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Border collie sheepdog Sweep travels to Orford Ness nature reserve by ferry to round up flocks of rare sheep



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A sheepdog has 'found his sea legs' after being recruited to round up flocks of rare breeds of sheep on a remote spit of land off the Suffolk coast.

One-year-old border collie Sweep travels to Orford Ness nature reserve by boat with National Trust shepherd Andrew Capell, where the pair look after some of the country's rarest breeds of sheep.

Breeds kept on Orford 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 is often associated with Beatrix Potter.

Sweep the sheepdog at Orford Ness. Picture: National Trust/Richard Scott
Sweep the sheepdog at Orford Ness. Picture: National Trust/Richard Scott

Sweep took up the post in February, taking over from his long-standing predecessor Kite.

Mr Capell said, while Sweep was familiar with sheep, the ferry trip took a little while longer for him to get to grips with.

"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," he said.

Sweep and shepherd Andrew Capell disembark from the ferry. Picture: National Trust/Richard Scott
Sweep and shepherd Andrew Capell disembark from the ferry. Picture: National Trust/Richard Scott

“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!”

Mr Capell believes Sweep will be a hit with visitors to Orford Ness when they are allowed to welcome back guests again.

“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 added.

Sweep and shepherd Andrew Capell. Picture: National Trust/Richard Scott
Sweep and shepherd Andrew Capell. Picture: National Trust/Richard Scott

"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.”

A new Countryside Code, outlining guidance and advice to people when in outdoor spaces, was launched by the Government and Natural England on April 1.

Orford Ness is the largest shingle spit in Europe, which is recognised as an internationally important habitat.

From the First World War through to the Cold War, it was used as a top secret military test centre - with many of its eerie buildings remaining in situ, now taken over by nature.

Rare plants like sea pea grow on the Ness, as well as more than 100 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.

“Having sheep on the island also means we can play our part in conserving the breeds themselves, many of which are rare," Mr Capell said.

As lambing season is underway and nesting birds are on the ground, Mr Capell hopes to emphasise the importance of responsible dog behaviour at the coast and in the countryside.

Sweep the sheepdog. Picture: National Trust/Richard Scott
Sweep the sheepdog. Picture: National Trust/Richard Scott

He said: “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 National Trust has worked with natural pet food maker Forthglade to produce a Canine Code to support responsible dog ownership.

Read more: All the latest news from Suffolk