Every year, dozens of walkers go missing in the Lake District, England’s largest national park. Happily, a highly skilled team is at hand to sniff them out. Meet the mountain rescue search dogs...
High above Cumbria’s Ullswater Valley, Border Collie Bracken zigzags across a snow-covered scree, his high-visibility vest bright against the white sky. Nose to the air, he bounds behind a boulder and lets out a series of short, sharp barks. He has found a body. Bracken’s handler Elly Whiteford rushes to the scene. This time, no one’s life hangs in the balance. The ‘body’ is a volunteer who is hiding here as part of a training exercise. The dogs – and their handlers – are learning how they might be able to help in one of many search and rescue missions undertaken each year in the Lake District, England’s largest national park.
Bracken and Elly belong to the Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dogs Association (LDMRSDA), a voluntary group of ten to 20 handlers and their canine companions who are called out by local rescue teams across Cumbria (and occasionally further afield) when walkers and climbers go missing. Most dogs are hunting or herding breeds such as Border Collies, Labradors and English Shepherds, all with an acute sense of smell to enable them to sniff out bodies in the most difficult of conditions. “Dogs have amazing abilities we have almost no concept of,” says Elly, who works for the Environment Agency. “They have 300 million scent receptors; humans have just six million. It’s a totally different world for them.”
A perilous place
The Lake District may be beautiful, but it can also be hazardous. Each year, rescue teams receive hundreds of callouts to help injured and stranded hikers and climbers. In 30-40 of these incidents, search dogs are called out to assist looking for them. Danger spots include Piers Gill on Scafell Pike, Striding Edge on Helvellyn and Sharp Edge on Blencathra.
“Even the most experienced walkers can get into trouble,” says LDMRSDA training officer Andy Peacock, who works for the fire service. “Conditions can change pretty quickly. It might be clear when you’re in the valley, but by the time you reach the summit, the rain can be hammering down or there can be snow and ice… When night falls, it gets so black you can’t see the path beneath your feet. You can easily get caught out by the weather, make a navigational error or just fall and get a sprain or fracture.”
Andy, who has been a member of the organisation for 13 years, remembers a particularly serious incident in 2013, when, while attending LDMRSDA’s winter training course in the Cairngorms, an avalanche was reported to have buried three people at the nearby Chalamain Gap.
“Knowing we were training in the area, the local rescue team asked us to assist. My Collie Corrie and I were among the first on the scene. It was extremely daunting to not only be airlifted in, but to see such devastation and dangerous conditions,” he says. “Corrie kept returning to the same spot, digging and barking. I couldn’t see anything but, during training, we’re always taught, ‘Trust your dog’.”
Several other search dogs arrived, each also signalling that someone was there. After more than 30 minutes of digging, Andy and the team found a casualty buried under nearly five metres of snow. “Unfortunately, they didn’t make it, but I know Corrie gave them the best chance of survival. Sadly, all three people buried by the avalanche died. To find a casualty in those conditions was remarkable. It’s hard to describe how proud I was of her and all the people involved in getting her to that level.”
“They get very excited,” Elly says, explaining that when someone is in a very bad way, it’s almost as if they can tell. “Mac, my first dog, had a different bark on those occasions. It was like he was saying, ‘You’ve got to come quickly.’”
The dogs require rigorous training, including the sort of mission that’s taking place just outside Patterdale today. The volunteers who are hiding are known as ‘dogsbodies’. Anyone fit enough can become one, their role being to stay in one place and give the dog a treat or toy when they alert their handler that they’ve found someone.
Paul, a bus driver from Bolton, is one of 25 LDMRSDA dogsbodies, and has been volunteering with them for more than five years, after the organisation saved his life several years ago. While walking the Langdale Horseshoe, Paul and his dog Sam took a wrong turn and got into difficulty.
“I was on steep ground with snow up to my waist. My phone had intermittent signal and my cries for help were carried away on the wind,” he says. Eventually, Paul got hold of Langdale Ambleside Mountain Rescue, one of the busiest rescue teams in the Lake District, who told him to stay put and make as much noise as possible while they contacted the LDMRSDA for a canine crew.
“It was starting to get dark when these shadows made their way through the gloom,” continues Paul. “As they got closer, I realised it was Mountain Rescue. They carried Sam and I to safety. I was mildly hypothermic, but relieved to be alive. Now, I’m only too happy to help make sure other people are safe in the Lakes.”
Fortunately, the experience of a dogsbody is less dramatic. “You might be a bit uncomfortable, but there are ways of hunkering down,” says Claire, a dogsbody volunteer and radiographer from Yorkshire. “One of my favourite experiences was hiding out in White Moss Woods near Rydal Water. It was a clear night, so I was staring at an inky black sky full of stars, armed with plenty of snacks.”
With today’s training over, the team heads back to base, the dogs full of treats and the handlers confident that their canines are better prepared for a mission. On call 365 days a year, no one knows when they’ll next be needed, but, when they are, these dogs will be ready and raring to go: paws poised, eyes bright and noses to the air…
3 ways you can help
1. Become a dogsbody
Anyone fit enough can become a dogsbody (dog owner or not). You will attend the same monthly training as the dogs and their handlers so you can understand the search and rescue process.
2. Volunteer as a handler
Prospective search dog handlers must be skilled mountaineers and be a current full member of one of the ten mountain rescue teams in the Lake District. Each month, you and your dog will attend training sessions in search and rescue techniques run by the Lake District Mountain Rescue Search Dogs Association (LDMRSDA).
Training can take up to three years, with canine recruits also learning how to work safely around livestock and be comfortable flying in a helicopter. The sessions take place across the Lake District, allowing you both to experience different terrains. Becoming a handler and a search dog are voluntary but highly valued roles.
3. Make a donation
It costs the LDMRSDA £35,000 a year to train the dogs and keep afloat. Want to help but can’t make it to the hills? DONATE
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