Paws on the Moors

20170723_153937So, after dragging a spade up a mountain with the intrepid Fix the Fells crew what new adventures could be in store on a weekend with Search and Rescue Dog Association, SARDA England? Well, a good bit of rolling about in the bracken as it turned out!!

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Brrrr….glad I joined a summer training meet!

Eager to learn about the work of SARDA England I recently joined the team on a National Training meet in the beautiful countryside of Northumberland. And if I thought it was a long journey from the Lancashire coast, spare a thought for the Dartmoor team who travelled all the way from Plymouth! But commitment and dedication knows no bounds to this (in their own words) eclectic, ‘dog mad’ group who are all unpaid volunteers, giving their time and courage to help others who become lost, injured, trapped or go missing.

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Exuberant young Search Dog, Angus kept us all on our toes

As a National Training meet, there were many handlers and dogs from all over the country and all at various stages of their training – from puppies starting out their journey with obedience training and socialising to graded, operational dogs keeping their skills refreshed. Making the grade as a Search Dog is a long process with a lot of work, but one which is thoroughly enjoyed by dogs, handlers and trainers alike. Though not without frustrating moments – one young dog fluffed a skills test when the examiners were watching but then went on to complete it perfectly when the score sheets were put aside! I’m sure we can all relate! But that is what these weekends are all about – an opportunity to learn and practise in new and different environments, share information and knowledge, as well as the opportunity for a good catchup with fellow SARDA members over a pint at the local pub.

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Search Dog Shola keen to show off her skills

The social scene was fantastic. Accommodations were ‘back to basics’ with team members laying out sleeping bags on the floor of the village hall, pitching tents on the front lawn or sharing a campervan with a lively collie or two. We patiently queued for the showers each day with towels and toothbrushes in hand. No airs and graces here! Each morning there was a bustle of brews and bacon butties aplenty kindly cooked up by Val, Brian, Kath and Ian to get everyone’s day off to a great start. Then there was a quick team brief before ‘deployment’ to the hills for the various training activities.

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Search Dogs train for around two years before reaching operational status and there are no guarantees. A handler must have already been a fully trained and operational member of a Mountain Rescue Team for a minimum of a year before beginning the process of training with their dog and it is recommended to start at the puppy stage as some of the obedience training is specific to Search and Rescue work and the pups also have to quickly learn to quell their interest in livestock – not good practice on a live search for the dog to go hareing off after a sheep! A ‘stock test’ is one of the first assessments they will have.

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Early training days…

Then follows several stages of training and assessment to develop the skills required to be an effective Search Dog, and its not just about the dogs – handlers learn many skills relating to how to determine search areas and carry out effective searches as well as how train and get the best from their dog – this is totally a team effort!

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Handlers Ian, Mark, Paul, John and Bill with newly graded Search Dogs Ollie, Abbie, Flo, Shola and Angus

It is a huge commitment and prospective handlers also have to accept the fact that not all dogs make the grade. Some might not be suited to the work, not retain enough interest or simply not reach the standard required to pass the final assessment and these guys accept that its possible their dog might not become a working colleague but simply remain a loyal and faithful friend. And the team are certainly mad about their dogs! No where else have I witnessed 6 foot plus, burly men leaping about in the undergrowth and whooping like a child to reward their hard working four legged friends!

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Young trainee Wynn taking a breather

Training involves alot of ‘play’ for dogs and handlers alike. SARDA trainers explain..

All of our training is undertaken with praise and rewards for the dog. Some are happy to work for their squeaky toy while others prefer food!

The training encourages the dogs hunting instinct and they use ‘air scenting’ to find their ‘prey’ i.e. a prone human. No matter how much you scrub in the shower with YlangYlang and Jojoba or douse on the aftershave a dog can detect your human scent (almost literally) a mile away. Depending on the breed they can smell up to 100,000 times more effectively than we can, can pick up scents 14 metres underground and can even smell human fingerprints that are a week old. That said, after Saturday nights’ barbecue I think the dogs were most enjoying the smell of sausages and steak that was eminating from everyone’s pores!

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Search Dog Tess has just picked up the scent of last nights sausages!

