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Tribute to sheepdog handler who achieved an 'impossible ambition'

PUBLISHED: 10:05 12 February 2019 | UPDATED: 10:22 12 February 2019

Rob McLean, right, at the English national sheepdog trials in 1997. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

Rob McLean, right, at the English national sheepdog trials in 1997. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

Archant

An international sheepdog handler, who competed and judged trials around the world, and was a lifelong Norwich City fan, Rob McLean, has died aged 87.

Rob McLean, Norfolk sheepdog handler, with his collie, Tom. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARYRob McLean, Norfolk sheepdog handler, with his collie, Tom. Picture: ARCHANT LIBRARY

He became the first handler in Norfolk to represent his country in international trials. And it started after he watched the BBC television programme, One Man and His Dog, in 1981. As he later told the EDP: “I thought I would have a go and went out the next day and bought a book about trialling.”

From his home at Swafield, near North Walsham, he honed his skills and was invited to stage a grand ring display at the 2004 Royal Norfolk Show in front of the Prince of Wales. It was an impressive demonstration although his top dog became slightly confused by the loudspeakers relaying his master’s voice and commands.

He was selected as a member of the 15-strong English national team to compete in 1991 in an international trial – the first person in Norfolk to represent his country, with his dog, Tom.

In August 1993, he won another chance to compete in the top flight of the international One Man and His Dog in the Lake District. “I thought that I had achieved an impossible ambition when I qualified a couple of years ago,” he added.

Rob McLean, Norfolk sheepdog handler, at Overstrand, Tom. Picture: Graham CorneyRob McLean, Norfolk sheepdog handler, at Overstrand, Tom. Picture: Graham Corney

He was a respected commentator at many trials including the English national staged in front of Holkham Hall in August 1997, where he also competed. And he was also selected to judge one of the trials on the then highly-popular BBC programme 20 years after taking up his whistle and crook.

Born at Ivy Farm, Kessingland, where the family farmed for more than 125 years, Douglas Robin (Rob) McLean was a main board director of the long-established millers and merchants, W L Duffield, of Saxlingham Thorpe, near Norwich, until retiring in 1997.

He won a scholarship to Framlingham College – subsequently attending almost every possible reunion – and after working on the family farm, he went to Oaklands Agricultural College, St Albans, Hertfordshire, before joining Quaker Oats.

A respected nutritionist, salesman and adviser on animal feed rations, he left a competitor RJ Seaman to become commercial director with the late Tony Duffield.

Rob McLean, Norfolk sheepdog handler, at Overstrand, Tom. Picture: Graham CorneyRob McLean, Norfolk sheepdog handler, at Overstrand, Tom. Picture: Graham Corney

He also oversaw the closure of Duffield’s flour milling operation in the early 1990s and latterly the major expansion into specialist animal feeds with the purchase of Baxter’s of Horsford and finally Cubitt & Walker, of Ebridge mills, near North Walsham.

While he had become fascinated by watching sheepdogs and their handlers on a family holiday in the Lake District in 1963, he finally bought his own dog almost two decades later. Although sheep were never kept on the family farm, the farm dogs were used to manage cattle in a rough and ready way. In the main, the dogs were known as “Smithfields” and resembled the bearded collie of today.

And his rise from raw novice was rapid as he was invited to judge the Blue Riband event, the annual United States national trials in 1990. Over the following years, he travelled widely holding training seminars in Europe and visiting Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Belgium and Italy to meet fellow enthusiasts.

He also organised many sheepdog trials over the years raising thousands of pounds for children’s charities including the long-running event at Overstrand.

Rob McLean, Norfolk sheepdog handler, at Overstrand, Tom. Picture: Graham CorneyRob McLean, Norfolk sheepdog handler, at Overstrand, Tom. Picture: Graham Corney

A well-known supporter at Carrow Road, he was a fixture at every home match and had missed just one home game since 1946.

He leaves a widow, Sonia. He was married to Mary for 49 years, who survives, and they had six children, Susan, Marion, Alison, Sarah, James and Robert, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A funeral will be held at St Edmund’s Church, Kessingland on Friday, February 15 at 11.30am.

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