I’ve always had an affinity with wildlife. I had health concerns as a child and never really bonded with my peers at school. I was a wee bit of a loner and I took solace in nature. At six years old, I came home with a rook that had a broken wing. That started it.
I was born and buttered on the Clyde, Scotland. I was a ranger there after I finished school, but I always wanted to be a veterinary nurse. I just decided that’s what I was going to do. I’ve been in practice for 40 years. Now I’m a wildlife rehabber full time, that’s what I do for my mental health, to treat my soul really.
My husband’s job brought us to Clare. He was an officer in the Royal Navy. When he left, he was asked whether he would work in the Coast Guard helicopter out of Shannon. So he rescues people – and I rescue animals.
I get calls from vets, members of the public or schools. This time of year, it’s baby birds in the garden that can’t fly, and 90 per cent of the time my advice is to leave them alone. If there are cats about, put them in a nearby hedge. They are pretty good at hiding.
This morning, somebody called me about a hedgehog in her garden. But he was walking with a purpose, the wee man was on a mission, so it didn’t sound like anything was wrong with him. My advice was just to pick him up and put him in a hedge nearby. Sometimes they don’t need to be rescued.
I can’t put the robins in with the starlings because the starlings bully everything in sight
Yesterday, a building contractor called me. He was doing a roof in Limerick and there was a nest of starlings. They had their feathers and were due to fledge soon, so I said, do you think you could maybe put it off for a week? It’s actually illegal to disturb an active nest. He said, “Oh yeah. We just might put a delay on getting the scaffolding.” I was delighted.
People are so well-meaning, but there is the whole Disneyfication thing. I’m not Snow White, I don’t go into the garden and have flocks of birds around me, because wildlife are terrified of humans. Even hearing a voice stresses them out. They don’t want to be near us. Wee birds, if they are not injured, are a lot safer hiding in hedges or wild areas because they know what they are doing there.
The best thing people can do is get in touch with IWRA.ie [Ireland’s Wildlife Rehabilitators Association]. Grabbing a little bird, taking it into the house, letting the kids play with it, feeding it inappropriate food, trying to look after it when you are not experienced or trained – any of these missteps can do more harm than good.
At the moment I have eight hedgehogs in care with various issues. One of them was found underneath a cattle grid. These things are my hot button issue. If you have these, even if you can’t fill them in, install escape ramps that will let the froglets and hedgehogs go through.
I have a sparrow that was attacked by a cat, but he was very quickly rescued. I have three robins that were tiny, tiny newborn hatchlings. Unfortunately two of their siblings died, but Leah, Luke and Han are doing really well – it was Star Wars day when I got them.
I did 97km the other day, between picking up hedgehogs and injured fledglings. My petrol bill is through the roof
I have two starling nestlings. The starling had built a nest on the hangar door of Rescue 115 in Shannon. One of the lads noticed a chick on the floor and phoned me. Now they are getting a ribbing for rescuing starling chicks.
The hedgehogs are only fed at night time. I feed them at six o’clock with cat food. The little chicks are fed every 15 minutes, dawn until dusk. As they get older, I can go every half an hour. The pigeons I feed three or four times a day. They all get different food. Last year, I hand-reared five stoats and they were fed every two hours round the clock for three weeks. I slept on the sofa and my alarm would go off every two hours.
You’ve got to know a wee bit about their behavioural biology. Hedgehogs are solitary animals and you can’t put them together. I can’t put the robins in with the starlings because the starlings bully everything in sight.
I can get three or four calls a day. I did 97km the other day, between picking up hedgehogs and injured fledglings. My petrol bill is through the roof. If someone can make the journey to me, that saves me so much. I’m not a charity. This is volunteering and I’m self-funded, but people help with donations of food or gift cards to buy food, or donate straight to my vet so it goes off my bill.
If you are spraying weeds, you are also spraying insects, and then birds come down and eat those insects so there is a secondary poisoning going on
Releasing animals back into the wild is a rollercoaster of emotions. We soft released the stoats into a large enclosure where they could run about and hear the sounds and smell the smells. After a week or two, we completely withdrew humans and they were fed through a chute. Then we opened the side of the pen and they could leg it if they want, or come back.
I just released five hedgehogs down in Kilkee and I was like, “Live long and prosper, spikybutts.”
Hedgehogs are omnivorous but insects are their main food, so having log piles and a compost heap and wild species in the garden is so important for them. If you’ve got a wall in your garden, knock a little 13 centimetre square hole in it and the hedgehog can go from garden to garden and not get pushed out onto the road. Plant a native hedge and you will increase the biodiversity in your garden and you will have a place for fledglings to hide. Butterflies will lay their eggs on ivy. When you’ve got a lot of insects, wildlife flourishes. Plastic grass should be banned, in my opinion.
Leave a margin around your garden and just let the wildflowers grow. If you are spraying weeds, you are also spraying insects, and then birds come down and eat those insects so there is a secondary poisoning going on. Rat killer is killing off barn owls and birds of prey.
My favourite part of the job is the releases – this is my soul food. If I see a wee hedgehog taking off, I actually well up. It’s emotional to see them going off to their wild life.
- In conversation with Joanne Hunt