A north Northumberland farmer who lost his leg in a horrific shotgun accident has said that he wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for the search and rescue helicopter at RAF Boulmer.
Mark Mather, whose family farms Haugh Head, near Wooler, wants to use his story to illustrate how important the service is to the county ahead of the handover of the UK’s Search and Rescue service to US-owned firm Bristow from April next year.
The contract for Bristow Helicopters will see 22 helicopters operating from 10 sites around the country, but the nearest to north Northumberland will be Humberside or Glasgow with additional cover for the area provided from Caernarfon in north Wales.
Mark was 24 when, in June 2008, he suffered a shotgun blast to the leg while working on the 2,500-acre mixed arable and livestock farm.
He had been involved with the family trade from his late teens and had completed a business course before leaving school to prepare him for the financial side of farming.
It was while ploughing a field in readiness for a kale crop that he noticed that the barley crop in the next field was being plundered by crows.
Mark returned to the house in the early evening, collecting his shotgun before heading straight out again on a quad bike which had a twitching device of decoy birds on its front rack to attract crows so they could be shot. He was carrying the double-barrelled shotgun across his lap. It was loaded, but the safety catch was on.
Mark drove about a quarter-of-a-mile from the farm to the first field, where he took a couple of shots, but then decided to move on to the next field.
But as he turned into the field, the battery powering the front-mounted twitcher moved slightly and he leaned forward to secure it.
As a result, the vehicle veered onto a slight bank and overturned, hitting the butt of the shotgun which went off, firing both barrels into his right leg. He was conscious, in great pain and losing a lot of blood, but couldn’t get up and couldn’t call for help because his mobile-phone battery was flat.
It was only when his dad got a message to say that some sheep had escaped that Mark was discovered, lying beneath the quad.
He was airlifted to hospital where surgeons operated throughout the night, but were forced to amputate the leg at the thigh to save his life.
The 29-year-old told the Gazette: “It’s simple, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for RAF Boulmer. The Great North Air Ambulance was requested and they wouldn’t come. I was a retained firefighter for six years and trauma-trained and I knew there was a good chance I was going to snuff it.
“The paramedic got back on the radio and said, ‘I need a helicopter here now’ and RAF Boulmer got involved and came out. I can remember all the accident – apart from I lost a bit of the helicopter ride – until I arrived at A&E.
“My surgeon said I was just about a goner and there’s no way I would have coped with a road ambulance.”
Mark stood down from the fire service a couple of years ago, but he now volunteers as a first responder. He explained that in the case of traumatic accidents, you talk about the golden hour, during which there is the highest likelihood that prompt medical treatment will prevent death.
“If you have to make the call, then allow 20 to 25 minutes’ flight time then that golden hour is disappearing fast,” said Mark.
“We have some fantastic paramedics now in Wooler, but we do seem to be losing the support. There have been a number of cases recently in this area when it’s been an hour’s wait.
“We are the most rural county, filled with agriculture; my girlfriend’s training to be a vet and she said to me the other night, ‘I just hope I never have an accident’.”
And while Mark has had to adapt to life having lost a limb, he is still thankful that he is here to tell the tale.
“I have managed to get back to work, I’m still able to do something with the emergency services,” he said.
“It could have been a whole lot worse and it nearly was.”