“Honey, I’m home – with six baby bats and a pine marten cub!” This is a typical greeting from staff at the National Wildlife Rescue Centre after a long day at work. Some of the animal patients require constant care, and staff willingly sacrifice their evening plans to assume the role of surrogate parents.
Nursing baby animals may seem like a dream job for many people but it requires a lot of energy and perseverance; some of the smaller orphans, for instance hedgehogs, need to be fed every two hours – day and night. But the team, under the management of Colin Seddon, are determined to see the animals returned to peak health, and to the wild.
The National Wildlife Rescue Centre, run by the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is located in Fishcross, Clackmannanshire. Scotland’s wildlife is as diverse as its scenery and boasts a thriving population of otters, deer and golden eagles.
Every year, however, thousands of animals – from falcons to foxes – are rescued and brought to the centre for help. The 24-hour care the staff provide is indiscriminate of size or situation and even the tiniest mouse will receive the best helping hand to up its chances of survival. Of the roughly 10,000 admitted every year, between 55 and 65 per cent make it back to the wild.
Meet the team
“You never know what’s coming in,” says Seddon, who has been managing the centre for seven years. “Animals just arrive from all over Scotland. Humans are responsible for the majority of casualties – whether they’ve been hit by cars, deliberately wounded or picked up when they shouldn’t have been. If it wasn’t for us they’d be food for something else.”
Their efforts have been recorded for the 10-part BBC series Born to be Wild, starting next Monday. Using the latest technology, the cameras follow each individual animal’s journey.
In one episode a six-week-old orphan pine marten – a species that is a member of the weasel family and is notoriously difficult to spot – is brought in. The animal has no siblings, so it falls to Johnny Appleyard, the assistant centre manager, to not only feed but also socialise the animal to ensure satisfactory mental and physical development.
“For our work, we go through stages,” explains Seddon. “In order for the animals to feed from you, they have to trust you. Once feeding themselves, the staff member will drop out. Then we do a hands-off approach and allow them to return to a wild state. It works extremely well.”
The staff are shown dealing with the victims of illegal trapping, such as otters with severe wounds that require surgery and can be fatal, and other animals caught in plastic.
The programme is filled with highs and lows. One highlight for Seddon was seeing a white-tailed eagle make a full recovery and then resettle in Skye.
Although watching the bird swoop away was hugely exhilarating, and satisfying, Seddon says the real joy is tracking the animal’s progress two or three months down the line and seeing that it’s safely reintegrated. “Just opening a cage and seeing the animal fly away doesn’t mean it’s surviving,” he says.
From the grand to the grumpy, each animal has its own character. Babe the hedgehog is a favourite of staff member Nicola Turnbull, who is responsible for the orphan’s progress for the nine months he’s in care. Once Babe is rehomed in a cosy woodland house Turnbull is beaming, saying “she’s just living her best life.”
Helping hedgehogs and other animals
A 2018 report by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species found that the hedgehog population had declined by 50 per cent in rural areas since 2000, and by a third in urban areas.
To help the creatures, people with gardens are encouraged to leave gaps in fences so they can get in and out and new planning laws, implemented this year, now require small holes to be included in the base of fences in new developments, creating “highways” that allow them to roam freely.
As for helping other animals, Seddon has a few suggestions. If birds are often flying into your windows, place a sticker of a bird on the outside of the glass. Drains can also be covered to stop small animals falling through and becoming trapped.
As well as feeding, cleaning and bandaging, Seddon takes a lot of time to find suitable sites to re-release animals. “We will go to whatever length we have to to get them back,” he says. “For example, an eagle from the Highlands would be driven back there.”
Some, however, can’t be returned home if they came from an area of hunting, snaring or a building site development. And in these cases Seddon is in contact with local landowners to request permission.
“Not every landowner wants foxes or badgers on their land so it can be a challenge,” he says. “I can find one person who wants them but then have to find out how the neighbours feel – they are wild animals and won’t stay on someone’s 10 acres.”
This baby koala flew from Germany to Edinburgh and got his own seat on the plane
Currently it’s bat mating season and so the centre is receiving lots of bats that have fallen from rooftops as pups.
The team can predict, roughly, what animals they’ll see at certain points of the year but there is always room for surprise. Extreme weather also affects numbers. High floods, for example, can wash otter cubs from their holts and leave them stranded. Or tough winters will affect animals’ ability to feed.
With more than half the creatures that arrive at the centre eventually returning to their natural environment, however, the staff get to share plenty of heartwarming stories about the animals they have saved.
‘Born to be Wild’ begins at 6.30pm on BBC2 on Monday 2 September