Tom Wilson, Master Shepherd
By Michael McLeod
TOM WILSON, MASTER SHEPHERD
Tom Wilson raises Katahdin sheep near Gordonsville, Virginia. Home is an antebellum plantation house built in 1857 surrounded by 1200-acres of lush pastures, ponds, barns, and kennels.
Wilson is a third-generation shepherd who was born to an already large family on the Scottish border with England. Known as Border Country, the area is the birth place of the top herding dog breed in the world, the Border Collie.
Tom has been a shepherd since he was old enough to toddle to the pasture; he’s never had a different job.
When experienced people do something well most want to know just how good they are. For shepherds and their dogs that means sheepdog trials.
Tom won his first sheepdog competition when he was 20, but says it was a long dry spell before he won again.
By the time he was 30, he had superb “stock-sense,” meaning that he could sense what the sheep were going to do before they did it. That skill let him command his dog, often hundreds of yards away, to correct the sheep’s path. He was one of the best sheepdog trainers and handlers in the British Isles, and was often in the winner’s circle at ISDS herding trials (see side bar).
In 1983, Tom was invited to the United States to put on a herding clinic in White Post, VA. It wasn’t his first trip here but must have been his most important: it was at that event that he met his future wife, Florence Robinson, a clinic participant.
When asked if it was love-at-first-sight, Wilson quipped, “It was for her. She showed up at a couple more US clinics then she came over to visit a couple of times. After that, I moved to Virginia.”
Was that when they got married? “No. We were living in sin,” was his deadpan reply.
There were some sheep on the farm when Tom moved to Virginia, but more were purchased. At one point there were over 600 in the flock. That number is down to 125 today, plus this year’s lambs (+-175). There are also 80 cows, and a few horses. Tom, now 75, says that is as much as he, with the help of his dogs, cares to manage on a year-around basis.
But even when there were hundreds of sheep to be sheared, have their feet trimmed, their injuries and illnesses taken care of…even then, Tom and the dogs did it all.
It takes a lot of time to train a dog to the point of being useful. Tom trains his dogs every day.
Most working shepherds have multiple dogs, one mature, one “getting there,” and one or more on the way up. Tom has five Border Collies: Kate (7, top dog), Roy (2, useful, and almost there), and three young ones of staggered ages (all less than a year old) that he has high hopes for.
He has won all of the major sheepdog competitions in the US, including the Purina National Championship, the USBCHA National Nursery (x3) and Reserve (x2) Championships, and each of the competitions mentioned in the sidebar.
In his spare time, he travels around the country to conduct herding clinics and judge competitions. When not on the road, he hosts USBCHA competitions and teaches herding students on the farm. He calls this schedule “Slowing down a little.”
He doesn’t have a computer and doesn’t want one. That means no email—if you can’t catch him close to his phone (no answering machine, so good luck with that) you’ll have to write him a snail-mail letter.
No computer? How does he keep track of all that stuff? An old-fashioned calendar, the type you mark on with a pencil. He’s been doing it that way his entire life and has no intention of changing.
The calendar does have one drawback: his wife. Florence is often on the road for equestrian events. Either she or Tom must be on the farm to feed the dogs and keep an eye on the horses, cows, and sheep.
If you want Wilson to judge your trial or conduct a sheepdog clinic you’ll hear, “Hold on, I’ll check the calendar.” If Florence plans to be on the road on the days you want Tom for your event, you’re out of luck: the first one to mark the calendar gets priority on this working shepherd’s farm.
About the Author: Michael McLeod has been a working writer for more than 40 years. He has awards for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays. He can be reached at email@example.com
Sheep farming in Scottish hill country is difficult, partly because of the terrain. The way to manage a large flock in an economical manner is with the help of sheepdogs that can “work the hill” all day.
Border Country shepherds have been selectively breeding herding dogs for hundreds of years. A specific line of those dogs, casually called the “shepherd’s dog,” became popular in the late 1800s. In 1915 the International Sheep Dog Society (ISDS) officially named that line of dogs “Border Collie” to differentiate them from other collie breeds. One legend says “collie” is from the Scottish Gaelic language and means “useful.”
Distant work, such as fetching sheep from hundreds of yards up a steep hill or driving them toward a far-off gateway to another pasture, is accomplished with coded whistles to tell the dog what do. Close-in jobs, such as penning for shearing, are usually done with verbal and visual commands to the same dog that brought the sheep down from the hills.
An organization similar to the ISDS exists in North America: The United States Border Collie Handlers Association (USBCHA), often shortened to “Handler’s Association.” Both ISDS and USBCHA sponsor sheepdog competitions that are based on actual farm work but that require much greater precision on the part of the dog.
Each dog starts out with the same number of points, then the judge(s) deduct points for mistakes. At the end of the day, the dog with the highest number of remaining points wins the top prize.
In 2019, the USBCHA will sponsor more than 100 multi-day trials in North America. Some of the more difficult and prestigious competitions are: Soldier Hollow (UT), Meeker (CO), Bluegrass (KY), and the National Sheepdog Finals (rotates east, west, and mid-country).