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Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day - Friday 18 May

“Every eight hours someone is told they will never walk again due to a spinal injury”. Despite this statistic, with the initial amazing care offered by specialist spinal units, the personal dedicated care provided by the nursing team, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and specialist case managers, a positive and fulfilling future can be achievable.

Despite all of the support available, we understand that it is incredibly hard for our spinal injury clients not just physically but emotionally too, especially during those first few initial weeks in hospital. It should not be forgotten that it can be extremely difficult for the immediate and extended family to come to terms with the injury too. To say it’s an enormous change, is an underestimation.

Important to get the right support

It is so important to get a supportive team on board right from the start, whether it’s a legal team dealing with a potential claim, signing up to an early multi-disciplinary treatment team and obtaining bespoke rehabilitation or getting support from the fantastic peer support officers, it all makes a difference, this is not a journey to tread alone.

There will be dark days, but there is also a wealth of opportunity, knowledge, technology and potential achievement available to help. We see clients who go on to have marvellously rewarding lives, and it is an honour and privilege to be part of their incredible journeys.

To read our Understanding Spinal Injury brochure, click here.

If you or a loved on have been affected by a spinal injury. Speak to one of our personal injury team as you could be entitles to make a Serious Injury Claim

Warning To Landlords/Agents – Gas Safety Certificates

Landlords are already aware of regulations which require that for all Assured Shorthold Tenancies (AST) entered into after 1 October 2015 certain prescribed documents must be served upon the tenant. These include the “How to Rent” Guide, the EPC and Gas Safety Certificate, the Deposit Certificate and Prescribed Information*.

The Gas Safety Regulations 1998** specify that a copy of the Gas Safety Certificate must be given to an existing tenant within 28 days of the inspection, and to any new tenant before the tenant occupies the premises S36(6)(b).

On 2 February 2018, in Caridon Property Ltd v Monty Shooltz, HHJ Luba QC decided that if the Gas Safety Certificate was not given to the tenant before they took up occupation of the premises, this amounts to a breach of the regulations which cannot be rectified.

What are the implications of this decision?

This effectively means that, for tenancies created after 1 October 2015, a landlord cannot serve a valid Notice seeking possession under Section 21 HA 1988 unless a Gas Safety Certificate was served before the tenant took up occupation.

If there are no other grounds for possession (for example rent arrears) the landlord cannot recover possession at the end of the fixed term.

What options are available to landlords?

Landlords could try to avoid the implications of this decision by persuading the tenant to enter into a new AST and make sure the Gas Safety Certificate (and other prescribed documents) is properly served before the new tenancy begins. This option depends on the tenant’s co-operation which cannot be guaranteed.

An alternative is to serve the Gas Safety Certificate after the fixed term has expired, before a new statutory periodic tenancy arises, but there is no guarantee a court will be persuaded that the regulations have been complied with.

This decision is going to have significant implications; tenants may well try to use it as a means to defend a claim for possession. The position will need to be clarified by a Court of Appeal decision, or new legislation.

In the meantime all landlords should ensure they take steps to serve the tenant with the prescribed documents before they enter into occupation of the premises, and obtain a receipt signed by the tenant as they have only once chance to comply.

*The Assured Shorthold tenancy Notices and Prescribed Requirements (England) Regulations 2015

** The Gas Safety (Installation and Use) Regulations 1998

Missed Breast Cancer Screenings Scandal

Media outlets have reported news of a major IT error in the NHS occurring as far back as 2009, which may have resulted in up to 450,000 missed breast cancer screenings. Experts have apparently estimated that up to 270 women may have even died as a result of this computer error, although only broad estimates as to the numbers of affected women have been given, it seems because of mixed opinion about how effective breast cancer screening in older women actually is. Please see our previous blog where we considered ‘Do we need more transparency about breast density

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The NHS screening programme

Under the NHS breast cancer screening programme, all women between ages 50 – 70 are invited for screening by way of a mammogram scan every three years, which should be by way of an automatic letter from their GP. This would mean that a woman should receive a final invitation between the age of 68 and 71.

The screening programme aims to identify breast cancer as early as possible. Early detection is much more likely to improve prognosis and chances of survival. See my previous blog for further information about the programme. Millions of women take up the offer of breast cancer screening upon receipt of the invitation letter.

Inquiry

The issue first came to light in January this year because of an IT upgrade to the breast screening invitation programme, but it now seems that the error had gone undetected for nearly a decade.

