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Monday, 6 August 2012

The Defence Animal Centre

Wow, what a busy few weeks i've had! Sorry for not blogging sooner, but so much has been happening, I don't know where the time has gone!

Over the last few weeks I have had some really good jobs and travelled about a fair bit in the process.

The one I have been looking forward too for some time, was the Defence Animal Centre (DAC) in Melton Mowbray. As a spaniel owner, and lover of dogs, this trip was right up my street. All I had to do was remember I was their for work and not to play with all the dogs! Easier said than done!

With the alarm set nice and early and all my kit waiting to go, I got picked up by Tammy, Army Medical Directorate's Media Ninja, then headed up north.

Tammy looks after all media coverage for the Army Medical Services, this includes the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) that look after all of our working animals. Tammy was my liaison to the people at the DAC.

Arriving just after breakfast, we soon got introduced to the Adjutant of the DAC before heading out to capture imagery. The DAC, from the word go, were amazing hosts. We were given free reign of the centre, something I am not normally used to. No chaperones, no 'out of bounds' areas, nothing! 

So, like excited children in a sweet shop, we were off before anyone could change their minds! We visited every department the DAC had to offer, finding out what they had scheduled for the next two days, so we could map out our time efficiently.

The new Canine Section kennels

First stop was the veterinary surgery. Bizarrely enough, they were extremely quiet. Considering the DAC houses hundreds of dogs and horses, all they had on that day was a hip x-ray. Photo opportunity nevertheless. Then it was onto Canine Section. My favourite without a doubt!

We were welcomed by the Section OC and Training Warrant Officer before heading out around the kennels in the capable hands of one of the Section Corporals.

The DAC is now the proud owner of some state of the art, temperature controlled kennels. They are just superb. Each kennel block houses approx. 20 dogs and they have several blocks of these, as you can imagine.

Puppy agility

With so much to see and do, we had to be careful not to miss anything. Puppy agility was a 'definite' must see. One year old Labradors running about the place all excited = cracking pictures! Enough said.

Protection Dog Agility

As well as this, canine section were running agility for protection dogs, as well as some 'bite training' for the Belgian Malinois. Another bunch of amazing, clever dogs.

Puppy spots her bite

Praise given during training

We were fortunate enough to see a pre-arranged demonstration, it was to show the British Transport Police the capabilities of various dogs. Prime opportunity for me to move about and capture the demo without disruption.

Malinois puppy gets a bite during training

Training done. Happy handler and dog

The demo then continued onto other forms of protection dog and what they could do. Sadly I can't talk much about what our dogs do, or how they do it, but I'm sure you get the idea. These dogs are trained to such a high standard, you can practically switch them on and off from 'work mode.' 

On several occasions the Belgian Malinois would come and lick my face once they'd finished training if I got close for a picture. Intelligent animals to say the least.


As with most animal training, it's all reward based. You can see the enthusiasm in this dogs face as he chases after his Kong as a reward for his training. 

'Don't make me angry!!'

Once the demo was over, we had the opportunity for a quick group photo of a litter of Malinois that were celebrating their first birthday, before setting up some other shots. The dog above is one of those 'puppies!'

I arranged a few shots with the guys, wanting to capture the aggression the dog can show when in 'work mode.' As I lay on the floor on a very wide angle lens, one of the lads stood over me, baiting the dog with the bite sleeve on. This is normal practice and part of their training. It helps the dog to identify aggressive behaviour, but also identify the bite sleeve as a reward at the early stages. Once the pictures were in the bag, the dog was allowed a bite on the sleeve. Something that was clearly enjoyable.

If dogs could smile, this one would have been grinning like a cat that had got the cream. 

foot scrub

Although I could have spent my whole time with the dogs, it was time to move on, heading off to see Equestrian Section.

The team there look after everything equestrian. From the smallest foal to the largest shire, along with all their saddles and kit.

Whilst there we met 'Digger' who is a drum horse from London, currently having some time off in a grass field at the DAC. He is the largest horse in the UK. Amazing size, I can tell you! 


As with the dogs section, the equestrian area can house hundreds of horses at any one time. Out of ceremonial season, all of the horses from London District go to the DAC for some rest, relaxation and to just quietly plod about the many fields they have there eating grass.

Sadly, no rider courses were running during my time, but that's something for another day. Watching that would be quite good. Most people that join the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiments (HCMR) have never even sat on a horse. Yet by the time they finish at the DAC, they are fully accomplished riders of several disciplines, including jumping and dressage. Training to ride in full ceremonial dress is also something that takes some practice!

