Red dust plumes around a rowdy mob of merinos filing through the sheep yards and disappearing into the heaving, buzzing Tupra Station woolshed. 

Like seasoned sergeant majors, four doughty, black-and-tan kelpies keep them on the move, eyeing the leaders and sending the stragglers back into line.

Inside the hot, bustling shed, amid sweat-stained, bronzed Riverina jackeroos and shearers, a small figure with a thick mane of auburn hair moves adroitly, filling pens and counting out runs.

Nancy Withers, a 5’2″ farmer, wife, mother, and working dog breeder is the overseer.

Nancy and Bullenbong Mate.(Supplied: Nancy Withers)

But it’s not 2023, where women in sheep yards are a normal, expected presence.

It’s the 90s, and the sight of Nancy and her team of working kelpies commanding 42,000 sheep for shearing is a rare but precious gem amid this historic sheep station near the junction of the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers at Oxley, west of Hay in the New South Wales Riverina.

“I still wonder what the station manager must have thought when he heard he was getting a woman with quite a few dogs to come and be the overseer at the sheep yards,” Nancy recalls.

“Little did we both know, but that arrangement would continue happily for the next 14 years.”

Nancy was appointed to the role by Ian McLachlan AO, pastoralist and station owner and former minister for defence.

“Those six weeks at Tupra each year really tested my dogs, and whilst I had a pretty good idea of what I liked in dogs prior to going there, it certainly confirmed what was really needed to get the job done,” she explains.

“The ‘core’ dogs that I worked with over those years were my brothers in arms.”

Tupra Station sheep yards, Oxley, New South Wales.(Supplied: Nancy Withers)

‘Proud, aristocratic’ kelpie with mind of his own

Next year will mark 50 years of Nancy’s Pomanda Kelpies, one of the country’s oldest and most acclaimed working dog studs.

With auction prices for top kelpies surpassing $35,000 in recent years, and demand coming in from as far away as Finland and Bolivia, Nancy Withers understands the breed like few others.

She has a “near photographic” memory of movement and type, even after breeding 18 generations of kelpies.

Nancy has bred 18 generations of kelpies.(Supplied: Nancy Withers)

But there was one dog who changed her life, and that she’s “never quite seen again” amid the many yard-dog-trialling champions and reliable farm workers she has bred since.

“From the moment I saw him, I knew he was a force to be reckoned with,” she says of Bullenbong Mate, a 17-month-old Riverina kelpie Nancy collected off the train from Bordertown in 1982.

“He was very proud, very aristocratic, and he really had a mind of his own.

“I’d never seen a dog like him before.

“He didn’t listen to me very much to begin with,” she laughs.

“I had to be very flexible in my approach to him — I couldn’t train him the same way as I had my other dogs, but I think by being so flexible and letting him have his way so often, I learned so much about what a dog was capable of.”

Nancy is an expert working-dog trainer.(Supplied Nancy Withers)

A tale of two types

Nancy explains there are “two main types” of working kelpies in Australia today: in-hand types and hill-gathering types.

“Mate descended from the fell gathering dogs of Scotland — the dogs that would go right out on the mountains for miles and bring in the sheep and lambs from the most inhospitable of places.

“The in-hand types are the kelpies you see much more commonly on farms; they’re busier, back freely, and are highly trainable.

“I have bred both types, and one of the most fascinating things about breeding dogs is that you learn how much genetics has an influence.

“But the hill gatherers are very special to me — you can’t work them, you have to work with them,” she says, as she prepares to breed the last Pomanda litter of hill gatherers to notch up five decades.

Nancy and her working kelpie Pomanda Lago working a mob of sheep in the yards.(Supplied: Nancy Withers)

Die cast for a life on the land

At 73, Nancy still works her dogs among the picturesque red-gum-studded hills of Casterton, in far Western Victoria, a “stone’s throw” in country terms from where she grew up around Mount Gambier, just over the border in South East SA.

The only daughter of a farmer father and acclaimed dressmaker mother, Nancy says she “defied her mother’s determined efforts” to persuade her against a life on the land, including sending her to June Daly Watkins’ finishing school in Sydney.

Nancy has spent decades trialling her Pomanda working kelpies across Australia.(Supplied: Nancy Withers)

“Well, it was awfully fun, and I learned a lot, but I came home and went straight back to working outdoors with animals,” she laughs.

In one way or another, animals have set the course of her life.

A bad horse-riding accident saw her unable to work as a nurse, so Nancy practised as a vet nurse before she married and moved to Nalpa Station on the shores of Lake Alexandrina.

“It was unusual in those days for women to be out in the paddocks,” she says.

“But my husband and in-laws were supportive, and it was there that I began breeding working dogs.”

After the arrival of her two children, Nancy’s health declined for a time and the couple moved to a property, Pomanda, further south near Lochaber in 1980.

“When I recovered from some serious and complicated health problems, I was able to get back to breeding kelpies and mustering on horseback,” she says.

“I also got more serious about breeding working dogs, and I got my first stud bitch from Mike Donelan at Bulenbong Kelpies near The Rock in NSW — I paid the equivalent of six weeks’ wages for her at the time!”

The only woman in the room to woman of the year

As the Pomanda kelpie stud grew, Nancy was selling about 100 dogs each year across Australia through the 1990s. In 1994 she published a book about training them.

She also became more involved in the industry as a founding member of the South Australian Yard Dog Association, an award-winning competitor, and judge of numerous trials, including three state championships. She was the only woman to have ever done so at the time.

Nancy and Pomanda Iago trialling at Bathurst in the 1990s.(Supplied: Nancy Withers)

In 1996, Nancy embarked on yet another journey — as the ABC South Australian Woman of the Year.

“I was butchering a cow for the dogs at the time, not looking my most glamorous, and my youngest son come out to see me and said, ‘Mum, I think we’ll nominate you for Rural Woman of the Year’.

“I thought he was joking but to my great surprise, he wasn’t, and I received that award.”

She says the award “opened the doors” to pursue issues of importance to her, including support for farm families and women on farms, equal employment opportunity and farm safety, improvement of farm financing, use of improved land management methods, and vocational education and training.

“The 90s were a very tough time for a lot of farming communities, and when I embarked on public speaking events following the award, farmers were really suffering,” Nancy says.

“I remember one event in South Australia’s Mallee where I was speaking to a group of mostly men, but I think they appreciated hearing from someone who truly understood what they were experiencing.

“During the talk, I could see a number of these very stoic male farmers in tears — and I think it was good for them, that release of emotion built up from exhaustion.

“I really value that opportunity and that time working with rural communities and groups of women especially who were — sometimes for the first time — having to find work off farm.”

She says she was also often the “token woman” on boards and committees: “But I actually don’t mind that because unless you’re there, you can’t have any influence.”

“However you get there, as long as it’s legitimate, and you do have skills or you can learn what you need, you have a voice and you should use it.”

Pomanda kelpies mustering in hill country, Casterton, Victoria.(Supplied: Nancy Withers)

Nancy Withers peers out from under her Akubra, her neat grey hair tucked into an oilskin coat collar.

She moves with ease, calm, and confidence among her young team of “up and comer” pups and experienced “older hands” in the sheep yards.

They know who’s head of the pack.