Health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, apologised unreservedly for the error and is reported to have told the House of Commons that women aged between 68 and 71 were not invited to attend their final breast screening between 2009 and the start of 2018, because of a “computer algorithm failure”.

The government has ordered an independent inquiry into the matter which will seek to establish exactly how many women have been affected by the computer error. It is anticipated that this will take around six months, during which time the entire breast screening programme will be scrutinised.

Jeremy Hunt has said his department would be contacting the families of women who had died, potentially because of a missed screening, and whether this resulted in a delay in diagnosis which may have ultimately led to a shortening of life expectancy or a worse prognosis.

What now?

The priority should now be for the NHS to ensure that there are measures in place to make sure eligible women, who should have received an automatic screening invite but didn’t because of the error, are now invited for breast cancer screening as soon as possible.

It is very concerning that women have not been invited to attend such a potentially important screening appointment, and even more so that this is because of an administrative error which has gone on for such a long period of time.

The NHS needs to make sure it has robust systems in place, particularly in light of ever increasing demand on its resources and with continuous developments in IT and technology, to make sure that its administrative systems are designed and used to deliver safe and efficient care to patients and service users. It is hoped that news of this scandal will encourage heightened scrutiny and a thorough review in other administrative areas of the healthcare system.

If you suspect you have been affected

Many women are likely to receive a letter towards the end of the month if they have missed a screening, but if you are at all concerned by this news story, the NHS are inviting people to go to the NHS Choices website, or to contact their local units to book an appointment, particularly if you suspect you may have been affected by this issue, or if you are aged over 50 and haven’t had a mammogram in the last three years and would like to have one.

As a final point, it is reassuring to note that many breast cancers are now identified by women themselves because of increased awareness and the importance of self examination amongst other things, and it is also important to note that breast cancer does not only affect women, it can affect men too.

May Fair Memories

As the May Fair gets set to descend upon the streets of Hereford for its annual three day visit following the Bank Holiday, no doubt we’ll be complaining about the road closures and the noise.

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Today’s May Fair bears no resemblance to its origins back in the 12th Century, when it was known as St Ethelbert’s Fair and lasted for nine days.

It has evolved as technology has evolved and every generation of fair goer will have their own memories of it. For my part, it brings back memories of candyfloss and toffee apples. As a young child in the late 1960s my parents would take my brother and I ‘to the Fair’ on one of the three evenings, and we would walk from one end of it to the other taking in the sights – and smells! I don’t recall going on any of the ‘big’ rides. Instead we would go on the Carousel, throw darts, hook ducks (patience required) and try to win a coconut – I think my mother usually ended up having to buy one!

In the same way that technology has speeded up everyday living, so over the years the Fair rides have got bigger and faster, and today’s generation seek the thrill of it all. But in amongst all the fast rides you can still find the gentler, more traditional pursuits, so if you go ‘to the Fair’ this spring – whether it be Hereford May Fair or some other – why not pause for a while amidst the noise and the bustle and simply hook-a-duck!

Child Arrangements Orders – “Live With” and “Spend Time With”

The question of which parent is more likely to get a Live With Child Arrangements Order (custody in old money) is an ever evolving one. Historically there was a presumption that young children needed to be with their mothers in their early, developmental years. But now, the courts have realised that the question is much more difficult to determine.

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The court has a presumption that it is better for a child to have the involvement of both parents in their life and that will further their welfare. The starting point is often the child will live with the parent they stayed with when the parties separated and spend time with the other parent.

How do the courts decide?

The courts will ask themselves a series of questions when faced with the decision of who the child should live with and spend time with, this is known as the Welfare Checklist.

Does the child have a particularly strong emotional bond with either parent? Is the child capable of conveying their views to a Court Advisor?

  • How old is the child, does the child have any special needs either physically, emotionally or educationally?

  • What will be the effect on the child of any change in the current arrangements?

  • Which parent is most financially and physically able to provide for a child's essentials, like food, medical care, shelter, and clothes?

  • What is the mental and physical health history of each parent? Is there any information that may affect the child (e.g., excessive drinking, history of violence, mental health issues of either parent)?

  • Will the child have to adjust to a new school, city, quality of life, and friends if living with one parent versus the other?

After asking these types of questions, the court will decide which parent should be given primary care via a Live With Order and how much time should the other parent have. As you can see, the questions are gender neutral, so no preference is given under the law to either parent.

