Sheep herding on Vashon: A classic sport is reborn

Maggie McClure works with her dog Lil and some of her sheep. Lil will be one of dozens competing in the Sheepdog Classic. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Maggie McClure works with her dog Lil and some of her sheep. Lil will be one of dozens competing in the Sheepdog Classic.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

When Gael Gann visited Vashon for the first time in 2002, it was not to stroll the beaches, visit farms or even sample local wine. Gann, who had recently adopted a border collie, was intrigued by a sheep dog trial that was taking place on the Island.

An autumn day spent watching expertly trained border collies herd sheep through difficult courses at Misty Isle Farms immediately hooked Gann on the Island as well as the quickly growing canine sport.

“It was so beautiful and so exciting that I said I have to do that,” Gann said.

Eight years later, Gann, who now herds sheep with her border collie and lives on Vashon, is helping organize another Vashon sheepdog trial.

The first trial on the Island since 2002, the Vashon Sheepdog Classic on Oct. 1, 2 and 3, will also be the first to encourage public attendance with an extensive ad campaign. Proceeds from the event will benefit Partners In Education (PIE), an organization that awarded over $60,000 in grants to Vashon schoolteachers and district employees last year.

Vashon dog trainer Maggi McClure, who has trained sheepdogs for 15 years, is heading up the Sheepdog Classic. In her Maury Island home, with her border collie Lil at her feet and Lil’s young pup Ben playing nearby, McClure spoke about her excitement that Vashon is finally holding another sheepdog trial. She said Vashon is the perfect place for the event, which will again be held at the picturesque, 30-acre Misty Isle Farms.

“We are perfectly situated for folks to come out and have a rural experience,” she said.

About 80 handlers from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia will compete with over 100 dogs in novice and open classes at the three-day trial.

Islander Christie True, one of a handful of Islanders who will compete at the event, said the sport of sheep herding has grown in popularity since she got involved with it seven years ago.

“Even in the short time I’ve been doing it I’ve noticed a lot more people coming out to the fields and doing training. Lessons and workshops fill really fast. … More and more people are getting into it to have an activity to do with their dogs,” True said.

True added that the sport can be just as enjoyable for spectators. “If you enjoy watching athletes in soccer or football or swimming, this is a handler working with a dog and sheep, but it really is an opportunity to see a dog perform both physically and mentally.”

McClure, who owns 35 sheep which she uses to train and work several of her dogs, said sheep herding is earning a growing fan base, especially in Europe where the sport began. “It’s a huge spectator sport in the U.K. — we’re talking prime time TV,” she said.

Americans are taking an interest as well, though. McClure said a recent sheepdog trial in the small town of Meeker, Colo., drew more than 20,000 spectators over five days of competition.

McClure believes the Vashon Sheepdog Classic, which is planned to take place annually after this, could grow into an event similar to the one at Meeker and could help stimulate tourism on Vashon in the fall, when it often drops off.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for Vashon; it’s so close to Seattle and Tacoma. … Agricultural tourism is really taking off and we should tap into that. Vashon is perfect,” she said.

McClure is also pleased for the opportunity to benefit Island classrooms through the trials. Aside from donating the event’s proceeds to PIE, additional funds are being raised through a dog sponsorship program. Participants can sponsor a dog of their choice for $100, which is donated directly to PIE, and could win a Whistler vacation if their dog earns the most points at the trial.

Beth Kraabel, president of PIE, said the program has already brought in $1,500. She is especially happy to see donations coming in at the beginning of the school year, when PIE will soon receive this year’s grant applications.

“We’re very excited,” she said. “It has a potential to gain a lot more than that because there are still lots of dogs available.”

McClure is unsure how many spectators to expect at the first Sheepdog Classic. She hopes to see at least 500 over the weekend, though she says weather could play a factor in the turnout.

McClure described the event as a rare opportunity for the public to view working dogs in action. “It gives you a chance to see an amazing partnership between handlers and dogs,” she said.

A handful of local vendors will provide food at the trial. The Vashon Spinners Rock Fiber Artists and T Yamamoto will give demonstrations of blade shearing as well as various fiber arts and will sell a variety of goods to benefit Wolftown. McClure, who had to turn some vendors away, hopes to see those offerings, too, grow with the event.

“Once we get this framework built we can have an actual fair at the trial. … There’s an opportunity for it to grow into something really special on Vashon,” she said.

The Vashon Sheepdog Classic well be held on Oct. 1, 2 and 3 from dawn until dusk at Misty Isle Farm on Old Mill Road and 220th Ave. S.W.

Admission is $5; children under 12 are free.

Spectators are encouraged to bring picnic ware and water bottles to the low-trash event. For more infor mation visit www.vashon

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