Of course,  for all this searching to be successful the dogs need somebody to find and this is where the kind, volunteer ‘dogsbodies’ come in. And on Sunday morning  I was excited to get a opportunity to join in. Suitably lathered up in Avon ‘Skin so Soft’ to keep those pesky midges at bay, four of us ‘bodies’ were led to our individual hiding places in the woods. I struck gold as my patch was right next to a huge covering of wild bilberry so I had a fresh fruit buffet on tap. Shuffling down into my bivvy bag and camouflaging myself with bits of bracken I was also happy to discover that the forest floor was extremely comfortable. The trainers kept us informed via radio as to what was happening and as each dog began its test we were all routing for them to do well. As a dogsbody your simple task is to shuffle down into the undergrowth, blend in behind a rock or maybe perch up a tree if you are blessed with that kind of agility, and then wait. There can indeed be a good bit of waiting so some snacks, a hot flask and a book of crosswords might come in handy. As a respite from all the relaxing in your bivvy with a good book, every so often one of the dogs will find you, perhaps letting you know with a sloppy lick, then ‘indicating’ to their handler and leading them to your position. If the dog is still in the earlier stages of training then its your job to make a big fuss ( you are in fact, highly encouraged to ‘ham’ up this part as much as physically possible!) and reward your ‘rescuer’ with his or her favourite toy, for which they go completely bonkers….and I mean, seriously, bonkers.  ( Not disimilar to my own reaction when unexpectedly faced with a giant slice of cake….for example)

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Dogsbody John having a tug of war game with Search Dog Blitz

The role of a ‘Body’ is invaluable to the training and volunteers are often found amongst family, friends and potential handlers but there’s always a need for fresh dogsbodies. No specific skills are required, perhaps a penchant for playing hide and seek and a willingness to leap about, play tug of war with exuberant canines and generally make a bit of a fool of yourself. A DogsBodies’ safety is paramount and you are issued with a radio to keep in contact with trainers who will allocate and monitor your position and even keep a tag with your name on to make doubly sure no one gets left behind when the hide and seek is up! If this sounds much more like the kind of weekend activity you’d like to have a bash at every month or so instead of wandering around Sainsburys complaining about the price of bananas yet again check out the link below for more info and how to get involved.

 

At the end of a long day in the outdoors there is always time for some well earned R&R in the local pub while the dogs take a nap back at base, dreaming about their favourite toy, no doubt. Handlers, trainers and dogsbodies alike certainly enjoy a lively bit of banter and story swapping.

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Search Dog ‘Ollie the Collie’ taking his preferred style of chill out time

This kick back time is also very important I think as the work they do can be very demanding and stressful at times and yet, outside all the tall tales of training mishaps the team are very modest about what they do and the people they have helped in live search situations.

I was very privileged to be able spend time with these amazing folk and their dogs. It was a fantastic weekend with lots going on and plenty of laughs. They were a super positive and welcoming crowd who had me very quickly initiated into leaping through the heather, calling and waving chew toys over my head without self conciousness (well, not too much, anyway)! The dedication of the team is also very inspiring. There is a lot of work involved, not only through the training but also after becoming operational. Being on call at all hours of the day and night, going out on a search in sometimes very harsh conditions as well as keeping the dogs skills and fitness up is all in addition to the regular daily responsibilities of work and family life for these generous individuals who recieve no income for their commitment and sacrifice. These people are truly passionate about what they do and I applaude them all. Please, please support them by donating a little at Sponsor 3PeAksRun

Search Dogs can be used in many situations and quite often in urban environments to locate vunerable or elderly people with mental health difficulties, or people who have gone missing in emotional circumstances. You never know when you or a family member may need their help.

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Handler Bill Batson with experienced Search Dog, Glenn

At SARDA England there are currently 33 graded dogs and handlers on the callout list and a further 15 in training with 20 supporting dogsbodies. Please help me support their selfless work by sponsoring my 3PeAksRun at virginmoneygiving.com/3PeAksRun.

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If you are curious about becoming a dogsbody find out more at SARDA Dogsbodies  # getinvolved 

 

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this blog. Happy trails😁 And dont forget… #getoutside

See you soon👣

 

 

 

Spades and Brooms on mountain summits!

Always an advocate of trying new experiences, summiting a Lakeland Fell hauling a spade and broom along was certainly a first for me on my recent day with a team of Fix the Fells volunteers..all in a days work for these guys!ftf colour cmyk

Just an hour before our prearranged meeting time, I peeked out of my soggy tent to see nothing of the nearby fells but swirling grey cloud and sheets of rain. Keener to stay snuggled up in my toasty warm sleeping bag than try to extricate myself from my tiny one-man tent onto the sodden grass beyond I wondered what the cutoff level of discomfort might be for the Fix the Fells team to decide to hang up their gaiters and retreat to the warm and and cosy interior of the village pub or cafe for copious amounts of hot tea and homemade cake uttering promises of returning to the fells just as soon as the sun was shining again , everyone was volunteering for this after all! But it turns out, these are no fairweather fell goers, rather, a hardy bunch of outdoorsy folk whose attitude to our fickle British weather is that if the National Park Rangers went out in all conditions then so would they!