What happens when both parents granted a Live With Order?

In some instances it may be appropriate for the parents to share care – they both have a Live With Order allowing the child to spend large blocks of time at one parent's home (like summer and winter breaks), and the rest of the year with the other parent.

  • If the child is able to convey their wishes and feelings then their views are relevant to the determination of their living arrangements and are routinely considered in a number of different ways.

  • At what age may their views be considered?

  • The court has to consider the views of the child conceivably from as soon as they can talk. The level of consideration and influence those views may have over a Judge however will be very much affected by the degree of maturity the child is assessed as having.

  • Their views are weighed in balance with the other factors in the Welfare Checklist

What rights do other family members have?

People frequently ask what are other member of the family’s rights, e.g. grandparents when the parents separate and they have been denied time with the child. The sad truth is that family members do not have an automatic right to contact with the child. However, family courts do recognise the invaluable role that relatives (especially grandparents) have to play and it is very rare that the court would refuse a grandparent permission to make an application to spend time with the child unless there is evidence that it would not be in the child’s best interests.

Even if the separation is amicable it is often advisable to have the arrangements recorded in a Parenting Agreement or Court Order. This provides both parents with a secure framework for the Child Arrangements to be recorded and to avoid any disagreements.

If you have are facing similar challenges to any of the points raised in our blog above, please contact the Child Law Solicitors at Lanyon Bowdler for further advice and assistance

Bail Changes…A Year On

I wrote a blog just over a year ago (3 April 2017) highlighting the changes to police bail. Click here to read.

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When introduced, the belief was that the changes would prevent people from being kept on police bail for any longer than was necessary and that matters would be concluded with greater expedition.

A year on, my experience is that the removal of bail has been beneficial for a very small minority who have had their matters concluded faster than they would have done before.

Unfortunately, as I anticipated would happen, the vast majority are now ‘RUI’d’ (Released Under Investigation) and will have to wait weeks or more likely months to see if they are going to be re-interviewed by the police, summonsed to court or told that no further action will be taken against them.

This continued uncertainty is simply not fair on people who’s lives are put on hold in the meantime. 

Sexual Abuse Is Never Acceptable

In England and Wales there are 85,000 female rape victims and 12,000 male victims every year; shockingly only 15% of those victims can face reporting their abuse to the police (figures based on statistics from Rape Crisis England and Wales 2016-17). There were 202,666 help line calls to Rape Crisis Centres for the year 2016-17, amounting to 4,000 per week which is a 16% increase on the figures for 2015-16. In addition 42% were adult survivors of child sexual abuse and, where the age was known, 2651 were aged 15 years or under.

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Warning signs ignored

Unfortunately abuse continues to be heard on the news on a regular basis and more so recently, with the staggering figures of over 1,000 girls allegedly being abused over a 40 year period in Telford. I have read the recent report on the level of abuse in Telford; I found the results to be extremely shocking and disappointing. The report suggests people in power were aware but failed to act or chose not to see the warning signs, which if found to be true is absolutely disgusting and outrageous.

As a senior litigation assistant I know more than most about the immense courage and strength it takes for a victim to firstly, face up to what has happened to them and to then come forward and speak. Often, as the recent reports seem to suggest, the victims become trapped in a cycle of abuse, groomed with gifts or threats of harm to their family members, which means they may endure many years of suffering in silence. The recent reports into the abuse in Telford suggest that some victims had attempted to come forward, but they were not believed or supported. If they find such courage and then are not believed or supported, I question how the circle can ever be broken.

Mistakes need to be identified

I believe a stand needs to be taken to show that any type of sexual abuse, rape or assault, on a child or otherwise, is a crime that will be punished. The Telford and Wrekin Councillor should unite around plans to hear victims of child sexual abuse as part of a national inquiry.

Questions need answers in particular; how had this been happening for such a prolonged period of time? Why were some of the girls allowed, sometimes on repeated occasions, to be administered with the morning after pill without questions or investigations? How could they have abortions and not be supported in such a way that they could speak out about their situations?

These are serious questions which require serious responses. For many of the victims it is too late for blame but the mistakes need to be identified to ensure that this can never happen again. It will also encourage current victims to come forward.

Support for victims is needed

Abuse cannot be fixed like a broken bone, and suffering for the victim continues long after the abuse has stopped. It can impact on all areas of a victim’s life, affecting their ability to trust people, form relationships and even being capable of holding down employment.

