A seven-year-old golden Labrador, once abandoned by his owners for being "too boisterous", has carved out a career detecting dry rot hidden from the human eye. For Sam, locating the heady whiff of the fungus is the start of a new game which will end with extra cuddles from his handler and trainer, Peter Monaghan, a surveyor. But detecting the rot is a serious business for the National Trust, the charitable trust which maintains some of Britain's most treasured stately homes. Over the past year the trust has spent about £51.8m on property conservation alone. Standing at the heart of an estate which includes parks and a working farm, about 10 miles (16km) south of Cambridge, is the 17th Century Wimpole Hall.
It is the location of Sam's most recent assignment - scouring its
300-year-old basement to see just how far its dry rot had spread. It meant a long journey for Sam and Mr Monaghan, 60, from their home near
Kendal, in Cumbria. But Sam is a well-travelled Labrador, as he is thought to be one of only two
dry rot sniffer dogs - known as "rothounds" - working commercially in the UK. Sam and his colleague Wilson - a black Labrador - are on the payroll of
Surrey-based Hutton and Rostron, a company specialising in controlling dry rot
and decay in historic buildings. Dry rot, Serpula lacrymans, flourishes where there is moisture, and
leads to decay and deterioration of timber. It is related to mushroom and
toadstool fungi, and has a distinct "mushroomy" odour.
The rothounds are brought in at the early stages of
fungal detection, locating problems at the source and enabling treatment to be
more accurately targeted.
In fact, their ability to sense the rot before it spreads and becomes more
obvious, is one of the reasons why Wimpole Hall chose to call on Sam's
services. "Dry rot has been an on-going problem for us. It was popping up everywhere
and we just couldn't pinpoint where it was coming from," assistant house
steward, Jess Marczewski says. "One of the trust's conservators suggested we try a different way of tackling
it, and that's where Sam comes into the story." Sam is trained to detect active dry rot fungus and "the odd doughnut or two",
Mr Monaghan says.
"I found Sam about five years ago at a rescue centre in Cumbria, where he
ended up after his family found him too boisterous to deal with," he
explains. "But a boisterous working dog is exactly what's needed for sniffing out
anything, whether it's drugs, firearms or fungus. You need a very focused, single-minded animal determined to find something
that usually can't be seen." Dogs like Sam do not make good family pets, Mr Monaghan says. "Sam lives for the joy of working, praise from me - and the occasional
doughnut." Sam's training took about two years to complete. The training, Mr Monaghan
says, is much the same as for any sniffer dog - they are taught to follow a
specific scent. Sam can locate the smell of dry rot among any other fungi, Mr Monaghan
says. When he finds it, he drops to the floor with his nose in the direction of the