Another Life: Should you rescue that animal or leave it alone?
Rescue is best saved for obviously injured animals and birds, cold and limp. Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland has all you need to know
Alone: a leveret could just be waiting for mother hare to come and feed it from time to time. Illustration: Michael Viney
When a northerly wind is tucked behind the hill, the stillness on this side is not merely autumnal but also quite eerie, emptying the sky of life right down to the ground.
Our swallows have long gone, deserting a western summer of such general chill and incontinence that even the midges refused to multiply. The robin that lived to pluck insects from the polytunnel’s ceiling has given up bothering to fly in; the blackbirds are skulking still.
With talk of an Indian summer, however, the hedgehopping zoom of young starlings, and another of skipping linnets, bring hints of the liberal surplus of life so vital to nature’s accounts. The 10 little tits cascading from back-garden nest boxes were enough to feed cats and magpies, bash into windows and lorries, survive infancy, autumn and winter, and leave a pair to start breeding again.
Ireland’s mammals, too, are produced more or less in balance with the threats from both wild and human worlds – mostly, these days, the latter. But many travel around in autumn rather less than we might suppose. Rats and rabbits, we’re told, are among the most adventurous wanderers; most other species disperse only when kicked out by their parents, for territorial reasons or in competition for food.
Once, on a clifftop in Greenland, I watched a female polar bear try to drive her young daughter away, turning on her repeatedly as they travelled the frozen fjord . After two years of rearing and teaching her to hunt, it was time to stop her trailing along behind. (As with so many mammals, male cubs are far more ready to start life on their own.)
Nothing quite so dramatic may happen in Ireland, but female fox cubs are more drawn to stay at home in the den, while stoats, being short lived, are quite often dead before their young mature, allowing straight succession to the territory.
Hedgehogs are not territorial, so available food and nest sites (and local road traffic ) govern numbers in any friendly habitat, and the young rarely travel far from home.
Despite all the Irish study of badgers prompted by programmes of culling, little is still known of exactly what drives dispersal from their social group and sett.
Road-traffic accidents have included two radio-collared badgers killed far from home. Some accidents are undoubtedly on purpose, at least on hostile farmland, but injured badgers also figure among the wildlife casualties taken to a vet.
Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland (WRI), umbrella for the island’s many animal rescue groups and individuals, carried out a survey of the wildlife casualties taken to 116 Irish veterinary clinics and hospitals during 2012. There were some 3,000, mostly garden and other birds, but the number of big mammals – 23 badgers, 53 deer, 16 seals – was surprising, given the potential problems handling and transporting them. (Badgers, when frightened or angry, do pack a powerful bite.)
“Collision” was the leading cause of injury in all the cases, notably of garden birds flying into windows, and about half of the animals had to be put to sleep. Almost all those treated stayed for less than 72 hours, but this took up a lot of time, skill and antibiotics, for which many vets made no charge. WRI urges “remuneration-in-kind as a gesture of appreciation” without exactly specifying home-baked cakes or raspberry jam.
Meanwhile, the WRI’s irishwildlifematters.ie website, sponsored by the Heritage Council, offers expert advice, both to vets and to ordinary people needing help with a casualty. An early and important question to the well-meaning public is, “Does it need to be rescued?”
The little leveret in my drawing, for example, still to be encountered in autumn, could be perfectly warm and safe where it is, waiting for mother hare to come and feed it from time to time. Many young birds, too, are content to wait on their own. Rescue is best saved for obviously injured animals and birds, cold and limp, and the website lists the right contacts, such as Hedgehog Rescue Dublin, or the Kildare Animal Foundation, to help with rehabilitation.
This weekend WRI is hosting its second all-Ireland conference on wildlife crime, at Ashbourne, in Co Meath. Backed by the Veterinary Council of Ireland and the Law Society of Ireland, it has an impressive roster of speakers, drawn from government agencies and police, veterinary pathologists, conservation rangers, wildlife NGOs and voluntary groups and activists involved in animal care and conservation.
Poisoning of raptors, baiting of badgers, damage to protected habitats, illegal traps and snares, trade in rare animals and birds: all figure in the crime sheet of Irish wildlife. If care for nature has taken time to find room in the political life of this island, the WRI conference strengthens the network of effective and professional concern.