It is everyone’s responsibility to look out for vulnerable people in our community, but this has to be supported with the bodies in power such as the police. It is never right for anyone, of any age, race, colour or religion to be forced into any sort of sexual act.

It’s important the victims of abuse are offered the support they need, not only in getting justice for what they have been through, but through the appropriate organisations who are able to offer the emotional and practical support they are going to need to get their lives back on track. Victim Support and AXIS Counselling Service have experience in helping victims and can offer practical support.

Investigation into Mesh

Urogynaecological mesh is used to treat stress incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. Stress incontinence is very common after childbirth and at the stage of menopause. Pelvic organ prolapse often occurs following childbirth. Both can significantly impact everyday life.

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Can slice through organs

Reconstructive surgery using mesh has been used to treat symptoms in hundreds of thousands of women. There are different brands and manufacturers but it is a net-like implant used to give support to weakened organs and repair damaged tissue.

Many women have experienced problems following the procedure. Campaign group ‘Sling the Mesh’ outline that women have suffered chronic pain and constant urinary infections, which in some cases has led to sepsis. They call it a ‘ticking time bomb’ as problems can begin years after implantation. Some women can experience severe life-changing complications. One of the problems is that mesh, which is made out of polypropylene plastic, can erode, stiffen and slice through organs such as the bladder.

Retrospective audit

Labour MP Owen Smith set up an all-party parliamentary group to look into the safety of mesh devices and this has led to a full retrospective audit being launched by the Government in February 2018.

Mr Smith said ‘The mesh scandal shows what can go wrong when devices are aggressively marketed to doctors and then used in patients for whom they were unsuited or unnecessary.’

New Zealand have banned the use of mesh

There has been great criticism over many types of mesh not being subject to proper clinical trials. Two weeks after the death of campaigner Chrissy Brajcic in November 2017, New Zealand became the first country to ban the use of mesh for the repair of prolapse and stress urinary incontinence. It has also been heavily restricted in Australia.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) updated its guidance in December 2017 to say that mesh implants for prolapse should now only be used in the context of research. ‘Current evidence on the safety of transvaginal mesh repair of anterior or posterior vaginal wall prolapse shows there are serious but well-recognised safety concerns. Evidence of long-term efficacy is inadequate in quality and quantity.’

Legal claims

A large number of women are in the process of making legal claims against the NHS and the manufacturers of the mesh. Kath Sansom of ‘Sling the Mesh’, says many women were fobbed off for many years, being told that their problems were not related to the mesh and are therefore time-barred from bringing a legal claim.

We await the outcome of the Government review.

If you have suffered problems from the use of mesh, then feel free to give our experienced clinical negligence team a call to discuss things further.

Changes to Punishments for Arson and Criminal Damage Crimes

We asked our work experience placement student Nicola Corby to write a blog as part her time in the criminal law team. Nicola undertook research on a topic I gave to her and wrote the following blog. 

"Whilst Magistrates’ Courts are equipped with guidelines relating to the sentencing of arson and criminal damage offences, no such guidance currently exists for Crown Courts.

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This is set to change: the Sentencing Council have issued a new consultation, set to close on the 26th June 2018. As part of this consultation, tougher sentences are being considered where “aggravating” features exist.

Resources impacted

“Aggravating” factors include instances where there is a "significant impact" on emergency services. Where large numbers of police, ambulance and fire vehicles are required to respond to an event, there is a knock-on effect on the resources available for other public incidents.

The proposed guidelines reflect the fact that the consequences of criminal damage and arson offences are often long-lasting. Damage to schools, community buildings or train stations can have a “real impact” on local communities. The proposed guidelines make it clear that the courts should consider the economic or social impact of such crimes.

Ensure consistency in sentencing

The guidelines cover arson, criminal damage or arson with intent to endanger life, criminal damage valued at above and below £5,000, threats to destroy or damage property, and racially or religiously aggravated criminal damage.

Sentencing Council member Judge Sarah Munro QC has said: "The guidelines we are proposing will help ensure consistency in the sentencing of these extremely varied offences […] They can range from very minor damage to property up to an intent to endanger lives, and the guidelines set out an approach to sentencing that will help ensure appropriate sentences according to the seriousness of each offence."

