A Writer’s encounter with a woolly Madonna.
THE first time I met Katy Cropper and her champion Border Collie Trim, we were screen testing both for a program about Katy’s dog training techniques.
With her slightly wild edge, Katy Cropper belongs to the outdoors, and is at her most focussed when working with a team of sheepdogs to lift a flock from the far edge of a field and bring it back, in a majestic manner, right to her feet.
She’s also got a winning smile, and, as a friend of mine who watched the screen test said, a “great set of pins”. So we edited the footage into a ten minute clip, and played it on rotation at The Royal Show in Warwickshire in the summer of 1996.
The crowds that gathered to watch showed us we’d chosen a very popular subject, and so we got the green light to capture the story of Katy’s new trainee sheepdog – Splash – over the next two trialling seasons.
Scheduling eighteen months of filming with Katy turned out to be a great way to tour the rural counties of England, simply because this successful (and often controversial) shepherdess never stays in one place for very long.
The first woman to win the prestigious BBC sheepdog handling title One Man and His Dog, Katy led us on a merry chase through some of the most beautiful farmland between Yorkshire, the Lake District, Gloucestershire, and The Midlands.
The only time I was guaranteed of finding Katy where I expected her was for her scheduled appearance at the Royal Show the following year. At other times I would anticipate a call from wherever she was working at the time, and she would give me detailed directions to which field on which farm she’d be shepherding on which day.
True to form, Katy was always there waiting and ready, decked-out in her latest take on what I’ll call ‘sexy-tweed’. When asked about what she is really like (and I was asked a lot over the years), I came to describe Katy Cropper as a combination of Toad of Toad Hall, and Sarah Duchess of York – she’s got boundless energy to burn, she sometimes gets into a bit of a pickle, and she’s usually kitted-out a bit like a country gent.
Predictably, her indefinability has seen Katy cop plenty of flack over the years – anyone who enters a sheepdog trial with a three-legged border collie, or appears in a trialling event in a two piece bikini, or who tilts at any male-dominated, traditionalist world like sheepdog handling, is going to be the butt of jokes and barbs.
But Katy struck me as a great survivor who has overcome a few hurdles that would have stopped many others. She is steeped in the hedgerows and country pubs of England’s heritage, using phrases like “crow pie” and “the sun always shines on the righteous”, and all the traditional sheepdog commands like “that’ll do” and “bide there”. She’s rarely seen without her shepherd’s crook, and has a great collection of hats.
At her Royal Show appearance, Katy also showed a touch of Madonna, with her wireless microphone and her showgirl streak.
She arrived with a horse float full of animals – dogs, ducks, turkeys, pigs, a pony, and sheep, of course. The dogs, not fully animal in Katy’s world, were up front in the truck, and they helped her set-up the routine.
At that time in her retirement, Katy’s most famous dog, the predominantly white-faced Trim, followed Katy around and checked on all the details of the hurdles and fences. If something wasn’t right quite right, Katy looked to Trim to let her know.
Katy’s performance is a mish-mash of herded ducks, a range of fine dog handling and herding techniques, and an over-reaching sense of fun, which is why I think some country traditionalists could take or leave Katy Cropper, whereas city folk can’t get enough of her.
Splash progressed through her monthly filming sessions into a contender for a range of nursery trials, and it was there that we got a first-hand look at how the whole sheepdog trialling world works. There are so many events throughout the country that you can enter one in the morning, then drive over the range for another one at lunch time.
In between, your dog (and you) can go from a loser to a winner, and that’s exactly what happened to Katy and Splash in our program One Woman and Her Dog.
I raved so much about the special energy of female Border Collies that eventually I was tipped-off about one which needed a home. Five years later, I saved another from the pound. Fifteen years on, both my girls are still with me, and have made me look like a great dog trainer, simply because Border Collies are just so intelligent.
The rest of my training tricks I learnt from Katy Cropper.
Mind you, even though I say “that’ll do” and “bide there” to my dogs, I’ve never unleashed them on a flock of sheep in a field the size of ten football ovals. Katy Cropper has, and despite what you think about her, she knows how to train sheepdogs to bring in the sheep.
One Woman and her Dog was released by United News & Media in 1997 but is currently unavailable to buy. It is occasionally available on eBay and kept in the collection of Australia’s National Library.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.