Wildlife hos­pi­tal

A re­lent­less tide of sick an­i­mals and birds in need of care and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, the team at the RSPCA’s East Winch Wildlife cen­tre has ex­pe­ri­enced a year like no other, writes RACHEL BULLER

EDP Norfolk - - Inside -

We pay a visit to the East Winch RSPCA hos­pi­tal

THE COR­RI­DOR is filled with a seem­ingly end­less queue of news­pa­per­lined boxes and crates of all shapes and sizes; ev­ery door you open re­veals a room packed with more of the same.

In­side, hidden away and curled tightly into lit­tle balls are hedge­hogs; dozens of them. All are at dif­fer­ent stages of treat­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion; all hop­ing for the same thing, for a suc­cess­ful re­lease back into Nor­folk’s wild.

This year alone, the RSPCA’s East Winch Wildlife cen­tre has looked af­ter more than 1,000 of these lit­tle crea­tures – the most it has seen in al­most 20 years, and they keep on com­ing. Hedge­hogs aren’t the only things which seem to be in­creas­ingly re­liant on the de­voted team of staff and vol­un­teers.

They are part of a much big­ger trend hap­pen­ing across the county – by mid Novem­ber the cen­tre had al­ready seen some 4,376 crea­tures, in com­par­i­son to 4,282 for all of last year.

The RSPCA cen­tre near King’s Lynn is home to an ever-chang­ing pop­u­la­tion of crea­tures. Open one door and in­quis­i­tive swans swing their necks round to in­spect you; some are col­lected to­gether in strange fam­ily groups with ran­dom res­cued ducks.

In the cor­ner of an ex­am­i­na­tion room, two tiny pip­istrelle bats are seek­ing so­lace in a crum­pled towel in­side a spe­cial tent and there are the young spar­rowhawk and kestrel, peer­ing out ner­vously from their cages set among the rows of hedge­hogs, all go­ing through their first phases of treat­ment.

But it is East Winch’s work with the coast­line’s seal pop­u­la­tion that it is best known for – and it is the lit­tle com­mon seal pups, many of which are in a ter­ri­ble state, that are most in need of the spe­cial­ist vet­eri­nary care they pro­vide. Small and weak, their huge eyes un­usu­ally dulled, their breath­ing laboured – this, says cen­tre man­ager Alison Charles, is typ­i­cal of the seals be­ing res­cued this year.

“It has been par­tic­u­larly bad for com­mon seals and we have al­ready had 124, the high­est num­ber in 15 years. The pups com­ing in are in­cred­i­bly poorly and sadly a lot have died with us – around 60% – where in the past we would have man­aged to treat, re­ha­bil­i­tate and re­lease them. It has been an in­cred­i­bly tough six months, es­pe­cially for our staff as they put in so much hard work car­ing for them, phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally,” she says.

“We have to find the an­swer as it is get­ting worse year on year and we are un­der­tak­ing stud­ies to try and work out what is go­ing on. They are get­ting smaller and smaller, and we think, more and more im­mune sup­pressed. It is not just here, it is all along the east coast. What­ever is hap­pen­ing to them could im­pact on other species and the wider en­vi­ron­men­tal pic­ture.”

The most fa­mous res­i­dent at East Winch is Mrs Fris­bee the seal who was res­cued from Horsey beach with a plas­tic Fris­bee

By mid-Novem­ber the cen­tre had al­ready seen some 4,376 crea­tures, in com­par­i­son to 4,282 for all of last year

ring stuck around her neck in Septem­ber. By the time she was cap­tured and brought to the cen­tre for life­sav­ing treat­ment, she was badly de­hy­drated and mal­nour­ished with a ter­ri­ble wound around her neck where the Fris­bee cut into her neck as she grew. Three months on, with the Fris­bee re­moved, her neck wound might still look grisly, but she is in re­mark­ably good health as she swims and dives in one of the cen­tre’s out­door pools.

“She’s do­ing well and get­ting fit­ter, but we need to be sure she can ex­tend her neck prop­erly be­fore she can be re­leased so that she can fish and sur­vive in the ocean. Only time will tell at the mo­ment,” says Alison.