The consultation is open now and closes on 26 June 2018."

www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/consultations/

Cancer - The F Word

Back in February, I read in the news about one of the latest scientific breakthroughs of human eggs being matured in the lab for the first time. I was interested to read about the potential implications of this, particularly what it might mean for fertility treatments for those who have been diagnosed with cancer at a young age. The recent blog by my colleague, Lucy Small, highlights the devastating impact a cancer diagnosis at a young age can have on a woman’s fertility. Focus tends to be on treatment, and understandably so, but we must not forget about the potential impact of a cancer diagnosis on fertility, particularly for younger people who receive a diagnosis. The F word is a big deal for many younger cancer sufferers, and not everybody gets a chance to talk about it.

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How old is “young”?

The risk of a “young” person getting a cancer diagnosis is of course quite low, statistically speaking, but exactly how old is “young”? The American Cancer Society suggests that for the purposes of statistics, “young adults” are generally regarded as between 20 and 39 years old. I think it depends on the type of cancer, but with people living longer and with women often deciding to have children at older ages, this might alter our perception of what “young” is. In breast cancer for example, “young” seems to mean under the age of 45. A family history of this in relatives under the age of 50 does increase a person’s risk of developing this disease and would generally warrant enhanced screening in accordance with NHS guidelines. With cervical cancer, the highest incident rates seem to be in the 25 – 29 age group and according to Cancer Research, more than half of cervical cancer cases in the UK each year are diagnosed in women under the age of 45. For young men (aged 25-49), testicular cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, accounting for around 14% of all cases in 2013-2015. These are all ages where people might be planning to start a family.

Cancer Treatment

Undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy carries a risk of reducing fertility. This may not have such a big impact for “older” patients but for younger people who have not yet had, and may want to have children in the future, this impact can be life changing.
For hormonal driven cancers, such as breast or womb, the treatment does not end after the initial chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy and patients may have to undergo hormonal therapies for years afterwards. For example, tamoxifen, a breast cancer drug, can often be prescribed for up to 10 years following active treatment. This carries the risk of inducing early menopause and will have a massive impact on couples considering adding to or starting a family.

Fertility Preservation

Sometimes patients can be offered fertility preservation options before beginning their treatment, but there is no one size fits all approach and much will depend on the individual’s particular circumstances and type of cancer, and even local health care provider (the familiar case of post code lottery). Women can sometimes freeze their eggs before starting treatment, or even ovarian tissue, and men could undergo sperm banking for example. If this is not available on the NHS for a particular patient, some people may have to pay for the cost of going private.
At what is already an incredibly difficult time, it is just another thing for cancer patients to have to think and worry about, particularly for those young adults who have not even contemplated or yet thought about having children. Time may also be of the essence in starting treatment, and patients may have to make the difficult decision to delay treatment to explore and undergo fertility preservation, with the possibility that this could increase cancer risk and impact on their prognosis.

Hope for the future?

Fertility is often something young people take for granted and so may be the last thing a young person receiving a cancer diagnosis thought they might have to think about.
As I understand it, the eggs that have been matured in the lab are technically ready to be fertilised and, if this leads to healthy embryos, this could in theory be used to help women who have had cancer at a young age. There is also potential for the technique to be used to preserve fertility in children having cancer treatment. More investigation is needed before this could be a potential clinical option but hopefully this is a positive step forward for fertility preservation and treatment, particularly for those whose fertility is affected by a cancer diagnosis at a young age.

Surviving Spinal Injury – The Journey

After the success of the Brain Injury Conference in 2016, Lanyon Bowdler hosted another event entitled Surviving Spinal Injury – The Journey which was held at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Hospital, Oswestry.

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Arriving to refreshments, the day of informative talks started off with a welcome from host, and partner at Lanyon Bowdler, Dawn Humphries followed by a brief a history of the development of spinal injury services in from Professor Waigh El-Masri. One of Professor El-Masri’s many achievements was to found and set up Transhouse which is an organisation that offers transitional housing for patients with spinal cord injuries (SCI) and provides them with the skills they need to live a more independent life after being in hospital. We were lucky enough to hear from Transhouse’s CEO Fae Dromgool later in the day.

