station workers and boundary riders. And if they thought they had it hard as shepherds, they were in for a rude shock. Across the sheep lands across the continent millions of fence posts and strainer posts had to be cut, split and carted to the always-moving work site. Millions of corresponding post holes had to be dug in rock-hard ground poorly disguised by an inch or two of thin topsoil. Ringing, jarring crowbars burnt the hands in summer and froze them in winter. Every single post-hole was dug with crowbars and post-hole shovels that got so hot in summer you could fry one’s luncheon eggs on them. The hardest of hard labour built that fencing, and nothing else.
Things got tougher for the shepherd’s dog when sheep were turned out in huge unimproved paddocks to go forth and multiply. And multiply they did. By the million. Paddocked sheep only got handled by humans and worked by dogs a couple of times a year. Paddock life suited the merino but left to manage their own daily economy they became wild, skittish and even more intractable. Australian wool’s problem child now ranged over vast distances always on the move looking for better feed, and managing it called for a vast improvement in sheep dog can-do and durability.
Cometh the hour, cometh the sheep dog. Just when the shepherd’s dog gig got a whole lot tougher the Kelpie emerged with hero-like timing and changed the industry. In the early days they were known as anything anyone cared to call them: shepherd’s dogs, collie dogs, collies, Scotch collies, smooth-coated collies, working collies, working sheep dogs, Scottish working sheep dogs, and plain old sheep dogs.
Eventually, as their extraordinary virtues won hearts and minds throughout the country the other similar types were assimilated into the broader Kelpie strain and they became known by that unique name.
While free-ranging merinos cut their own obstinate tracks out in the paddocks graziers had their work cut out preserving them from competition and predation. Kangaroos competed with sheep for grasses. They had to go. Before the advent of accurate, long-range firearms kangaroo dogs, wire-haired, grizzled Scottish Deerhound x Greyhound running hounds carried the kangaroo control workload, often with a great loss of many dogs cruelly torn or drowned by their innocent looking, but deceptively dangerous prey. Mounted graziers were always accompanied by a pair of ready-for-action kangaroo dogs.
Killing kangaroos was not as important as harrying them. Kangaroos are nomads and don’t take much convincing to move on. Kangaroo dogs, placed greater pressure on kangaroos than dingoes because they had an unfair advantage. Dingoes are nocturnal hunters and hunt kangaroos when their prey is most active. Kangaroo dogs were set upon resting, less alert kangaroos during the day. It gave them some advantage. For a while. And so, that first kangaroo harassment campaign worked. For a while.
With the kangaroos thinned out, their natural predators, the dingoes took war to another level against the merino. They didn’t need much encouragement. Wild canids have always fancied themselves as sheep slaughterers. It’s a one-sided affair as old as pastoralism. Wolves, jackals, coyotes, and foxes have terrible reputations among sheepmen everywhere, and peaceful co-existence is impossible. It is incumbent upon, nay, instinctive, for any creature to make the easiest living it can. Sheep, slow and uncertain, made easy prey for dingoes who developed a serious addiction to the intoxicating high of not just sheep slaughter, but mass mutilation. The nightly wholesale carnage of flocks continued until trapping, shooting and poisoning pogroms purged them from most of the sheep lands of the relatively flat interior where no rugged mountain fastness preserved them.
People were lean and hungry, and they got by on the barest basics. The sheep man’s usual diet mostly composed of fatty mutton, white flour and sugar, tea, and in most cases, too much alcohol. Tobacco was the popular habit, all this not lending the over-worked sheep man a long tenure on life. They killed their own meat, wild or domestic, and they made decisions and did things that, by today’s effete standards, would be considered cruel. Culling of station dogs was brutal. There was no time, food, or effort for non-contributing sheep dogs and kangaroo dogs. It was a bullet for on-performers. The luckier ones found homes with townsfolk as pets. It’s just the way things were, and tough though it was it helped forge the Kelpie’s rapid reputation.
