Hugh wears a gentleman farmer's grey tweed Trilby, a cricket-beige sweater and a bib bearing the number 10. He walks calmly towards the sheep as his dog shifts to the left, to the right, a sinuous arrow quivering in the bow of his master's voice.

The clip is from a 1984 episode of the TV programme The Dog Show. Their task is to separate the group of six sheep into two groups of three.

"Down, Skip," Hugh growls. "Get down, Skip, get down." A hint of urgency.

John Gordon's soothing commentary comes over the top. "This is where Hugh got unstuck in his first round. But this man always manages to stick everything back together again."

Sure enough, with some supple darting by Skip, two of the sheep break off, and an elegant nudge of Hugh's stick finishes the job.

Gordon: "It's there, it's there, just gotta take that one - look at that! That's stockmanship, the way he just leaned over!"

Sheepdogs' inalienable place in the Kiwi collective consciousness would be reaffirmed two years later with a film based on cartoonist Murray Ball's comic strip, Footrot Flats.

This week's brouhaha over the idea of evicting sheepdogs from farming life has shown that even in these quadbike-overrun, dairy-converted times, Dog is not to be messed with.

It all started with a letter from C.S. Waddington of Canterbury, published in Britain's Daily Telegraph, complaining darkly of a British supermarket representative who had visited New Zealand and "decreed that no dogs should be used to muster animals destined to slaughter.

"People here are astounded," Waddington wrote. "The relationship between a trained working dog and sheep is so customary and understood as to be almost symbiotic ... Now the shepherds and their dogs have been dismissed and replaced by men with rattles, waving their arms. It is difficult to imagine a more demeaning occupation."

The Telegraph reported that big supermarket chain Tesco had asked Silver Fern Farms, a major New Zealand lamb supplier, to stop using dogs to herd livestock into the abattoir unless they could be retrained to be more "considerate" - so they don't stress the sheep out.

Absolute baloney! came the chorus of derision. In fact, says Ngaio Beausoleil, a lecturer in animal physiology at Massey University, we don't know what is more stressful to lambs to the slaughter: rattling, waving, shouting humans or barking dogs.

But we do know that such things as loading and unloading on trucks, fasting and dehydration, mixing with new sheep, and an unfamiliar environment can freak the sheep.

Beausoleil's own research, which compared behavioural and hormonal signs of stress in sheep caused by dogs versus that caused by humans, did find some preliminary evidence that dogs are more stressful. But the stress was moderate compared to that stirred by routine treatments such as shearing and docking.

Anyway, says Beausoleil, better yard design and noise-makers (those rattles) have largely made dogs redundant from meatworks anyway.

Brett Melville of Silver Fern Farms says only three out of the co-operative's 24 plants still use dogs; and the remaining dogs will be phased out to keep buyers from Europe and further afield happy.

"They made us sound like quaint little villagers that don't even use trucks," he says.

"We work on an international playing field and we've got to subscribe to our customers' values to be competitive ...

"We try to slaughter the animals with as much focus on animal welfare as possible - I hate to use the word humanely, because humanely applies to humans. We treat them well because obviously it impacts on the quality of our product."

Those fretful Brits need a reality check, says Kaipara sheep farmer Tony Hargreaves. Sure, dogs can stress out sheep. There are "wild pet dogs" who attack in packs and leave sheep disembowelled, mauled, and traumatised. (If he finds the butchers, Hargreaves shoots first, asks later.)

And sheep probably don't like the "dirty workers": poorly trained dogs that eyeball the sheep then run at them and try to bite them.

Hargreaves and wife Lindsey run about 1100 sheep on the Oneriri Peninsula. On their walls are a photo and portrait of one of his star dogs, Boy, who won the South Island dog trialling champs. The spry 66-year-old has trialled and bred sheep dogs for almost 40 years. "It's my absolute passion."

Outside, Kaipara's subtly sensual landscape of silver, soft greens and blue shines with the promise of rain. Hargreaves' shows us three of his nine dogs.

There's Rogue the wilful adolescent huntaway, Steel the up-and-coming heading dog and his baby sister, Shrew, who's only 16 weeks but already braver than her brother.

"They're just obsessed with stock: that's the breeding in them."

Huntaways, big dogs selected for their booming voice, control livestock with barks. Heading dogs, also known as eye dogs, are derived from the English border collie, and use their eyes.

Hargreaves watches Shrew work. "Lovely soft feet, she just walks stealthily."

He motions towards the sheep, who quietly mind the dog. "Is the terror visible there?"

Huntaways are dangerous machines if they're not trained, Hargreaves says. "It's like a V8, he's got all this power and you've got to be very careful how you channel it."

Working dogs are like kids. "If you don't get them on side when they're little fellas, don't think you will when they're teenagers."

Hargreaves has judged scores of trials and once did commentary for The Dog Show. He knows a good dog when he sees one.

He sends Rogue 200m away to the top of a hill to bring down some sheep.

He uses whistles and his own variations on shepherdese: "wayleggo" means come away and let them go; "leave it" for a steep right turn; "get in" for a sharp right turn and "get in behind" for changing sides by circling behind the shepherd.

Hargreaves' liquor cabinet is flush with whisky and beer given to him by grateful lifestylers whose stock he helped move. He shakes his head. Using sheepdogs is a dying art in Northland, as smallholders rely more and more on their quadbikes.

Murray Ball understood dogs, he says, as we pass an old kennel that Lindsey decorated, maybe 30 years ago, with hand paintings of Footrot Flats' Dog and Jess.

"He understood sheep, he understood dogs, he understood people."

Historian Jock Phillips says Footrot Flats captured the rural mythology around the sheepdog.

"The sheepdog has been the Kiwi bloke's best friend forever. He's better than a wife, he's better than a mate; he doesn't answer back, he's totally loyal, never laughs at you, never questions how you dress or spend your money. That's why we always call them with names of great affection, like Girl or Beaut or Madge. It's a bloke thing."

Hargreaves calls the dogs away and closes the gate. These old ewes have been culled: a fat one might fetch $60. "They'll make sausages," he explains. "Don't say it too loud, or they'll get stressed."