The Australian Shepherd - Quite un-Australian

Australian ShepherdAustralian Shepherd

This article was originally written for 'Dog News Australia' in an attempt to correct the history of the Australian Shepherd's origin currently being promulgated by the AKC, the Kennel Club (UK), the FCI and the ANKC (Australia). The Australian Shepherd is a modern breed which America developed into a pure breed from Australian roots. This article argues the authenticity of its current published history by the world's Kennel Clubs.

Current Published Histories

It is common practice for breeds to adopt their country of origin in their name. So as this breed originated in Australia it was called the Australian Shepherd. But what is unusual about the Australian Shepherd is that it developed as a pure breed in another country, the USA.

Unfortunately, overseas Kennel Clubs have now incorrectly stated that the Australian Shepherd originated in Spain and then came to Australia with the Basque Shepherds. This is without any evidence that Basque Sheep herders, their sheep or their dogs ever came to Australia.

For example, the American Kennel Club website incorrectly states:

"It probably originated in the Basque Region of the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France but was dubbed the Australian Shepherd because of its association with the Basque Shepherds who came to the US from Australia in the 1800's"

Perpetuating this myth, the FCI says:

"The Australian Shepherd was given its name because of the association with Basque Sheep herders who came to the United States from Australia in the 1800's".

Making it even worse, The Kennel Club (UK) leaves Australia out altogether! It says:

"Belying his name, the Australian Shepherd is a breed developed in America as a sheepdog to work on the ranches. He has as his roots the Spanish Sheepdogs taken to America by Basque shepherds when they emigrated to America in the 19th century".

To correct this myth and understand how the Australian Shepherd originated in Australia, we must delve into Australian History.

Delving into History

Working Sheepdog c 1800Working Sheepdog c 1800

My initial research was into the source of the first sheep dogs to come to Australia. I found the answer after trawling through historic newspapers from Hobart Town in the 1820's, now digitally available through 'Trove', the on-line site of the National Library of Australia. It told me that in 1825, 2-3 pairs of rough 'Colley dogs', together with 122 sheep arrived in Tasmania on a ship called the 'Hugh Crawford'. This was the first ship to sail directly from London to Sydney. It then went to Hobart in Tasmania, bringing 'free' immigrants that is, potential settlers who were not convicts.

Smithfield (modern)Smithfield (modern)

These rough 'Colley Dogs' were named because they had probably driven flocks of sheep to the 'Smithfield Market' in London. As this market was quite a hub because it connected London to other parts of Britain by rail, when these dogs arrived in Australia they became known as 'Smithfield Collies'. They are still known as a type of dog in Tasmania today although not recognized as a pure breed.

Early British SheepdogEarly British Sheepdog

The sheep industry in Australia then grew so quickly that advertisements appeared in English newspapers asking for Shepherds and their dogs to come to Australia. One advertisement in 1836 offered the sum of £20 (around one year's wage) for each Shepherd, their working sheepdog (plus their wife!) to come to Hobart. So many 'Smithfield Colleys' arrived. Some of these dogs and their owners travelled on to Sydney.

As this was well prior to when pure breed dogs and Stud Books began in UK, these were the type of British Sheepdogs that preceded the breeds we know today as the Old English Sheepdog, the Bearded Collie, the Border Collie and Collies Rough and Smooth. Certainly their owners also came from Britain. Descendants of these dogs and people would have been those who accompanied the sheep from Australia to USA in the late 1840's.

History of Australian Sheep

I then wondered where Australia's sheep first came from.  Contrary to previous published histories on Australian Shepherds, it seemed far fetched to me that in the early 1800's mobs of Spanish sheep could possibly have travelled by land and/or sea from Spain to Australia!

Fat-tailed SheepFat-tailed Sheep

So I went back to the well documented stories about the First Fleet in 1788 which brought fat tailed Cape Sheep from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa purchased en route to Sydney. But more importantly John and Elizabeth's MacArthur's Spanish Merinos which were also bred and purchased in South Africa, and came out on the Second Fleet to Camden NSW 1792. It appears Elizabeth MacArthur was a particularly astute pastoralist because, by 1803 her herd had quickly grown to around 4,000 head. As generations of these sheep were bred, after many decades they formed the basis of what was to become known as the Australian Merino[1].

Australian MerinoAustralian Merino

I then pondered how could Australia produce sufficient sheep to export to USA in 1848 - 1850 to feed the growing population of West Coast Americans? The population count had swelled from around 800 to 380,000 in 18 months during the Gold Rush. At that time, only 2 colonies on the east side of Australia were producing sheep, Sydney NSW and Tasmania. So sea trade between the two was common. So where and how were these mobs of sheep produced?

After hours of research, I was rewarded when I found an extremely rare small book called 'A Short History of Land Settlement in Tasmania', written by W.N.Hurst and published by the Tasmania Government Printer in 1938[2]. He documented how from 1804, Lieutenant Colonel Paterson, described as an 'ardent botanist' first put livestock into Tasmania in 1804. He arrived on the banks of the River Tamar, with his party of 184 persons and 'a considerable amount of livestock'. These included 612 cows from Bengal, which cost the English Government £15,350 and formed the nucleus of the cattle herds in north Tasmania. That same year, sheep from Macarthur's flock in New South Wales followed and free settlers were granted land.

Thylacine (now extinct)Thylacine (now extinct)

In 1825, Tasmania was proclaimed a colony independent of NSW called 'Van Dieman's Land'. By this time there were 84,476 cattle, 553,698 sheep and 2,034 horses charging wildly through delicate virgin terrain and impacting the ground. By 1835 with no Dingoes native to Tasmania, the only other natural predator was the Thylacine. This extraordinary marsupial was hunted to extinction because it was accused of killing some of the one million sheep Tasmania was running at that time! So there was no question whether or not Australia could supply sufficient Australian Merino's to export to the USA!

The Australia - California Sea Journey

Eli WhitneyEli Whitney

The History of the Australian Shepherd also tells how shipments of around 500 sheep, each with at least one 'Colley' were transported on ships like the 600-ton American Barque, the 'Eli Witney'. This was just one of many ships which made repeated 90-day voyages between Sydney and San Francisco in the late 1840's. The sheep were Australian Merinos and the dogs and their owners who accompanied them were also Australians who had originally come from Britain.

Australian ShepherdAustralian Shepherd

It is my hope that the publication of 'The Australian Shepherd - Quite un-Australian' will dispel the present myth that appears in Kennel Clubs' breed histories of the Australian Shepherd. In addition to founding some of America's Merino sheep industry, Australia should be given the credit of being the 'Country of Origin' of the Australian Shepherd which America developed from Australian roots!

References and Further Reading

2017 - Jane Harvey " The Australian Shepherd - Quite un-Australian" Published in Dog News Australia (Top Dog Media Pty Ltd Austral NSW) Issue 8 August 2017, Page 10

[1] Ivan Heazlewood - 'Old Sheep for New Pastures' Self Published 1992 ISBN 0 646 11045 4

[2] W.N. Hurst 'A Short History of Land Settlement in Tasmania', published by the Tasmania Government Printer 1938.