Chew Road

The Chew Road rises eight hundred feet in a little over a mile from the reservoir at the bottom in the valley to the reservoir at the top on Long Ridge Moss moor. In summer it is a hellish slog along the rough tarmac that carves its way along the northern side of the Chew Valley. There is no shade and what water is available, has spent millions of years slicing a narrow ‘V” between north and south. The side so precipitous to the streambed and so strewn with a tumble of rocks and steep scree, that it will break a leg as easily as snapping a twig. The landscape is bleak and barren devoid of what any normal person might call beauty. In winter it is hell.

            The Devil’s reign over this domain is further buttressed by the names that accompany each major geological feature. Wilderness Gully, Charnal Clough, Charnal Hole, Deadman’s Layby, Indians Head, and The Wilderness. Many people have died and have come to die here. Some brought by the thrill of climbing the vertical crags, only to be reminded for a final time that gravity makes no allowance for skill, wealth, age or beauty. There have been few escapes from the rocks that line the water below. Others possibly attracted by its remoteness fancy it as a final resting place, Deadman’s Layby being the layby of choice for at least two people.

            Scout and I now crouch down in Deadman’s . We are waiting to commence a search and getting low gets us out of a biting wind that runs up the valley and cuts straight through us. Scout chooses his position well and uses me as his windbreak, his nose pointing out into the wind sampling the scents that are being driven airborne up the road to the top. Border Collie dogs are noted for their ability to survive and thrive in harsh conditions.

            My attention is drawn to the rime ice from the low cloud that has formed on the heather and long grasses that cover the moor. The ice extends from the plant stems growing one crystal at a time in the direction of the north wind.  I study the one nearest to me. Fine horizontal icicles twinkle as I move my head around to study the structure. It is made of blocks of ice so delicate I can see how each has formed from the previous one, gradually building outwards like a suspension bridge.

            I give Scout his release command and he darts down the slope towards the water. The wind is coming up the valley so I need to guide him to the top then we can work our way down heading into the wind. His nose is around two hundred million times more powerful than mine, I use my eyes to map the ground, and he uses his sense of smell. My aim is to keep him at ninety degrees to the wind, working in a zig zag pattern as we progress down one side. I watch him carefully as he explores the boulders that lay under inches of snow. This makes my progress slow, as I have to take care not to have my leg down a deep hole or leg breakers as they are known.

            As Scout quarters back and forth I watch from vantage points to note if his nose goes up in the air indicating he has locked on to a smell. Humans shed forty thousand cells every minute. They fall to the ground forming a pool around our feet that then begins to dissipate on the wind making rafts of scent over the landscape. This is what a dog detects when you see it nosing the wind. The difference with Scout is that it tells him there maybe a body close by and if there is a body that means playtime with his toy if he gets me to the location. It sounds simple but in practice there are a thousand things that can affect that flow of cells. Wind and temperature are the most crucial. A rising temperature will take a scent up hill and vice versa for cooling air. Wind can do strange things with scent. It can lift it hundreds of feet into the air then dump the cells on to a plateau whilst the body lies on the valley floor. Water has a similar effect. If Scout starts to track along a streambed chances are that the water is transporting scent down from a location higher up.

            Scout is heading across the wind towards me now and as he does so his nose snaps into the wind and he brakes suddenly then turns into the wind and heads with purpose through the snow. He works his way through a boulder field, moving left and right, sometimes stopping to sniff between rocks as scent works its way under the covering of snow. I support him, telling him to ‘Find him out’, and the command to intensify his searching. His concentration is now total, nothing else exists, not even me. He disappears around a rock pinnacle and I hear his falconry bell chiming as he climbs the rock face. Then, all is silent.

            If the bell goes silent when he is intensely searching I know he has found a body. The bell starts again and I see him re appear at the top of the rocks searching for me. As he spots me he starts to pick his way down the face of the vertical rock. He loves this so much. I stay still watching him as he picks his way through the boulder field towards me. As he draws to my feet he pulls his head back and speaks. A single bark, full throated, I can see right down into his insides his mouth is that wide. Once the bark is out he spins around and returns the same way he came to me. This is his positive indication that he has found a body so I follow up behind him, telling him what a good boy he is. Again he moves out of sight and again he comes into view again and heads back to me to tell me there is a body. He will repeat this until I have arrived at the location where a human lies hidden under a thick blanket of snow.

