It's a dog's life for Terry Ball... Fenland District Council's dog warden

SPECIAL FEATURE THE call came at 10.30am – a report of a stray dog found at Welches Dam, near Manea. That s real Indian country – wild and woolly, laughed Terry Ball. We d better get going. So off we went. Terry is Fenland Dist


THE call came at 10.30am - a report of a stray dog found at Welches Dam, near Manea. "That's real Indian country - wild and woolly," laughed Terry Ball. "We'd better get going." So off we went.

Terry is Fenland District Council's dog warden and we had just been inspecting the strays already boarded at the Council's contract kennels in Wisbech, on the other side of the district. Forty minutes later we reached the house where the new dog had been contained.

It was a small black whippet, painfully thin and very docile - no problem for Terry to load it swiftly into the cage at the back of his van. He took down the details of the family who had found it and headed back to the kennels.

It had been an easy capture and, as it turned out, the only one needed that day. Things are not always so simple - or so risk-free.

"I have been in some sticky situations," says Terry." But I've only actually been bitten once. That was by a Rottweiler. I can usually read when a dog's going to bite. On this occasion I got caught out. You learn to recognise the signs. If one's going to bite, he looks straight in your eyes and doesn't back off."

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Terry has been with the council for 20 years - 15 of them combining the roles of pest control officer and dog warden. Now it's the dogs that are his sole concern.

But picking up strays is only one of his tasks. He also works closely with the council's Street Scene officers combating dog fouling and encouraging pet owners to act responsibly, as well as reporting problems like fly-tipping.

Most of the time, he is out and about patrolling the streets and open spaces, in all the district's towns and villages.

He provides a highly visible presence - and a vital deterrent.

Earlier in the day we had stopped at The Bower, near Ainslie Lock in Whittlesey, to chat to a man walking his two dogs. We had seen him picking up their mess, so Terry praised his good work and gave him a couple of extra poop bags to encourage him to keep it up; in turn, the walker reported that one of the dog bins further along the path was full, so Terry phoned in immediately to ensure that it got emptied.

The incident illustrated the value of Terry's work. "My job is to patrol - that's the main thing - and to respond to any calls or complaints," he says. "High profile - that's what I have to be. When I go to a town, I always go down the main street so as many people as possible see me. The van does more good than anything. People see it around and you see some of them looking a bit guilty. Getting it about is the best deterrent. But you also stop and talk to people and encourage them to be responsible.

"Most people are nice and they're very grateful when you find their missing dog - I've had whole families crying their eyes out when I took it back. You get a few who aren't but the grateful ones make up for the ungrateful. I always like a happy ending."

There's less aggression towards him than in the past, he says. "When I started, I got lots of abuse and once a group of yobs threw a brick at my van. But recently the situation has improved a lot - there are fewer strays, no dogs roaming in packs, no 'latchkey' dogs let out to exercise on their own."

People who fail to pick up their pet's mess are liable to incur a fixed penalty of �50. The council does not issue many but doesn't hesitate to crack down on those who blatantly refuse to do so. Inevitably, it relies on local people to report offenders; all information is kept confidential.

Fenland presents particular problems for a dog warden. It's a big area with towns and villages widely scattered and Terry is on his own, constantly criss-crossing the district - he reckons he's covered about 80,000 miles in the past four years. Calls come in when he is miles away and he cannot always deal with them immediately.

Sometimes, for example, he has two dogs already on board and can't pick up another until he has delivered them to the kennels. On other occasions he travels miles to collect one, only to find when he gets there that the owner has just pitched up. "Some people say 'I haven't seen the dog warden for ages'. But you can't be everywhere at the same time."

Despite the practical difficulties, there are clear rules about the times within which Terry has to respond. For reports of a dangerous dog attacking people, endangering traffic or entering a school, he must be there within an hour of receiving the information. For strays, it is two hours or sometimes one working day if it is running around and no one can catch it.

Terry says the welfare of the animals is his prime concern and he clearly loves the dogs. Surprisingly, perhaps, only twice has he been tempted to take a stray home himself. One was a German Shepherd found at Fenland Hall that he took to the kennels. "When I went back to see him, he was all over me. I always wish I'd had that one."

Now approaching 65, he is looking forward to retirement next year. And after 20 years in the job, why not? But thinking of that German Shepherd - and seeing how he was with that little whippet - I have a sneaking suspicion that there's a small part of his work that he'll definitely miss.


TERRY Ball is on call Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm on 01354 654321. Outside those hours, anyone reporting a stray dog to the council is routed to its "out of hours service". They will be asked whether the dog is contained and whether they are prepared to take it to the council's contract kennels in Wisbech. If they cannot, the dog will be collected as soon as possible the following working day. Only in very exceptional circumstances are the kennel staff able to collect dogs.