National Trust sheepdog finds his sea legs for commute to nature reserve

Press release
Sheepdog lies on a shingle beach
Published : 07 Apr 2021

A sea-faring sheepdog has been recruited by the National Trust to help look after flocks of rare breed sheep on a remote spit of land off the Suffolk coast. 

Sweep, a one-year old border collie, travels to Orford Ness nature reserve by boat, where he rounds up some of the country’s rarest breeds of sheep under the watchful eye of National Trust shepherd Andrew Capell. 

Breeds kept on the Ness include the Whitefaced Woodland, saved from extinction in the 1970s, the Manx Loaghtan which has fewer than 1,500 breeding females left in the country, and the Herdwick, which has long been associated with Beatrix Potter.

Sweep took up post in February and follows in the footsteps of his long-standing predecessor, Kite.

Andrew said: “He’s used to being around sheep but the ferry crossing has taken a bit of getting used to. Thankfully, he seems to have found his sea legs.

“Sweep has plenty to learn so he’ll be in training for a while yet. As I always tell visitors to the Ness, it takes four years to train a sheepdog – one year for each leg!”

“Having a sea-going sheepdog is a real talking point on the Ness and I’m looking forward to introducing Sweep to visitors once we’ve reopened. He’ll no doubt be a popular member of staff and will help us get people engaged in important topics like conservation and the Countryside Code.”

Orford Ness is the largest shingle spit in Europe and is recognised as an internationally important habitat. It was used as a top secret military test centre from the First World War through to the Cold War and many of its eerie buildings remain in situ, now colonised by nature.

Rare plants like sea pea grow on the Ness, as well as over a hundred species of lichen, animals including brown hare, Chinese water deer, and birds such as lapwing, marsh harrier and barn owl.

The site has been grazed for centuries and sheep play an important part in maintaining a healthy environment for its diverse wildlife, helping to keep invasive plants under control and ‘mowing’ the grass for hay. 

Andrew continued: “Having sheep on the island also means we can play our part in conserving the breeds themselves, many of which are rare.”

With lambing season underway, and nesting birds on the ground, Andrew is also keen to emphasise the importance of responsible dog behaviour at the coast and in the countryside: 

“Sweep is the only dog allowed on the Ness due to the fragility of the habitat but we’re hoping he can help us promote responsible dog behaviour across the UK coast and countryside. 

“March to September is the season for ground-nesting birds, including rare species like the little tern, and we need people to help us protect this amazing wildlife by keeping dogs at a distance. There will also be livestock in the fields right now, so if you’re out walking through farmland or near wildlife, please make sure your dog is on a lead.”

The Trust has worked with natural pet food maker Forthglade to produce a Canine Code to support responsible dog ownership.