Women in Mountain Rescue: Ellie Sherwin
Womenclimb recognises the importance that Mountain Rescue volunteers play in ensuring that climbers and hillwalkers are educated and safe when enjoying the outdoors. They are the unsung heroes who ensure that those lost are found and that those in accidents are cared for.
Women are under represented in Mountain Rescue as they are in other outdoor professions and Womenclimb want to encourage more women to see Mountain Rescue as something they can get involved in.
Today we catch up with Ellie Sherwin, one of Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team’s search dog handlers to chat about her involvement in the team, the highs and lows and what she gets out of being in the team.
Ellie Sherwin is one of the most dedicated members of Mountain Rescue I’ve ever met. With 26 years service in the Calder Valley Search and Rescue team, she has had a variety of roles including team secretary, but it is through her involvement in the Search and Rescue Dog Association (SARDA) that she has provided her local team with an invaluable service.
What made you join Mountain Rescue and get involved in SARDA?
I was employed as a Countryside Ranger, enjoyed outdoor activities such as mountain walking, water sports, swimming etc. A few years after moving to the area I became involved in acting as a casualty (a dogsbody) for the search and rescue dogs. As a ‘body’ I thought for credibility I ought to join a mountain rescue team to establish my suitability and commitment.
I already had a pet dog so was interested in dogs generally. After a while, I had gained enough insight into what was involved to decide that I could probably do it just as well as anyone else and that it would be very rewarding. I did find bodying difficult to do for prolonged periods although it does show you how cold and uncomfortable you soon become, and how slowly time goes, when you are out on the hill.
After I joined the team I got a puppy and started training it. Training a dog is very time consuming. I have tended to concentrate on that rather than taking on more responsibility within the team. In contrast I have involved myself in the organisation and administration of SARDA, where I have been secretary, (for two stretches), members rep (twice), and also training officer – i.e. a considerable part of the time I have been a member of SARDA.
How do you manage to fit the commitments to the team around your work and family life?
When I started I was single and working as a Countryside Ranger so I had the advantage of fairly flexible working arrangements in that I worked additional hours and also a lot of weekends so could attend incidents in either my own time or in time owed. When I started training a dog it also meant that I could take the dog to work – a great advantage.
Although my work commitments did impinge on the amount of free weekend time I had, as I was either working or attending national dog training weekends. Since then I have been office bound, got married and have recently retired. Basically it is a case of making the most of your situation at the time.
What’s the time commitments to being involved in your team?
The team meets every Tuesday and expects at least 50% attendance, although for dog handlers who have considerable time commitment in addition to this, it tends to be reduced. Most dog handlers in Calder Valley, including myself, put in more than the minimum. Two Tuesdays are devoted to training in some form or other, one to maintaining the equipment, and one to administration / business. There is also an expectation of team members providing support for team events which may be support for sports events or fundraising activities.
As a dog handler in addition to the above you are expected to attend at least seven days a year on a National Course but training a dog and keeping it operational requires a lot more input.
Locally we train Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings with the dogs. In addition there is the daily commitment to owning a dog, exercising and training it. So basically a lot lot more than team commitment!
How long does it take to train a search dog?
It varies but generally it takes 2 to 3 years to get a dog onto the call out list. Once you have graded your first dog you have to repeat the process in a couple of years and show you have improved and becoe a more effective team. Throughout the dog’s working life you have to be observed working in the sort of terrain you are likely to be called out to such as woodlands, water edges, forests, farmland etc.
What has been the most difficult thing for you during the time that you’ve been a in Mountain Rescue?
Getting a dog on the call out list is one of the most difficult things that I have ever done. During the training stages it is usually a case of one step forward and two back ……never work with children and animals comes to mind…….
If you survive that you are then faced with the three or four day assessment, when you can be successful right up to the last session and then fail at the final hurdle. The stress and pressure of having to consistently perform well is tremendous. Fortunately with the first dog, I was awarded the novice shield for the best performance by a novice dog and handler. However, the performance has to be repeated after a couple of years to demonstrate that your efficiency and team working have improved. I struggled at this stage and failing an assessment is very demoralising. The only way to deal with it is to put a lot of time in, build up fitness and confidence of both you and your dog and try again.
What life experiences have you had that have influenced you role in the team, if any?
Primarily, my work experience of an outdoor career, working to engage people in their local environment, having to deal with situations which occurred, which were many and varied.
An interest in hill walking – I was already a member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the Lake District when I joined the rescue team, so had navigation, fitness and endurance skills.
How often does your team get called out? What are typical callouts in your team?
On average Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team get around 80 call outs per year.
The majority of call outs are to assist the ambulance service where there may already be a paramedic present. Typical examples are walkers who have slipped, mountain bikers who have fallen, children being too daring. Searches are less frequent, and often involve trying to locate vulnerable people – elderly, depressed, with less frequently these days lost walkers.
If someone would like to give it a try but they aren’t sure they have enough experience or knowledge, what would you say?
Providing you have enough enthusiasm and commitment you should be successful. Due to the level of interest, current candidates tend to have quite a lot of outdoor experience before they join, so you may need to find out exactly what the requirements are and brush up on the ones you fall short on. Being a team player helps.
If you want to find out more about joining a Mountain Rescue Team visit www.mountain.rescue.org.uk to find your local team.