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A moving talk was given by David Chapple, Trustee of Horatio’s Garden. Mr Chapple set up the charity, which creates beautiful and accessible gardens in NHS spinal centres across the country, in memory of his son Horatio. The RJAH look forward to having a garden designed by the charity at the hospital.
The morning programme took on a clinical angle regarding spinal injuries with talks from Dr Clive Bezzina, who spoke about rehabilitation, Mr Naveen Kumar gave a most thorough and in-depth talk on the management of spinal cord injuries. Mr Aheed Osman provided a very detailed presentation on the recent advances in SCI management, covering worldwide research projects.

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Michelle Bunyan provided an informative overview of case management and how it requires a specialist approach when a client has a spinal injury. Jonathan Fogerty, Trustee of the charity SPIRIT spoke about the charity’s international reach which aims to improve the treatment and care of those with SCI, having sustained a SCI himself in his teenage years.

After lunch, host and associate at Lanyon Bowdler, Emma Broomfield welcomed Fae Dromgool from Transhouse to start the afternoon of talks.

Attendees were captivated by the story of Yu Guo who is also a former patient of the RJAH and whose case was successfully won by Lanyon Bowdler’s Dawn Humphries and No5 Chambers’ barrister Chris Bright QC. After a complicated case involving a dancing move, Dawn and Chris secured her a settlement to provide for her future care. Yu Guo took the time to thank Dawn and Chris for all their hard work and expressed how pleased she was with the way they conducted her case.

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Attendees were further treated to a talk from another former RJAH patient, guest speaker Darren Edwards. After being involved in a serious fall on 6 August 2016, whilst rock climbing in North Wales, Darren was left paralysed from the chest down. He shared his journey from being airlifted to Stoke hospital, to founding the charity Strength Through Adversity, which aims to provide opportunities for disabled people in Shropshire to take part in sporting activities.

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A day of enlightening, educational and at times both emotional and entertaining talks, was rounded off by a Q&A chaired by Mr Chowdhury.

I think I can say on behalf of all who attended that the day was a great success and provided an important insight into the legal, medical and practical help that exists for those with spinal injuries. A particular highlight was the demonstration of a robotic walking aid and an insight into how these can assist those with spinal injuries by Stephen Ruffle of ReWalk Robotics.

SARDA Assessment Weekend March 2018

I don’t know if it’s a sign of age but the twice-yearly Search Dog assessments seem to come round more quickly every year. However, they take place over three days from Friday to Sunday and Lanyon Bowdler are good enough to allow me time off for the Friday so I get my full doggy-fix!

We always use a Girl Guide centre at Caeathro, near Caernarfon, for our assessment accommodation as it has plenty of bunk-room for all the assessors that will turn up from Search & Rescue teams from all over the country (and sometimes Ireland). There is also a large kitchen from which the wonderful Hilary can work her magic, she is a former search dog handler and Mountain Rescue member and now much-loved caterer for a variety of tastes. She is completely unfazed by vegetarian, vegans, nut-allergies, dairy allergies, gluten-intolerance and the raging hunger of a day out on the hills, she produces a cooked breakfast, packed lunches and three-course dinners over three days, on a budget, to suit all tastes. There are picnic benches outside for people who want to take some time out, plenty of woodland for exercising dogs and – most importantly – an open fire and squishy armchairs for those long, sociable evenings chatting, drinking and playing cards.

Toast duty

This time we were joined by assessors from the North of England and Kent, who had all made epic journeys to be there whilst facing a miserable forecast for their return journey on Sunday. We made sure to show them some good Welsh hospitality, of course – meaning Harold was on his usual late-night toast duty and dealt manfully with shouts for brown, white, some with butter, some with dairy-free spread……

Ready for assessment

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Up for assessment were Alex and his lovely collie Ben, who have trained hard for a couple of years to be in the position where they were ready to be assessed to join the callout list. Alex is a busy Ambulance Technician and member of Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue on top of training a search dog, and Ben has come a long way from being a slightly nervous dog from a rescue centre to being a really cuddly furry bundle with a real mission in life. Richard and Scout, and Helen and her dog Cluanie, both members of Llanberis Mountain Rescue Team, were being re-assessed, as is required of all dogs and handlers every three years. Although assessment is the priority for the weekend other trainee and graded dogs will be working and training where there are spare bodies available, and it’s just as important to bring them on at every stage, especially those dogs and handlers who might be ready for the next assessment in November.

