My first wildlife rescue – a bird stuck in a tree?
If you were to be reborn as a wild animal, say a badger or a stoat (and I don’t think that would mean you had performed too badly in a previous life), and parachuted down from the heavens to be on earth then you might think East Sussex would be a good place to land.
It’s a beautiful county blanketed in woodlands and fields that rise up to meet the windy tops of the South Downs and then come down to meet the sea. Many humans work all their lives to retire here, yet badgers and stoats get to stay for free. And if you speak to any animal-rights campaigner they will probably admit (through gritted teeth) that the UK is not that bad a place to be an animal, at least not compared to some parts of Eastern Europe and Asia.
So what help can the wildlife possibly need? And what difference could I possibly make?
I was about to start my 4 days volunteering with WRAS, the wildlife rescue and ambulance service for East Sussex, and I was shortly to find out the answers.
The experience was going to be very different from what I expected. In a few days I’d be silently crying over the wildlife centre’s kitchen sink, facing the wall so as not to show myself to the hardy volunteers, a few of whom included chirpy schoolgirls. This wasn’t a pathetic response – even I, with my endless ability to criticise myself, will concede this as an apt emotional reaction.
But for now I still felt upbeat, naively excited, in a blinkered, Londoner’s sort of way.
WRAS is a small public-funded organisation that resides in a fairly non-descript building situated somewhere off the A22, a little south-west of the town of Heathfield. It was started and is run by Trevor Weeks a long with a team of dedicated volunteers. Trevor is a man who is so dedicated and works such long hours for so many animals for so little money that it makes me ashamed I ever complained about anything in my life. He recently got awarded an MBE for services to animal welfare. I recently got awarded a parking ticket for stopping outside the corner shop.
When I arrived, on a blissfully sunny Monday morning with a skip in my step, my first reaction on seeing the ‘animal ambulance’ (aka transit van) sitting outside with a hedgehog logo on the side was ‘how sweet!’
On being invited in to the building to be met by hard-working volunteers cleaning the poo out of the cages of injured crows and hedgehogs my next reaction was ‘…OK…’
And my final reaction, on being given a pair of surgical gloves and a serrated knife so I could cut up the frozen body of a 1-day old chick to feed to the injured gulls was ‘..err.’
(I should add that the frozen chicks are a natural by product of the egg industry and also a good thing to feed a recuperating gull as part of a mixed diet. Most of Trevor and his team are staunch vegetarians, meaning I hid my ham sandwich in the car, but they feed the animals their natural diet. Whilst cutting up the chick I was told it is important to direct the head towards you and the legs away. I later found out why when a yellow goo sprayed on to my trousers. A kindly volunteer walked past, patted me on the back and said ‘the yokes on you’)
The WRAS centre is a place that is serious about helping animals. It is practical before it is sentimental. This is not a place you come to stroke cute baby foxes whilst writing a chatty blog. Rows of large and well cleaned cages are stacked up against he wall and are full of animals who have been rescued in various states of distress.
The animals are very carefully tended to. Each cage has a clipboard on it that has more detailed diagnostic notes than I ever had when I was last in hospital ( for suspected appendicitis that turned out to be violent trapped wind due to excessive eating mixed with the wrong medication. The attractive nurse with the high heeled clogs ruined any chance I had of flirting with her by unblocking me with a gloved hand).
In one of the cages sleeps a baby fox that was found with virtually no hair on it due to mange covering 80% of its body (now it is recovering well) in another is a pigeon that has been attacked by a cat (it’s wing is dropped, it rests on a towel) and in many others are my new friends, the hedgehogs, some with serious malnourishment (the excessive rain has reduced the insect population which they feed on) and others with large wounds from dog attacks. This is a place that pulses silently with both life and death. On some days animals pass away and have to be quickly dispatched to the freezer but more often than not they are released to the wild, in the exact spot they are found, fit and healthy again. They would be dead without this centre.
Trevor Weeks, who has a kind face and generous beard, manages his team with a gentle but firm hand. He works 90 hours a week, over-seeing around 50 volunteers that come in during the course of each week, and he takes rescue calls 24 hours a day, treats the animals in the centre, and in his spare time fund-raises to keep the whole thing going. From what I also saw he doesn’t give himself time for lunch. My biggest concern for East Sussex wildlife is now that HE will get ill.
‘We take volunteering very seriously. If someone doesn’t turn up for a session without a good excuse then we reluctantly let them go. People don’t realise its a legal obligation to look after a rescued wild animal, so we can’t have people who we rely on to feed the creatures not turn up’
Indeed the animals are so well cared for and fed I’m astonished. The gulls get fed more than I eat. And I’ve been in hospital for over-eating so I should know. Will I be asked to unblock a constipated gull I wonder??
