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.