A few of the types of horse shoes made

Working hand in hand with the horses are the farriers. These guys do an amazing job. With less than 30 Army Farriers currently serving across the whole of the Army, they are responsible for every ceremonial horse in London, as well as those at the DAC in training. Exact numbers I don't know, but it's in the hundreds!

These guys are skilled professionals. With more to it than you think, these soldiers, once selected, do a three or four year apprenticeship before gaining there final award by the Worshipful Company of Farriers. Along with many other certificates this equates, I believe, to a degree.

More than just a blacksmith, that's for sure. These guys know the intricate details of the horses anatomy, below the knee and are often the first person to be asked for advice, sometimes even prior to a vet. They deal in all below-knee ailments, including 'pus' foot and other fungal infections. These are the people that clear that out, safely, prior to any treatment by the vet.

Oh, they also shoe horses!

Brushing the metal

The roaring fire

The Army Farrier works in soaring temperatures and handles pieces of metal hotter than you can imagine. Being up close for just a minute was enough, yet these guys are in or around the furnace all day, often shoeing or moulding shoes for hours on end.

Shaping the shoe

Watching these blokes work was fascinating, a bit like how a fruit machine is to a gambler, the bright sparks had me in a trance. As expected, these pictures needed to be timed right, so an idea about what they were doing before they started was key. 

Once I had exhausted all my ideas of these blokes working, I thought I'd grab a few environmental portraits. With their surroundings being a perfect backdrop, I got my lights out and got everything ready.

The Army Farrier

All in all, a massively successful trip! Thanks to everyone at the DAC for your hospitality!

Well, that's it from me. Sadly I don't have anymore room for pictures, as I have hundreds from this trip. I hope you have enjoyed the small snippet I have shown you.

Until next time.............


Saturday, 21 July 2012

Salisbury Cathedral

On Thursday night, I tagged along with members of the Andover Split Image Photographic Society to Salisbury Cathedral.

We all met up, had a chin wag, then set to work.

Luckily, the Cathedral had a concert on that night, so I managed to persuade my way in, just before they closed for a quick couple of internal shots. 

As the sun set, their was not a cloud in the sky. Bit of a shame, but can't complain. The evening was stunning. Probably the first dry day in weeks.

So, with my tripod at hand, something I don't use at all, I set about this stunning landmark shooting landscapes. Something else I don't normally do. Managed to get a panoramic out of it too.

All in all, a good night out.

Hope you like the pictures.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Exercise Wessex Thunder

The last couple of weeks here at the Army Headquarters in Andover have been exceptionally busy. 

I have covered a variety of jobs including the Secretary of State for Defence, TA Cavalry firing the Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank, an archaeological dig and a forces career day. Their has certainly been no rest for the wicked. 

The other interesting story I covered was the Royal Army of Oman on exercise with 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment on Salisbury Plain.

The Omani Western Frontier Regiment had spent two weeks on exercise with 2 Para, which concluded at the Military training village of Copehill Down.

So after an early start we headed onto the area. 

The arrival of all the exercising troops was to be by Helicopter insertion. So after a short wait, the helicopter 'work-horses' arrived, otherwise known as the Chinook.

Troops and vehicles inserted by air

Thankfully after all the recent rain we have had, on this day, we had sun! What a nice change it was too. 

Troops patrol away from the Chinook

Within minutes of the aircraft landing, the ground was covered with a sea of multi-coloured camouflage. With the Omani soldiers leading the patrol, it was quite clear who was who. 

Covering open ground

The patrols strengths varied. Some were small 2 Para patrols, while others were mixed with the Oman's. 

It wasn't long before everyone got into cover for more detailed map briefs.

The Omanis covering open ground

Once into cover and the commanders had put their men in the relevant places, the briefs took place. 

An Omani soldier in an overwatch position

2 Para being briefed

Once the main briefs were over, the men needed to move closer to Copehill village in order to get a better appreciation of the land and current exercise threat.

Lt Col Adam Dawson MC, CO 2 Para radios through his orders

The CO, by this time, had all his 'ducks in a row' so to speak and was ready for the off.

The relevant sections were informed of their route of approach. They then prepared to attack the village.

2 Para moving fast

As with any well planned exercise, there are several surprises for the lads on the way. Several buildings had been occupied with 'enemy' and were making this task anything but easy for the troops.

Building Entry

Once the main entry to the village was done, each building had to be cleared as they progressed down the street. Some of these buildings were made purposely hard to enter, so high entries were needed. As with any good commanders assessment of the task, ladders and all relevant equipment were carried for this reason.