Sedate night

It was an unusually sedate night on Thursday when I got there around 10pm, we sat and chatted by the fire, had a couple of glasses of wine and some snacks and caught up with each other but we were all in bed by 1am (I set the record in February, together with two other people, for a 5.30am bedtime, up and training at 7am……). I have given up trying to fend off the snoring in the bunkrooms and have slept in my car for many years now, no mean feat in a Corsa, but this time I decided to try “foetal position in the back seat”, instead of putting the front seat back as far as it will go and wishing there was space in the glove box for my feet – and it worked a treat! I slept solidly for almost four hours until the rain on the roof woke me around 5am, I settled down to enjoy the sound and slept some more until 6.45am when it was time to get up.

Friday morning

People are always milling around by 6.45am, exercising their dogs, sorting their kit and drinking mugs of tea in the morning light, so there is no shortage of company as you assess the weather and pack your kit from the back of the car accordingly. This is always punctuated by dogs rushing up to greet you as they are let out of vehicles from a night’s sleep, investigating the boot of your car for the inevitable treats they know all bodies have hidden there and plying for cuddles – it’s a great time of the day. However, there are also sandwiches to be made and flasks to be filled before breakfast at 7.30am and the briefing at 8.30am.

24 hour cross trail

I was asked to do trailing up at Parc Glynllifon, an area of land belonging to Lord Newborough and where we are very generously allowed to train. In particular I was asked to do a 24-hour cross trail. The idea here is that some missing people will, over an extended period, walk back over a scent trail they might have left earlier, because they are trying to self-rescue or are confused. A trailing dog can distinguish between the older and fresher scent of a missing person who has crossed over their own trail and, if they are following the older trail, they will then turn off at the point the fresher scent crosses the trail and follow the fresher scent. This required me to leave an article of my clothing in a sealed bag and set off at Parc Glynllifon to walk a trail and leave my scent behind me. I left my car keys with a dog handler who then brought my car to collect me because I could not walk back to my car as I would over-lay a fresher scent on top of what I had already walked. It’s pretty unnerving to see your own car being driven past you, let me tell you!

Body-buddy Maya

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Having laid that trail I then went to join the others at Fort Belan, near Dinas Dinlle. This is by Caernarfon Airport where the air ambulance and the Coastguard helicopter are based so there is always the opportunity for some great views if you are a helicopter nerd like me! I was asked if I would like to take my body-buddy, Maya the collie, out with me to replicate a missing dog-walker. Once again Maya, who now knows the word “bodying”, danced along beside me as I laid a trail along the concrete path.

I went down to the water’s edge to throw sticks into the water for Maya before we doubled back up to the sand dunes and dipped in between them to another inlet where I found a lovely spot on the edge of the sand, overlooking the Nantlle Ridge and Yr Eifl with the sea dividing them and lapping just feet away from me. We watched flocks of oystercatchers, enjoying their “peep, peep, peep” as they darted from us in sharp-focus black and white scurries and I poured a cup of my tea, blew on it for Maya as I know she likes tea, then she lapped from it once before turning her nose up, meaning I had to jettison the whole cup. On the second attempt she licked around the rim of the cup. Thanks Maya…….

It was raining gently but steadily so I hunkered down into my bivvy bag whilst Maya pottered around to find various sticks and other debris for me to throw for her.

Well done Ginger

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Ginger and his human Luci were tasked to find me and had a neck-buff in a bag that I had been wearing earlier in the day. I didn’t see it all happen but have it on good authority that Ginger trotted along the concrete I had walked on, then went down to the water’s edge exactly where I had been (and the tide had gone out by then, pulling my scent with it) before heading up through the dunes and motoring along the beach towards me. What was brilliant was that he wasn’t at all distracted when he saw Maya – he was so fixed on my scent and the task of finding me that he ignored her, even when she went up to Luci, which could have caused all sorts of jealousy issues, found me and lay down beside me to indicate to Luci that this was the scent he was looking for. This was probably one of the harder trails that Ginger had done in terms of terrain, junctions and possible scent confusion and he seemed to nail it – even more wonderful was the fact that, when we walked out of the area, he trotted along with his toy in his mouth looking so proud of himself, he KNEW he had done well!

Dog kisses

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The weather had started to clear by then and there is always time in SARDA for some sitting around and eating lunch whilst indulging in doggy cuddles. Search Dog Izzy decided that Body Kerry needed to be the object of her attention that day so as Kerry was enjoying a quiet snooze on a bank in the sunshine Izzy decided she needed a wet kiss – and not just one, no. MANY wet kisses.