Repairing and maintaining our ancient network of mountain paths is an all-weather task. A combination of millions of pairs of walking boots, the weather and gradient means erosion is a constant problem. Our path work reduces erosion scars and also helps protect the ecology and archaeological heritage of our beautiful landscape.

Fix the Fells are celebrating 10 years of volunteering, a decade of dedication. In fact, their level of commitment and dedication humbled me more than once during that day.

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Introductions made, I took custody of my ‘on loan’ trusty spade and broom, unsure of what exactly what exactly I was supposed to do with them, and along with the team headed up the path towards a brooding Place Fell. Our mission for the day was glamorously referred to as a ‘drain run’. Spade and brush in hand I was a little confused but all was soon expertly explained. The drains along the paths help the water continue on a natural course rather than using the path itself as a quick route downhill, damaging the path and causing further erosion or even washing away the path completely in heavy rain. Volunteers completed 493 ‘drain run’ days last year carrying out minor maintenance and repairs and clearing debris.

We soon arrived at the first drain and it became immediately apparent to me that this was more technical than I had initially imagined. It certainly didn’t seem in any way obvious to my untrained eye if, where and what might need doing to maintain a happy drain. But as the day went on and the number of drain encounters chalked up I gradually began to understand how to identify the problems and how to remedy them, doing a very fine job of clearing out a very clogged, muddy and smelly drain by the end of the day ( if i do say so myself!)

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Other maintenance tasks on our day in the hills involved picking up litter and cleaning pitching. (the large stones and rock slabs that make up sections of path and/or steps) Keeping this clear of loose rocks, stones and debris makes it much safer and easier to walk on and therefore more inviting than the surrounding ground which helps to reduce and prevent erosion. This was something my obsessive inclination for cleaning could really get enthusiatic about and my designated pitching was certainly very vigorously brushed to a standard at which you might be able to eat your rehydrate, boil in the bag dinner off it.

Volunteering with Fix the Fells is not all about getting wet and muddy though. Hard work but lots of fun it is a wonderful and productive way to spend a day in the hills with a group of diverse yet like minded people seeing parts of the Lake District you may never have been before and giving something back to the outdoor environment we all love and enjoy. The pace and work was always steady, there was always time scheduled in to stop for a brew and picnic lunch and as i worked and spoke with a different group member throughout the day I also realised it is a wonderful opportunity to make and catch up with fellow volunteer friends as well as meet new people. The volunteer group on any particular day can include regular volunteers who have been involved for several years to new recruits still working through their training program or complete first timers like myself staring at a drain with a somewhat confused look on their face. The pool of volunteers indeed spans all ages and backgrounds with a wealth of experience in a variety of outdoors pursuits from keen walkers to outdoor instructors, National Trust Wardens, National Park Rangers and Mountain Rescue Team members.

Anyone interested in volunteering with Fix the Fells has an opportunity to go along for some ‘taster days’ , similar to the day I spent, to meet other volunteers and discover what the work involves. After this, comprehensive training is provided in the practical skills of path maintenance, first aid and navigation as well as training in the whats, whys and hows of carrying out the various work required. A minimum annual commitment of 12 days volunteering is required but many volunteers far exceed this, some out on the fells more than once a week in all seasons. Car parking permits and a travel allowance within the national park is also provided to minimise costs to the volunteer and all training is included. It is also a fantastic opportunity to learn many new skills working with National Trust Wardens and National Park Rangers.

One of the most valuable and perhaps often overlooked aspects of the teams work that day to me was simply their presence on the fells. Many walkers commented and asked what they were doing and thanked them for their efforts. I felt this was invaluable for raising awareness and encouraging responsible behaviour outdoors – I think someone is far less likely to discard that sweet wrapper or cut that corner in the path when they witness volunteers giving their time to pick up litter and work on the paths in all weathers and with enthusiasm and positivity, and have an opportunity to learn why the work they do is important and necessary. Fix the Fells volunteers are definitely great ambassadors for the outdoors and inspire and encourage us all to be more appreciative and protective of our precious and beautiful, great outdoors!

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The fantastic team I had the privilage to spend the day with. And the sun finally came out just in time to enjoy a well earned cuppa! A huge thank you to volunteers David, Wendy, Steven, Chris, Mim, Ann, Andy and Claire for welcoming me so well. You guys rock!

If you want to find out more or are interested in becoming a volunteer for Fix the Fells you can find more about what’s involved HERE or contact them at info@fixthefells.co.uk

Happy Trails!

How else can you help?  Sponsor my 3PeAksRun here and support their work!