Get Up There!

By now, the exercise was moving at a nice pace. The Omani soldiers were really proving their worth too. Working together with ease, despite an obvious language barrier.

Covering Fire

Enemy located

Omani Fire Position

The exercise, from my point of view, was going well. The enemy were taking a good hit and the progress being made was good. The Paras had a good amount of weapon systems between them, as did the Omanis.

Para firing position

Another high entry

As the exercise came to a natural lull, it was clear that not many enemy positions were still manned. The lads were all still pumping with adrenaline and could have gone on all day.

Photographically, this was a good job for me. It had been a long time since my last trip to Copehill, but it always makes good pictures. 

Training villages like these always have their advantages. Firing blanks is one of them. This means my movement is hardly restricted due to safety implications, as sometimes being in front of the barrel of a machine gun is where you need to be for the best image. Clearly this can never happen on a live range.

Once we were finished, it was back to the office to edit and send to press. Job done!

So all in all it's been a very busy, but varied couple of weeks at work.

Over the next few weeks I have some Olympic Torch events and a trip to the Defence Animal Centre to look forward too. These will make for some amazing images!

For the official press release from this story, please visit the Army Website 

Thanks for reading and more from me soon


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Salisbury Plain Military Wives Choir sings to MPs in London

It has been a varied first week back at work in the Army Headquarters. Monday and Tuesday were relatively slow days, doing vital admin, and catching up on 100 or so emails, on my work terminal, that arrived during my time away. Despite having an 'Out of Office' reply set, the emails still kept piling up.

As most of you know, I have been doing a lot of work in my leave with the Salisbury Plain Military Wives Choir. Now I was back to work, it was about time they got some official coverage from us at the Army News Team. With their schedule firmly imprinted in my diary, I set about going to London with them as they performed at the House of Commons and Portcullis House.

Outside the House of Commons

The choir had been invited by the MP for Devizes, Claire Perry. Claire covers Bulford, Tidworth and Larkhill within her constituency, and wanted to show her appreciation by inviting them to this special event. After a tour of The House of Commons, the choir got to sit in the gallery and watch a debate. Claire told us later on, that Mr Speaker commented on how they were the most glamorous spectators he has ever had in his gallery.

Once the tour was over, and a group shot was taken on the staircase in the Grand Hall, the ladies had some time to change and warm up for their performance.

The Grand Hall

Performing for the masses

Wherever You Are

The choir absolutely loved the day, and their performance was absolutely amazing. Despite hearing them sing quite a lot, the songs never bore me. In fact, I hear them get better every time they perform.

With 'Wherever You Are' being the most well known wives choir song, two of the ladies sung their hearts out for the crowd on the solo part, with the rest of the choir doing a great job behind them.

Sir Andrew Robotham 
Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans

Luckily, several of the Armed Forces Ministers were able to attend. Sir Andrew Robotham and Philip Hammond, The Secretary of State for Defence to name but a few. They were all totally in ore of these women, and spent time talking to them, and giving them praise for their hard work. They also commented on the vital support they give their husbands in such a career. I am proud to say that my wife is part of this amazing choir, and is she the most supportive person I know.

Philip Hammond watches the choir

With a few speeches done, there were just a few songs left. By this point, the crowd had grown somewhat, as more politicians finished work.

Philip Hammond addresses the choir

Philip Hammond then got invited by Claire Perry to say a few words. 

God Save The Queen

With the performance coming to an end, it just left the National Anthem to sing before heading home. Philip Hammond and Andrew Robotham were then invited to sing with the choir. With Andrew Robotham firmly within the choir ranks, and Philip Hammond stood with Claire Perry, it was quite an impressive rendition. The whole of Portcullis House were on their feet, singing along too. Spectacular.

After that it was time to pack up, interview all the people I needed for my story and catch the coach home. The day had been great. Very hot, but great. We were all sweating lots, but it was worth it. 

It was the next morning I got the story finished and published on the British Army website, along with a picture gallery on the Army Facebook page. Claire Perry has used the story in her constituency leaflet and the Salisbury Journal have published it too. Hopefully more people have used it by now, as it helps raise awareness of the choir and their good work.

Then it was all change! I had to quickly get my kit, drive to Longmore and photograph Number 1 Company, Irish Guards conduct riot training. This was in preparation for a future contingency role, in EU led peacekeeping missions and the Olympic security. Quite a variation for my first week back eh? 

Military Wives to Riots! Brilliant!

More from me soon.

Steve (@CombatPhot)