With its rocky, windswept hills, crystalline lakes and wild terrain, Connemara is a breath-taking destination in any season. However, in spring, it’s particularly beautiful, bursting to life with fresh blooms and new-born lambs. It’s also the season for litters of puppies at Joyce Country Sheepdogs, a family-run sheep farm that’s a 45-minute drive from The Lodge at Ashford Castle. Here, we discover what’s so special about the farm’s notoriously friendly and highly intelligent pack of Border Collies.
The farm’s history stretches back nearly a century, when a Welshman named Thomas Joyce was drawn to the rugged expanse between the Maumturks and Partry Mountains. He married a local girl and set up the farm which still bears his name today. Joe Joyce is now the family’s third generation to farm sheep here. His wife Mary Ann moved to the farm with a very special companion, Roy, a Border Collie with excellent bloodlines. The couple have bred many sheepdogs over the years, and train up the finest Collies in Connemara.
Mayo Connemara blackface sheep are the only breed resilient enough to thrive in the region’s steep, challenging landscapes. The flocks live on the hills for the majority of the year, with little human contact for many months. They tend to wander up to the highest peaks, converging in the most inaccessible spots. This makes it very difficult for Joe to shepherd them on his own, and he needs to gather the flock together for shearing as the summer approaches.
Thanks to Roy and his pack, he has plenty of helpers. To steer around the imposing peaks that the sheep call home, he boats out into a lake at the bottom of the slopes. Dropping his sheepdogs off on the shore, Joe remains in the boat—a perfect vantage point from which to watch the Collies at work and issue commands, the shrills of his whistles carrying for miles. The hills are also inhabited by sheep owned by other farmers, and Joe’s dogs are trained to separate his flock, coloured with specific markings, from the rest.
Joe happily welcomes visitors to Joyce Country Sheepdogs to meet his bright Border Collies, including the farm’s newest litter of pups. Even as puppies, the dogs instinctively start herding—it’s in their blood. As they grow up, Joe patiently teaches them to respond to his whistles and how to steer the sheep left and right, as well as when to stop and walk on. It’s an extraordinary spectacle to watch the skilled Collies in action, and a fascinating opportunity to watch the farm’s sheep-shearers at work.
Look out for the framed photographs of Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson’s visit during the filming of Marley & Me. Apparently Owen came very close to taking a souvenir back to the US in the form of a Joyce Country Farm Border Collie puppy.