“While find­ing seals with Fris­bees round their necks is un­usual, sadly the im­pact of other man made pol­lu­tion, in par­tic­u­lar plas­tic, can be seen all too fre­quently in the an­i­mals and birds we get in. We are mon­i­tor­ing an­other seal at the mo­ment on the beach with some­thing metal around its neck and an­other with a bikini wrapped around it. It sounds comical, but the im­pact could be fa­tal as we have no idea whether the ma­te­rial is go­ing to come apart or if the elas­tic will snap be­fore it is too late.” She says the way the re­cent se­ries of

Blue Planet II il­lus­trated the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of plas­tic in our oceans fi­nally brought it into the main­stream.

“I was so happy when I saw them ad­dress­ing it in such a pow­er­ful way and thanks to its huge reach, it re­ally got ev­ery­one talk­ing, it was all over the news. We do won­der whether this com­mon seal is­sue is some­thing to do with plas­tics in the sea, but that is all we can do at the mo­ment, won­der. We see the im­pact our­selves ev­ery day just here in Nor­folk, the harm it does to wildlife, whether that is lit­ter be­ing dis­carded by peo­ple, plas­tic off­shore or fish­er­men leav­ing old hooks and lines in the wa­ter. These things were built to be durable and that is the prob­lem – once they are in or around an an­i­mal, they are not go­ing any­where.”

Just then, a vol­un­teer from the Friends of Horsey Seals rings the cen­tre to re­port

a se­ri­ously ill male with a neck in­jury.

“Peo­ple are much more aware of wildlife and East Anglia is re­ally well cov­ered with vol­un­teers and wildlife rangers who know who to call and what to do.”

How­ever, she says, it is es­sen­tial the pub­lic should not ap­proach a seal – even if it looks in dis­tress.

“No mat­ter how cute they look, or how sick and vul­ner­a­ble they ap­pear, do not at­tempt to go near. They are wild an­i­mals and will bite if they feel threat­ened or are un­der stress, and it is not a nice bite, it is in­cred­i­bly painful and can cause re­ally se­ri­ous in­fec­tion – as we all know here. We even see peo­ple get­ting up close to take self­ies with seals, please don’t. Re­port it to the RSPCA or an on­site war­den.”

The hedge­hogs, like the seals, have also been ad­mit­ted in un­prece­dented num­bers this year, brought in af­ter be­ing found out dur­ing the day, weak and wob­bly and too small and starv­ing to hi­ber­nate.

“They get adult dog food and gravy – we mix up two wash­ing-up bowls just for the morning feed and go through so much, we buy the dog food by the tonne not the tin. We warm them up, feed them up and get them used to be­ing back out­side. We can only re­lease them dur­ing a four-day win­dow dur­ing which time the tem­per­a­ture must be above four de­grees as it gives them time to find food and a place to set­tle in be­fore the ground freezes. If we don’t have that weather win­dow, they don’t get re­leased.”

Ul­ti­mately, the cen­tre’s aim is for the wildlife to be re­leased as close to its orig­i­nal habi­tat as pos­si­ble.

“The process for each crea­ture which comes here is quite sim­i­lar; ev­ery­thing starts in a small box or cage be­fore fi­nally ven­tur­ing out­side to larger runs or, for the birds, the flight aviary, be­fore hope­fully they are re­leased back into the wild. We try and leave them alone as much as pos­si­ble. We don’t talk to them and only han­dle them when absolutely nec­es­sary as we don’t want them to get too do­mes­ti­cated. We all want them to have the best chance of sur­viv­ing and thriv­ing back in the wild.” If you have any old news­pa­pers, tow­els, sheets, flan­nels or tea tow­els, please do­nate them to the team at East Winch RSPCA as there is al­ways a huge de­mand on these re­sources to keep the crea­tures warm and to line cages and runs. See www.rspca.org.uk/lo­cal/east-winch-wildlife-cen­tre. If you are out and spot a seal adult or pup which looks dis­tressed, ei­ther find a war­den or call the RSPCA 24hr emer­gency line: 0300 1234 999

PHO­TOS: MATT USHER

Left: Mrs Fris­bee the grey seal, with her in­jured neck.

Above: Swans

Wildlife as­sis­tant Debbie Hunter cleans an en­clo­sure, com­plete with com­mon seal

Above: Two of the com­mon seals in the cen­tre’s pool Left: A re­cov­er­ing com­mon seal with wildlife as­sis­tant Char­lotte Rayner

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