            I squeal in delight at Scout telling him what a good boy he is then I launch his toy, his reward, the one and only thing he wants out of the whole process. I shout reward, the command for him to play and the signal for the body to come alive and play with Scout.  As they play I look back over the land we have travelled and make a mental note of how the wind is playing amongst the boulders. It has been a good half a kilometre from where the body is located to where Scout first caught his scent. The strike, as we call it, has been impressive, the wind has helped but the snow has chilled the scent rafts and the boulders with their nooks and crannies have absorbed much of the evidence. It’s a good find.  I bend down and secrete two dog chews into the body’s hands. As he gives them to Scout I remove the toy and hide it back into my pocket.

Scout sits there looking around for the toy then looks at me and indicates he is ready to go and find the next body. I ruffle his forehead and I’m sure he smiles then we head off down the valley and the strengthening wind.

Biting the hand that saves you.

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Back a year ago I was volunteering as a Ranger for the Peak District National Park working out of Fairholmes in the Upper Derwent Valley. The job entailed keeping the place looking nice, I learned how to dig a post hole and put a post in that would stay upright true as a flagpole without the use of concrete. Then there was the guided walks, members of the public being shown the natural beauty of the place plus some interesting areas where, if you knew how to look, you could still see how early man had inhabited the landscape, burning platforms, rock marks, old ways. Another part was taking trainees out on patrol, I liked this bit because the newcomers were always eager to learn, until one day I met a man who’s name I now forget but I never forgot what he said.

He was a doctor from Sheffield. Due to retire at 50-ish he wanted something to fill his time and fancied himself as a Ranger. He came on a pre training day to see if he would like it before joining the official programme. As we sat in the Ranger centre waiting to be told where to go that day we talked and somehow the topic of Mountain Rescue came to the fore. The doctor says he hates them, always rattling their tins at people when everyone knew they wasted money, why only last month he’d seen around 40 people turn up on a callout just think how much that cost. I was stunned, I’d never heard anyone talk like that about MR. I explained to him how a callout works and about the fact that MR is full of volunteers, just volunteers, no one gets paid. He retorted that it was a waste of money and he wasn’t going to fund people who wanted to play hero.

I was asked to take him out on patrol and against my better judgement I did. The weather was poor, hail and snow blowing horizontally. We worked our way up to Howden Edge, him doing the nav. When we topped out he gave up and said he wanted to go down, this was no weather to be out in. What became of him I don’t know. I left shortly after that and partly because of that. If this was the kind of person the service was attracting it wasn’t for me.

This week Peak District Mountain Rescue teams received a callout to support one of the Pennine teams in the search for a man lost and injured on the Pennine moors. The operation had been going all night and it carried on into next day. A total of 100 Mountain Rescue members from teams across the north of England along with 13 search dogs and handlers, air support and police were involved in the operation. The gentleman was found safe and with only slight injuries. At the rendezvous point I surveyed the number of vehicles, listened to team members saying they had to get back to work and it was a three-hour drive back, so they best be on their way. Many had come straight from working a night shift or were heading back to do a full days work. They grabbed a cup of coffee and a biscuit and were off. None were paid; most had spent heavily to get there in lost wages, fuel and food. All for a man they had never met and probably never would. And they would do it all again because that is the kind of people they are, not heroes, just men and women who know that somewhere someone is in distress and is in need of help.

Scout trainee search and rescue dog

Scout
Scout. Trainee Search and Rescue Dog. Photo Mark Harrison

Its been a bit of a week for Scout my trainee Mountain Rescue search and rescue Border Collie. On a training exercise Monday night, Scout had to find a hidden person, Paul Richmond, a friend who regularly gives up his Monday nights to act as a body for Scout. He set off searching woodland as he normally does, trying to detect any scent from a human in the air and unknown to me, picked up the scent of two people lost in the woods, without a torch and unable to get out to safety.

Scout still has a year of training to do, but he performed, exactly as he should, returning to tell me he had found some people then making multiple runs between them and me guiding me to their location. They were a little scared and desperate to get out of the woods. Scout an I escorted them out and then Scout continued on with his search to find Paul, eventually locating him and bringing me to his position.

It’s a big moment in his development, he did what he had trained to do, without thought or hesitation. I am so proud of him.

Scouts progress in Search and Rescue

Scout training on Eyam Moor, Peak District National Park
Scout training on Eyam Moor, Peak District National Park

Training a SARDA Search and Rescue dog takes time and patience, mainly on the part of the dog, because it is the handler who is most/always at fault. Scout always comes up with the goods, in the way of a find. He worked hard on Eyam Moor this weekend in hard conditions. The bracken is still dense and hard to get through, combined with deep snow, it makes it extra tiring for Scout to get around. He battled his way around to find three hidden bodies, with little scent moving about to guide him, so he really had to work for it. He started to get tired after find number two, I could tell he was needing a break.

