The weather was perfect for our recent attempt at filming and gathering GPS data at the farm. This was the first time we were simultaneously recording the rounding up of the sheep from the multiple points of view of the farmer, the sheepdog and the sheep.
Fly, the sheepdog, was kitted out first, with a GPS receiver sewn into a dog coat and a webcam attached to her collar.
Farmer Tony was next with his GPS in a pouch and webcam attached to his shirt. All units were switched on and we were ready to go. Tony needed to get a bag of sheep food out of a barn, which involved moving a tractor back a few feet to get the barn door open and as he got into the cab, Fly was beside him in a flash, determined not to miss out on anything.
Their relationship is so close that wherever Tony goes, Fly is there beside him, watching with intense concentration, in the way that collies do. Jumping down from the tractor, the barn door is closed and we move into the field to catch a sheep to become ‘camera crew’ for the event.
Whenever the sheep see Tony, they associate him with food and come running over, so it’s easy for him to pick out a ‘mule’, which are our preferred breed, as they are taller than the others and so tend to get better shots of the other sheep, rather than a lot of grass and legs! However, on the first ewe we caught, the fleece was too thin around her neck and when I put on her collar, it was obvious that the camera would slip round and would not give steady shots, so we released that sheep and looked for another with a bulkier fleece. Again, these trusting animals mill easily around Tony and a more suitable ‘camera-sheep’ is quickly selected. On this one, the collar fits nicely, allowing the camera to be positioned correctly and the GPS, in its travel pack, is secured around her middle.
While this process is going on, Fly lies on the ground nearby, watching Tony intently, waiting for his command. Once the flock have settled, he gives a quick word to Fly and, like lightening, she’s off in a big loop round the back of the field, gathering up the stray sheep to form one group.
Between Fly and Tony, they move this flock around the field – Fly responding to Tony’s whistles and commands, alternating between running towards the sheep and lying flat on the ground, in frozen anticipation.
The sheep are all trying to get to the centre of the group, moving away from the ‘danger’ of the dog – an instinctive act of self-preservation – so this naturally keeps the group contained and avoids strays from getting separated. Once the flock are at the field gate, they move through in an orderly fashion between the fences, heading down towards the pens. Their constant baa-ing doesn’t appear to be directly related to where Fly is – it’s not a distress call, but feels more like conversation!
Tony hangs back and Fly drives them forward, all in response to Tony’s whistles and calls, chasing down any strays that decide to do their own thing, rather than follow the others. To be able to observe this communication between Tony, Fly and the sheep at such close quarters is fantastic and a real privilege to be involved with – this interdependent relationship is perfectly demonstrated in this single event of gathering the sheep in from the field, carried out in a way that has been followed for centuries.
Once the sheep are in the pens, this gives us the opportunity to recapture the ‘camera-sheep’ and remove the webcam and GPS receiver, before they are all released back into the field. The other cameras and GPS receivers are reclaimed from Fly and Tony and with excitement, mixed in with a small amount of trepidation, we check that we’ve recorded the experience without any technological malfunctions! All seems ok and both Sara and I can’t wait to start working with this new data for the next series of work, producing paintings that capture this relationship between the farmer, the sheep dog and the sheep and also a film for an immersive video installation to be presented at the exhibition in the Thelma Hulbert Gallery in September.
After filming is finished, we enjoy the perks of working alongside a farmer in the spring, by visiting another field where more of his ewes have much younger lambs in tow – sending the ‘ahh’ factor off the scale….!!