Sheep work was back-breaking. Lamb marking, the removal of tails, emasculating ram lambs was done with a knife, and ‘popped’ testicles were often removed by one’s teeth after the scrotum had been slit open. Before scouring became established by woollen mills every sheep needed handwashing before shearing, and shearing was done by hand-shears which were little more than oversized scissors. Fleeces were then washed in specialised plants set up wherever reliable water was found. Flocks increased in size from mere hundreds to thousands to hundreds of thousands, and as the decades passed the squatting pioneers thrived and became respected graziers with an elite class of their own known as the squattocracy.
Some sheep stations were the size of European states and their shearing sheds were truly gargantuan. Burrawang Station near Forbes in central New South Wales was owned by the impressive Thomas Edols who was instrumental in the development of the Barb strain of black Kelpies. At the time of the Kelpie’s development Burrawang, or Big Burrawang as it was known was over half a million acres and was shearing around 270,000 sheep annually. The T-shaped woolshed accommodated 101 blade shearers. It was over half an acre in size, not including the yards.
It was said that a man could be sacked at one end of the Burrawang wool shed then walk down to the other end and get himself re-hired without anyone knowing what was going on. Five thousand bales of wool were carted off Big Burrawang every year. In 1892 the Burrawang woolshed was rebuilt to accommodate 88 machine powered stands after the original shed burnt to the ground. The average woolshed today accommodates 4 to 6 stands. That gives you some idea of the size of Big Burrawang and colonial Australia wool.
The story of the development of the Kelpie should be straightforward. It isn’t. The problem is that while the development of the merino was precisely documented, the development of the dogs that worked them wasn’t. What we have to rely on is a complicated, confusing, and constantly contradictory expedition deep into the mostly faulty memories of the men involved.
The Kelpie story we are familiar with is really the story about a bunch of sheep dog fanatics who happened to be in the right place at the right time. It is astonishing how closely connected all the major players of the Riverina and Lachlan regions were. Many were in some way related, some shared friendships that stretched back to the Scottish highlands. Most of them in Australia were neighbours, though in colonial rural Australia your nearest neighbour could be 20 miles or more away. Kelpie Origins will show how the story is much, much, bigger than the events that unfolded in western and south-western New South Wales and Victoria where the best-known pieces of the puzzle came together.
The vast majority of information regarding the Rutherford family in Scotland and Australia and the inseparable story of the development of the Kelpie is provided by the generosity of New South Wales historian, Bert Howard’s Australian Origins and Heritage files. Bert is the gentleman who clarified the true origins of the Hall’s Heeler, the progenitor of both the Australian Cattle dog and the Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog. He then turned his attention to the patchy Kelpie story. Because of Bert there are a lot less patches now. Every Kelpie enthusiast should be grateful for that.
Bert has been both a great friend and mentor to me, and without his knowledge and research the Kelpie Origins narrative timeline would not be possible in such detail. I should also acknowledge that some theories I present in this timeline may not necessarily agree with Bert’s opinions. What he and I always agree on is that there are still too many blank spaces in the story. I include such considered speculation in the hope of adding a little more colour to the story and to generate discussion and examination of plausible possibilities not previously considered.
Kelpie Origins examines in graphic timeline, the emergence of the Kelpie from its Scottish roots to 1880. Little was ever recorded about the Kelpie’s development because at the time the sheepman had far more important things to do than write about his dogs. Dogs were just another tool, and another animal to maintain; another mouth to feed. Some of the most important players died early, none of the early players were journalists or diarists. All these fellows were interested in was their work and their dogs’ ability to do theirs. That understandable expectation has been the inadvertent cause of a battery of hundred year-plus arguments because it was only after the breed gained prominence through sheep dog trials that people became interested in the breed’s origins.
Kelpie myths sprung up like weeds in an untended garden: The Kelpie was part dingo. It was part fox. It came from Tasmania. It was a gypsy’s poaching dog. Newspapers were the chief form of mass communication and it was the media that granted the Kelpie mainstream, Australia-wide publicity, but it was also the media that promulgated and preserved much of the mythical nonsense.
One of the most difficult decisions in deciding on the timeline for Kelpie Origins Timeline was knowing where to start and where to finish. To commence I settled on the first description of the working style of the shepherd’s dogs of the time, a style that seems not to have changed at all in over 400 years. The story concludes in 1880 in Australia when the Kelpie has been established and has caught the attention of graziers in need of a better sheep dog.