Back to the wild: Inside the RSPCA’s wildlife rehabilitation programme

Each year some 16,000 injured, sick or orphaned wild animals pass through the doors of the RSPCA’s four wildlife hospitals, while hundreds of thousands more receive care at other wildlife centres throughout the UK.

All kinds of creatures can find themselves in need of rescue, but according to Llewelyn Lowen, RSPCA Wildlife Scientific Officer, certain species are more vulnerable than others. He says: ‘With birds, pigeons and doves are by far the most commonly admitted, particularly collared doves, and with mammals, hedgehogs are the most common, particularly at this time of year.’

Regrettably, most of these animals have one thing in common: they are the victims of human activities. So far in 2015, the charity has rehabilitated a red kite hit by a car, a hedgehog wounded by a garden strimmer, a swan shot with an airgun, several sea birds trapped by fishing litter, and a tawny owl that fell into a vat of engine oil.

Less often, extreme weather conditions land wildlife in trouble, such as the December 2013 storms, which orphaned 108 grey seal pups off the Norfolk coast and led to the RSPCA East Winch Centre’s biggest ever rescue operation.

Road to recovery

RSPCA grey seal pups 3
Photo credit: RSPCA

Every casualty brought into an RSPCA wildlife hospital is checked over by a trained staff member to ascertain the extent of its injuries and the treatment required. Rehabilitators often have to make tough choices, and if things don’t look good, they will put an animal to sleep rather than prolong its suffering.

Once admitted, patients receive the best possible care, including regular, nutritious meals and the freedom to exercise their natural behaviour. For the 70 hedgehogs currently staying at West Hatch Wildlife Centre in Somerset, this means a diet of cat food and plenty of long, shredded paper in which to hide; and for the four orphaned baby dormice also at the centre, it means round the clock hand-feeding, even during the small hours.

Human contact is kept to a bare minimum to ensure that animals retain their wildness and don’t lose their innate wariness of people.

‘Rehabilitators must consider the needs of any animals they have in care, as defined in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, as well as ensuring they are following the relevant legislation,’ explains Llewelyn.

Setting wildlife free

Orphaned Hoglet  being hand-fed with a syringe Photo by Andrew Forsyth / RSPCA
Orphaned Hoglet being hand-fed with a syringe
Photo by Andrew Forsyth / RSPCA

Once an animal is considered healthy, fit and able to survive in the big wide world, arrangements are made for its return to the wild, which doesn’t necessarily mean the countryside.  

Usually, creatures are released near to where they were found, as was the case for a female peregrine falcon that was treated for a leg canker at the RSPCA’s Stapeley Grange Wildlife Centre in Cheshire, and released into central Birmingham.

‘Peregrine falcons are such incredible birds and are recognised as the fastest creatures on earth. It was a real pleasure to be able to nurse this one back to health and get her home again,’ says Lee Stewart, Stapeley Grange Manager. ‘Our work is all about returning animals to the wild–even if this one was from a major city centre.’

But sometimes the choice of release location requires a little more thought. For example, the West Hatch team were wondering how they were going to help 200 rehabilitated sea birds to rejoin their flocks over the Atlantic Ocean, when they hit upon the idea of hitching a ride on the Lundy Island Ferry.

Timing is just as important as location, with the weather, season and even the time of day all taken into consideration. Gale force winds, for instance, would not be ideal conditions in which to set young birds free, while nocturnal species should always be released under cover of darkness.

Post-release monitoring

Photo: RSPCA
Photo: RSPCA

Returning animals to the wild isn’t the end of the story. Most birds are fitted with identification tags so that if one is found or spotted, RSPCA staff will know exactly how far it flew and for how long it lived. Tagging birds has enabled the RSPCA to identify a buzzard that lived for 25 years after release, a tawny owl that survived for an additional ten years, and a lesser black back gull that made it all the way to Morocco.

The charity has also tracked bats across Cheshire using tiny radio transmitters, and charted the progress of seals through the English Channel with the aid of satellite microchips.

‘By monitoring released wildlife casualties we can learn a great deal about how, when or where to release wild animals and give them the very best chance of survival,’ explains Llewelyn. ‘Additionally, knowing more about their movement and survival post-release also provides invaluable information that we can use to improve our rehabilitation methods where necessary.’

Sad and happy endings

Vet nurse Shelly Reeves checking a single baby hedgehog. Photo by Philip Toscano / RSPCA
Vet nurse Shelly Reeves checking a single baby hedgehog.
Photo by Philip Toscano / RSPCA

Sadly, rehabilitation isn’t always successful, despite tireless efforts. This autumn, workers at East Winch said goodbye to Dumbledore the seal, who never recovered from pneumonia and died peacefully in his sleep after 26 days of constant care.

While it isn’t possible to save every animal, Deputy Chief Inspector Jon Knight keeps his chin up by focusing on ‘the happy endings’, such as the swan he nursed back to health at East Winch following a ‘callous and cruel attack’ with an airgun.

‘He was so peaceful and relaxed when I released him,’ recalls Jon. ‘He just sailed off into the morning sun as if nothing had happened.’

Right now, Lee is hoping for another success story as he cares for a puffin with an injured wing. The sea bird was found on a beach in Anglesey in Wales and is thought to have been attacked by a dog.

‘He is feeding well and putting on weight, which is encouraging,’ says Lee. ‘Now only time will tell if the wound heals and the puffin regains full mobility of his wing.’

Helping animals fast

Two blackbird fledglings being fed. Photo by Joe Murphy / RSPCA
Two blackbird fledglings being fed.
Photo by Joe Murphy / RSPCA

If you find a sick, injured or orphaned wild animal, it’s important to observe it closely to see if it really does need help before calling the RSPCA’s 24-hour cruelty and advice line on: 0300 1234 999

‘Every spring we are contacted by people who think they have found an orphaned animal,’ says Llewelyn. ‘In many cases, they have not been abandoned and their parents are close by looking after them.’

The next step is usually to contain the animal in a cardboard box if possible and take it to a nearby veterinary clinic or wildlife rehabilitator, as according to Llewelyn, ‘this will often be the fastest way to get the animal help’.