That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with James P Mc Gee (48) of Glencregg Farm, Creggan, Ballybofey, Co Donegal, in this week’s sheep farming focus series.
“I grew up in a family where farming was the only tradition. I took over the family farm from my parents in 1995, after completing the Green Cert through Teagasc in the early 1990s. I have been a full-time farmer all my life, and this is a second-generation farm.
I now live on the farm with my wife, Karen, and our children, Rachel, Laura, and James. Everyone helps with the day-to-day tasks on the farm. Our three children have all studied agriculture at third level. So, I guess we have passed the tradition onto the third generation on Glencregg.
I have very fond memories of growing up on the family farm. When I was about 10-years-old, I was walking late in the dark one night by myself to a neighbour’s house, as I heard they had a litter of Collie pups.
Unfortunately, when I got there, all the pups were gone. I was very disappointed, and when I look back, I knew I always had a very keen interest in dogs from a very early age.
The farm comprises 500 Lanark and Lanark-cross BlackFace ewes. I breed some to pedigree Lanark rams, while I breed the remainder to Blue-faced Leicester rams.
I breed mule ewe lambs which I sell through the Donegal Mule Group. Furthermore, I also have a handful of suckler cows, mainly Belgian Blue-cross-Limousin, and produce quality weanlings for export.
Besides, I have always had a very keen interest in sheepdogs. In 2002, I saw an advert for the International Sheepdog Trials in Seaford Co Down, in our local mart.
Curiosity got the better of me. I travelled alone to Seaford; it was the final day of the supreme double gather championship.
To say, I was overwhelmed was an understatement. I was totally amazed by the level of skill of both the handlers and the dogs. I was hooked from that moment on.
So, I have always owned sheepdogs. We keep a fair number of young dogs and mostly keep two open dogs for open trial competition. Furthermore, we will try to make the Irish Team, as always, to represent Ireland at international level.
I am mainly self-taught, from watching One Man and His Dog as a youngster, some books, and videos, plus advice from handlers when I started out.
We breed our own line of sheepdogs under the prefix, Glencregg. I have been fortunate with my breeding lines.
Becca World Champion 2011 is the mother of Glencregg Silver International Supreme Champion 2014. At the moment, I am running Nan and Fleet, who are a son and daughter of Silver and grandchildren of Becca.
I guess there must be a lot of luck when it comes to breeding sheepdogs. I always look at a dog that has a good temperament. Dogs must have a good work ethic. In my view, an eye-catching appearance is a bonus but not essential.
I have always trained my own dogs. I have been very fortunate that the lines that I have bred have also been very successful.
These lines have been very successful for other people also. If you look closely at the breeding of a lot of trial dogs, you will most likely find Glencregg breeding or McGee-owned dogs like Seth (Sid) in the mix.
I train many young dogs annually. We try to get young dogs ready for the sheepdog nursey season from mid-October to mid-February annually. This nursery season is for all young dogs under the age of three. Normally I would have two dogs running in the nursey season.
All the young dogs are different. Some learn quicker than others. Typically, if a young dog is keen and eager, I would expect to have it trained in 6 to 8 weeks to farm work standards. It takes twice that length of time roughly to reach the nursery trial standard.
I started trialling in 2004 and won the Irish National with Becca in 2005 and 2007. 2021 was my 18th time representing Ireland at International Level: seven times with Becca, four times with Glencregg Silver, and seven times with different dogs and bitches.
I was the winner of the world trial 2011 with Becca and winner of the international supreme championship with Glencregg Silver 2014, who at 17-months-old was the youngest dog to ever win it.
Furthermore, I was the winner of one man and his dog 2008 with Becca. Then, I was champion of Champions Royal Welsh Show winner with Becca, Hibernian Circuit Lord of the Isles four times, And the Hills of Donegal champion.
Besides, I was the North of Ireland Sheepdog Society Nursery Winner three times and have had countless open wins.
I will be competing in the Irish National this summer 2022 and will be trying to qualify for the World Trials, which are being held in Ireland in 2023.
International sales and online training
We sell dogs worldwide, and a lot of our top-quality dogs have gone to America, Australia and all over Europe and UK. A lot of the dogs have proved very successful for their new owners.
Moreover, I have delivered demonstrations and training clinics all over the world. But, with Covid restrictions in place over the last two years, I have been limited to what I can do. We have recently launched our own Patreon Channel.
This is an online sheepdog training programme that involves demonstrations and sheepdog handling techniques. The online training programme was only launched at the beginning of May 2022 but has proved very popular and successful at this early stage.
Involvement, training phase and trials
I have a bond with the dog. The dog is a companion; it is not an object. I enjoy working and training young dogs; seeing them develop and becoming successful is very rewarding.
Every single aspect can be challenging. But as challenging as it may be, it is also extremely rewarding.
In my opinion, the trainer must be able to read the body language of each individual dog. As each dog is like a human, there are no two the exact same in personality, temperament or workability. The handler must adapt to each individual dog on the methods of training used.
With all sports, before you learn to win, you have to learn to lose graciously.
My ultimate goal is to continue to be a successful dog handler and trainer. I have a desire to try and repeat some of our successes with different dogs.
No matter how difficult farming has been over the years, I have always kept a positive attitude and outlook. But this year, with increasing prices of diesel, fertiliser, general farming supplies etc., I am very fearful.
Farming cannot be sustainable with these prices. I especially fear for the young farmers and farm families who were already struggling to make ends meet.
I have been very fortunate with a life in agriculture. My life journey with dogs has taken me on a pathway I could never have imagined.
The dogs have been amazing companions and partners in our family and not just on the trial field. The dogs owe me nothing, but I certainly owe the dogs everything I have. I have been so lucky and blessed to be on the journey with them.
In 2021, I retired Glencregg Silver as a mark of respect for his work and loyalty over the years. I look forward to working with the next generation of Glencregg Sheepdogs.
To all aspiring sheepdog trainers, I advise the following: you need self-belief in yourself that you can do this. You need to have a bond with your dog. Your dog is not an object.
I would also recommend joining a sheepdog club. I have always been a member of The North of Ireland Sheep Dog Society as you get to meet other aspiring sheepdog trainers and handlers. It is a great way to share advice and get advice.
I would like to thank everyone who has supported and helped me over the years. There are too many to mention, but just everyone who has supported Glencregg Sheepdogs in any way, more recently with the launch of our online sheepdog training programme,
I have received very positive feedback, and that has been overwhelming and surpassed my expectations which I am very grateful for. I am really looking forward to this new chapter in my sheepdog career.”
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