A retired photographer has been given the International Fund for Animal Welfare Award for an initiative that has helped return thousands of lost, distressed and injured dogs to their owners by using the power of social media and an army of volunteers flying some of the best drones around.
Graham Burton, who is 66 and based in Pontypridd, Wales, set up Drone SAR for Lost Dogs UK in 2017, and the search and rescue group, which is active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, has since found nearly 3,000 lost dogs, many of whom may have perished if it wasn't for the actions of the team.
As soon as it becomes aware of a missing dog, the group leaps into action with an administrator contacting the owner to find out as much information as possible. Once that’s done, local drone pilots start the search, along with on-ground volunteers - some with their own dogs.
"You can cover areas where people can't walk - cliff faces, or large areas of fields that would normally take hours to search by foot can be done in 20 minutes or half an hour by using a drone,” Mr Burton told BBC Wales.
Some of the pilots use highly sophisticated drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras to help locate the missing dogs, but just getting an aerial perspective of a search zone, with a budget drone or a drone designed for beginners, or even drones for kids, can potentially help with a rescue.
Mr Burton started the group five years ago after hearing about a case in Devon where a drone pilot was asking for £800 a day to assist a woman looking for her lost dog.
Speaking to BBC Wales about it last year he said: “I thought, there’s no way I’m going to allow that so I contacted a few friends of mine in the Devon area and they went and found the dog and didn’t charge a penny.”
Dogs can go missing during walks in wild areas far from home, or after getting spooked by fireworks, or involved in an accident with a car, as happened to Socks before he was rescued by Jamie Jewell, a Drone SAR for Lost Dogs UK volunteer drone pilot.
The group now has over 64,000 members, who all help to spread the word, and 3,000 drone pilots are active, along with around 2,500 ground searchers. Their collective efforts have successfully reunited more than 2,750 dogs with their worried owners.
In recognition of his efforts, Mr Burton recently received the International Fund for Animal Welfare Award at the House of Lords.