Caravan encounter

After lots of canine cuddles it was time to head off to our next area and this time we went to a caravan park where I was placed in bushes next to an empty caravan space – that is a sure-fire guarantee that someone will arrive with their caravan and park there and, of course, it happened within 10 minutes of my nestling into the bush.

I knew that the poor hapless couple would get the fright of their lives as they connected to the hook-up but at the same time some woman poking her head out of the bushes and saying “Er, excuse me….” is likely to have a similar effect so it is a no-win situation. They took it very well though, and seemed to enjoy watching as four search dogs found me in the space of two hours, followed by a fabulous flypast by the Coastguard helicopter as it came back to land nearby.

The sun had come out and was beaming down on me, I had downloaded a brilliant podcast onto my phone (“West Cork”, check it out) and was hooked, so the time flew by and before I realised anything it was 4.40pm and I had to be back at Base for 5pm for the debrief, where we all report back on our perception of how things have gone before the assessors have their meeting. Just time to sort out kit, the lucky ones get a shower then it is dinner at 7pm, followed by washing up then more toast and chat in front of the fire until midnight.

Dramatic weather

I slept slightly less well in the back of my car on Friday night and the temperature had definitely dropped – by 7am it was trying to snow and this did not bode well. After breakfast and briefing I went back to Parc Glynllifon to lay a trail at 90 degrees across the one I had laid the previous morning and this time I had Maya with me.

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The weather turned radiant for a couple of hours so Maya and I sat in a field at the end of the cross-trail, leaning against a fence and waiting to be found. Maya found another stick on the walk there and insisted on carrying it all the way so that I, as her slave, could throw it for her repeatedly for ages. I managed to persuade her to settle down (bribed her with a bit of banana, one of her favourite foods……..) and she put her head on my knees and chilled out whilst I carried on with my podcast, enjoying the view up to the mountains.

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In the afternoon we headed up to Cefn Du, a lonely high forested pass between Waunfawr and Llanberis which passes along the foot of Moel Eilio, and where conditions changed rather dramatically. The wind was howling and snow blowing periodically in from the east, stinging the eyes as I laid a trail first on a narrow path above the slate squarry spoils before dropping down to a track, meeting a gate then heading uphill to an exposed point beneath a ruined quarry building. Luckily I found a small dip and nestled in here against the increasingly ferocious conditions, trying to stay warm for a couple of hours and just enjoying a snooze as Ginger bounced exuberantly onto my stomach. He had trailed me in those conditions, by the scent I had left behind and interestingly for a patch had walked on a parallel track about eight feet above where I had dropped down and walked but he kept peering over the edge to my track and tried on a couple of occasions to get down the steep spoils to where I had walked.

The wind was so strong and funnelling along the track that it must had pushed my scent strongly and scattered it all over the slate, and broken it up on the rugged surface so my smell was everywhere and Ginger was picking up hints of it from where he was, just above. As he reached the gate he didn’t even need to go through it to check if my scent had gone through there, he just turned at 90 degrees and motored up the hill to jump on me and disturb my cosy slumber! After a play with his favourite toy we walked back to the vehicles, a fresh snowstorm bearing down on us from behind before it caught us up and engulfed us.

Conditions were pretty ferocious by now, not the worse I have experienced in my role as a body but enough to make you take shelter behind your vehicle and be glad that in spite of some pretty high-performance clothing you are not out there on your own any more.

Congratulations

As we sheltered the news came through that Ben and Alex had passed their assessment, which delighted us as they have worked so hard for this – and, in fact, within a couple of hours of their official recognition as a Search Dog Team there were called out to their first operational search on Anglesey! Richard & Scout re-graded successfully, as did Helen and Cluanie so it was a brilliantly successful time for all concerned and left Sunday for everyone to relax and have some fun with the dogs, doing training searches and enjoying the snow.

Thrill never wanes

Whenever I come home from training I feel slightly bereft, it’s as though I have left a family behind because we live at such close quarters and with only one common aim for a whole weekend, so I console myself with the smell of Nikwax as I wash, dry and re-proof all my kit (that usually takes the best part of a day), upload my photos and exchange messages with people I have only seen that morning, as though we haven’t seen each other for whole months.

It’s a really special crowd of people and one I am immensely proud to be part of. After 12 years I can honestly say that the thrill never wanes, in fact it becomes more addictive and the people a more entangled part of your own, special and slightly weird family – however, all families are slightly weird so who am I to complain?!

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