Not much can threaten the New Zealand sheepdog. It follows the farmer anywhere in any weather, ranges as wide as a whistle, runs beyond exhaustion, fronts up to the meanest beast when ordered, answers to a curse, expects scant attention let alone affection and at day's end, asks only a truck ride home, a dry sack and a sinewy bone.
But the sheepdog is threatened, our South Island correspondent reports today, by the sensibilities of some consumers overseas. One southern slaughtering and marketing firm, Silver Fern farms, is pulling dogs out of its yards at the request of foreign buyers.
Big retailers want to label meat with the claim that it has come from 'stress-free sheep'. So far the request has been confined to freezing works but farmers fear it is a matter of time before they feel the pressure too.
It is daft, they know. The only substitute for dogs is manpower and the frustrations that would produce are unlikely to make things less stressful for the sheep. Trained dogs are probably gentler for animals accustomed to them. But there is no arguing with distant consumers. The sheepdogs' days may be numbered. Perhaps the demand for stress-free sheep will hasten the arrival of e-farming, when sheep and cattle will be mustered from an office computer by means of GPS tracking.
Dogs would be replaced with sensors attached to the livestock, doing away with the need for fences and gates, too. Animals could be confined or moved with mild shocks. Australian scientists are said to be developing some such system and animal welfare advisers who observed its trial said cattle were not "unduly stressed" by the shocks. Someone should tell these sensitive consumers. They might cease to believe a meat label claim that is barking mad.