Tiredness is something I have been working on with him. Taking him on long moorland walks, he probably runs about three times the distance I walk. It’s good to get him working over rough ground, boulder fields are particularly good, if you have ever tried negotiating a boulder field in summer, think about it under thick slippery snow where you cannot see the gaps.

The other major work is building up the return sequence. This is where he finds a body and returns back to get me then lead me back to the body. It is an important tool, especially when covering large areas effectively. He soon got the hang of the sequence, and then worked out that if he starts returning to me and he can see that I can see him, he doesn’t need to come all the way back, but can just bark his command. Pretty sneaky and clever of him to work that one out. I need him back to me, because we may be out of sight from each other and I need to know for definite that he has a find.

Training is frustrating. Sleepless nights, going over and over what went wrong on the last session and how to correct it. Worrying over whether he will make the grade. But, when it goes right, when he works his socks off and I don’t screw it up, it is the best feeling in the world.

 

 

Search and Rescue Dogs – Peak District

Its raining cats and dogs in Sheffield this morning. Scout my trainee Search and Rescue Dog and I are off down to Dartmoor where it seems to be just as wet.

We are going for a weekend of training on the moors with lots of other dogs, handlers and most importantly the bodies. People and dogs will come from all over England to spend the days training in the techniques of dog search and rescue in hill and mountainous areas.

Scout is a Border Collie, the most common dog used because of their intelligence, hard-working attitude and hardiness in the face of all kinds of weather. Both of the parents of Scout are working sheepdogs on farms in the Lake District and Scout has a few half brothers also in Mountain Rescue.

The training I guess, is really about the handler, the weakest link in the team. It is the handler who has to find the right combination of rewards that promotes the behaviour required in the dog. Training is reward based, infinitely better than any other option. The dogs want to do it.

When Scout sets off on a run to find a body, he is really wanting his toy, a ball on a string. If he gets that he is happy and will repeat the behaviour time and again.

Some say it’s a bit like training men.

It’s mostly women that say that, but only to each other.

One Year Old

Its Scouts birthday today. Born on 29th February 2016. Scout is a Killiebrae Border Collie and comes from working sheepdog parents. He is also a trainee search and rescue dog for SARDA England, the Search and Rescue Dog Association of England, and works with me in Mountain Rescue.

Scout joined our family about 10 months ago. He has a lovely nature and fits in well. Scout started hi SARDA training when he was twelve weeks old and he just loves been out on the hill, learning how to find people and ultimately find his toy, which is his reward.

Scout was named after Kinder Scout and also the character Scout in Harper Lees book, To Kill a Mockingbird. On Kinder Scout there is a triangulation pillar known as the Scout Trig so it all seemed to fit in.

Now he is a little older we can go for longer walks and I get to spend time with him in a none training environment, which has resulted in us becoming firm buddies.

Happy birthday Scout.

SARDA Registration

Scout reached a milestone this weekend at the SARDA training camp in the Brecon Beacons. He went there to carry on with his obedience training for his registration test that allows him on to the formal Search Dog training programme. The trainers had other ideas, the first being a final stock test, he had passed two already.

The stock test involves being placed in a field with a flock of sheep, about 60 this time and then have the sheep run past and be ignored by Scout. Have them walk in between Scout and me his handler and then come back to me on a recall through the sheep, still ignoring them. Then getting his favourite ball from the middle of the sheep and still ignoring them. He passed with flying colours.

The second and unexpected test is called the Registration Test and a pass formally allows the dog on to the training programme so it is very important. The first is walk to heel, no problems there. Second is a recall to my feet. All good. Then speak on command, he barked really well. Then a down from a distance on command, he hit the deck good. and finally the big one. A ten minute down stay with 5 minutes of that being out of sight of me his handler. Pass.

He was exactly 8 months old and has worked really hard, whilst maintaining his lovely sweet nature, which I feel is so important. Scout is a very confident dog, happy in his own company but enjoying playing with dogs and humans. I am so proud of him.

The following morning he was presented with his official SARDA training badge in front of all the other handlers. A great moment for a wonderful dog.

In the time he has been with us he  has grown from a puppy in to a teenager. He loves to go to his favourite shop and see his favourite assistant and search for food under the shelves. Taking him in shops and around town where there are noises and people is a great way for him to become accustomed to different sights and sounds and smells.

His favourite place though is out on the moors and hills of the Peak District. He loves Kinder, diving down in to the Groughs, and running along the streams. He especially likes to stand on edges and look out across the moors, you can see him smelling whats out there and he has no fear of the edge and respects the boundary it places on him.