Trevor is not a vet but he’s had so much experience with animals, having started rescuing them from the age of 13, that he is adept at diagnosing issues, from a crow’s swollen elbow to a hedghog’s fly-strike on its face. He also works closely with vets who supervise much of what he does. I had expected him to be somewhat socially inept – as if those that care THAT much for animals have something missing in their understanding for humans, but he’s not. He’s entirely likeable and professional and fruthermore not excessively cuddly about wildlife
I mention an article in the local newspaper about a woman who had ‘adopted’ a defence-less baby fox by taking it in and feeding it curry. It sounds like the woman is committed to looking after it. I presume he supports her.
Trevor has seen this story and is riled by it. If I had to fend for my life in the wild living off mice and some warm middleclass family took me in to eat curry and watch TV I’d be there in a shot. So why doens’t he?
‘It’s not her right to do that.’ he explains ‘These creatures belong in the wild. First of all foxes don’t eat curry and secondly that fox will never again be able to fend for it self. When we rescue foxes at the centre we try our hardest to not let them habituate to humans. It’s right they should be scared of us, it’s a survival instinct and we want them back in the wild continuing to be suspicious of humans.’
Perhaps if the woman feeds it vindaloo the fox will run away, I wonder.
For the first four hours of the first day I keep my head down, cleaning pigeon poo, re-bedding the cages, mixing up the wildlife meals, working with the other volunteers – who are all incredibly diverse and hard working. When Trevor sees that I’m actually making SOME effort he rewards me:
‘Want to come on your first rescue, Martin?’. I drop my pigeon-poo gloves in the bin and I’m THERE.
‘We are off to rescue a crow stuck in a tree, a call has come in from Seaford on the coast.’ he explains.
‘A crow in a tree?’ I ask, thinking about my recent attempt to rescue a terrapin in the water or the sleeping foal in the field or the snail that was…stuck in its own house (can snails get agrophobia?). ‘Don’t they…er….kind of live in trees’
Trevor smiles. ‘I don’t have all the information, so lets go and see’
We arrive twenty minutes later at a churchyard to be met by an old smiling man.
‘I can’t see it anymore, it was definitely here’ he tell us.
My heart sinks. My first rescue is to meet an old man that has seen a bird in a tree that has flown away? I imagine that next I’ll be rescuing a mutant dog that was spotted with FOUR legs instead of two.
But Trevor has better eyes than me. He points out a crow amongst the branches flapping upside down at the top of the tree. On closer inspection it seems to have string caught around its foot, the string is drawn out across many branches and it’s foot is clamped hard to a single branch.
‘It’s probably caught in a fishing line that was left on the beach,’ says Trevor.
The bird will either die of exhaustion, starvation or the ligature wound of the ever tightening line on his foot will cause infection.
Trevor’s ladder won’t reach the bird and he says we’ll have to call the firebrigade out. That seems a bit much. I offer to climb the tree but Trevor says he won’t allow me on safety grounds. I insist and he turns a blind eye. Which is difficult to do as a shimmy my 15 stone up the slippery trunk and briefly get my foot stuck half way.
EAST SUSSEX NEWS:
“FIREBRIGADE RESCUE MAN WITH FOOT CAUGHT IN TREE TRYING TO RESCUE CROW WITH FOOT CAUGHT IN TREE”
I pull my foot out and climb higher. I can’t reach the bird but I reach the branch its on, so allowing Trevor to throw me a rope that I wrap around the branch which he uses to pull the bird nearer to the ground. The ladder then allows him to reach it and cut it free.
I sort of climb/fall back to the ground. The line is caught badly around the crow’s foot. At this point my instinct is to just cut the line and set the bird free but Trevor points out that ligature wounds from the tight string need antibiotics and can fester. He also sees that the foot is swollen meaning the bird can’t use it for now. It will need supervision.
‘Crows need both their feet so they can perch and hold on to their food whilst the rip it up with their beaks’ he says, ‘ If it can’t stand on it, it may not be able to survive’
We take the crow back to the centre, make it up a homely cage, cut up some baby chicks and give it some medicine. I realise I sort of risked my life helping this bird and it feels good. Well, I sort of risked my dignity at least, but I made an effort. I also stopped the firebrigade coming out which has saved some tax payer money. But more than this the bird would have had a horrible death. It may only be a crow but it’s no way to die, hanging upside down by your foot above a graveyard, where gravity and death are pulling you downwards.
I feel good for the crow. Except now I have to clean out its shitty cage. But this rescue stuff is fun, or so I think.
Little prepares me for what is to come next.