He is happiest working hard on the hills and moors and we are gradually increasing his time out walking so that he does not develop any hip problems. We have many hours in front of us and lots of adventures.

Well done Scout. I am very proud of you.

Growing Up

This is me aged seven months old at Edale Moor Triangulation Pillar on Kinder Scout. It’s known as the Scout Trig as it carries a memorial plaque to the Venture Scout unit from the area.

I was named after Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District. This was my first visit there and I loved it. My bones are still not totally set yet so I still have to take it steady and not do too much walking. I loved been on the moors and jumping down into the Groughs.

My training is progressing well. I can now walk to heel, recall back to my handler, sit and lay down. I am working on my down stay out of sight and once that is done then I am ready for registration so that I can start my formal training in search and rescue.

I have done two stock tests which I passed, ignoring sheep whilst close to them

On Kinder Scout I saw my first Mountain Hare. It suddenly popped up from nowhere and ran off at lightning speed.

I’m really loving my training and want to be out on the hills as much as possible.

Having Fun

Two months since the last post and Scout has really grown. He is nearly as big as his two brothers Monty and Olly now.

We have been concentrating on his core obedience skills, socialisation and getting used to lots of different environments.

He is getting good at walking to heel, laying down on command, recall (when not distracted by something, anything else). We have been having problems getting Scout to speak but this turned out to be his handlers fault for not being so animated. The training really is for me, the handler, and not Scout.

A good way of socialisation is for Scout to meet lots of dogs and people. So he walks three times a day up at the common and once at night around his local neighbourhood. He comes with me to team meetings and equipment nights at Woodhead Mountain Rescue Team, but he is too young to take on exercises yet.

Another good socialisation exercise is to take Scout shopping. His favourite place is PetsatHome. There are some really nice assistants who give him lots of attention plus there are all those different smells of food and pets and people. His favourite place in all the store is under the food shelves where all the spilled food collects. There are lots of other dogs there too so he gets to meet and be friendly. He is really good at ignoring dogs that do not want to play and doesn’t let it bother him.

Now he is a little older, 5 months on August 1st, he can take part in SARDA training days. He has been on two weekends now, training in puppy class and won the heart of Jacquie Hall the trainer. He did well too, once again its me who is the problem. Scout has also started training at night and on Sundays locally, which introduces him to more handlers and dogs. All the handlers are so helpful, everyone just wants the dogs to do well. I learned some useful tips along the way, one of the most important was to plan the exercise out first on my own before involving Scout and being exact in what I say to him. Consistency and repetition are the keys here.

Different environments are also important, to increase his confidence in mixed habitats and help him be comfortable overcoming things that are new to him. July saw Scout take his first wild swimming sessions, thankfully he loves the water. He does a wonderful breast stoke, good and strong. The only problem is getting him out of the water, even when he is shivering, which means me going in to get him. We also took him on a wild camp with his brothers and they all loved it, settling straight down for the night even with a river running close by and geese flying overhead.

A good two months for Scout. Lots of fun and lots of learning. He is well on his way now, working towards his first benchmark the obedience test.

Scouts first month

Scout has been with us one month now and has settled in really well. The other two dogs Monty and Olly are gradually accepting him although Olly still remains to be convinced Scout is a keeper. But this does not seem to phase Scout in the slightest. He has a firm personality and a strong character, he refuses to be bullied by the other dogs and is gradually ingratiating himself with them. He is happy to be part of their gang or spend time on his own.

Scout has gradually increased his levels of activity and interest. At first he showed no real interest in toys but now is gathering quite a collection. Still the best toys seem to be toilet rolls and egg boxes, oh and soil, he likes soil. He sleeps through now and is on the way to being house trained, but more work needed on that.

This coming month is a big one for Scout. Tomorrow he will be able to go out for the first time and walk around. So far he has had car journeys and visits to shops and offices and people, all good for him, sights and sounds, smells and touch. He has coped really well and shown no signs of distress. Tomorrow morning he goes for his first walk around the common. Lots of trees and grass and smells. Lots of other dogs too so he can start to join a wider community. Only 15 minutes of walking for him, twice a day to make sure he does not strain his limbs.

Next weekend he attends his first SARDA training camp up in the North Yorkshire Moors. He will attend puppy class, learing obedience, getting ready for his first tests. Walking to heel, staying put and the biggy passing a stock test where he has to ignore a flock of sheep.

Later in the month he takes on his first fund-raising work for his team Woodhead Mountain Rescue. He will be at Sheffield Train Station collecting for team funds. Then a few weeks later he is at Scholes Gala helping raise more funds. A busy time.