‘This place is pretty much our life’

Emma Pink and her partner Darren Ashcroft of the Brent Lodge Wildlife Hospital with one of the owls at the centre. Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (114207-8)
Emma Pink and her partner Darren Ashcroft of the Brent Lodge Wildlife Hospital with one of the owls at the centre. Picture: Ian Hargreaves (114207-8)
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It’s a busy time of year for the Brent Lodge wildlife rehabilitation centre. Rachel Jones finds out more.

Axx tiny and very sick hedgehog lies curled up on warm blankets in an incubator oblivious to the bustle around him

Emma Pink of the Brent Lodge Wildlife Hospital with one of the many wild hedgehogs which they care for at this time of year Picture: Ian Hargreaves  (114207-4)

Emma Pink of the Brent Lodge Wildlife Hospital with one of the many wild hedgehogs which they care for at this time of year Picture: Ian Hargreaves (114207-4)

xx Nearby a magnificent owl sits safe in an enclosure after being hit by a car. He’s recovering well from his trauma and has become a bit of a star at his new temporary home.

Around them a dedicated team of animal carers are working quietly but briskly, feeding impatient gulls, cleaning out the homes of more than 60 hedgehogs and asking a visiting vet for advice.

Things are looking hopeful for the short-eared owl, a migratory bird from eastern Europe, which was found stunned and apparently lifeless at the roadside near Arundel.

It’s unclear whether the vulnerable hoglet will pull through. But the team of animal carers are making sure that these and all the other residents of the Brent Lodge animal hospital have a fighting chance.

It’s a busy time of year for the wildlife rehabilitation centre at Sidlesham near Chichester. Animals are constantly being delivered from all over West Sussex and Hampshire – the area covered by the charitable trust.

covered by the charitable trust.

Residents recovering from abandonment, traffic accidents and human cruelty or error also include blackbirds and pigeons and outside the main building are foxes, deer, swans, gulls and owls living in safe and comfy enclosures.

‘It’s always very busy at this time of year because we have a lot of young hedgehogs being brought in,’ says hospital manager Emma Pink.

‘The weather has been wreaking havoc and they’ve been born very late, They’re not big enough to survive hibernation so we’re trying to get their weight up.’

And then there are the cases that come in throughout the year – deers hit by cars, swans with fishing tackle embedded in their feet, birds caught by cats, animals that have been subjected to bewildering cruelty.

‘There are a lot of cruelty cases,’ says Emma.

‘Hedgehogs used as footballs, foxes tied up in carrier bags and kicked around, a buzzard that had been shot.’

Brent Lodge is a vital resource for the wildlife of West Sussex and Hampshire but just like any other charity in the current economic climate, it struggles financially and needs all the help it can get.

It was set up in 1971 when trustee Dennis Fenter arrived home one day to find that a sparrow was drowning in the garden pond. He scooped it up, cleaned and fed the bird and eventually released it. Brent Lodge now receives over 3,000 patients every year.

Emma, 24, and her partner Darren Ashcroft, 32, live on the site and are among the few paid staff. The charity also has a large team of volunteers who work with animals or as fundraisers and ambulance drivers.

The trust’s primary aim is to care for animals that can recover and release them back into the wild but Emma says the team are concerned that people may have misconceptions about the charity’s role.

‘We’re not a wildlife sanctuary. We will look after animals if they have a chance of surviving in the wild. Otherwise it’s a case of where do you stop? If we give space to animals that can never go back into the wild, we can’t treat those that can.’

But Emma and visiting vet Richard Edwards, who works for West Sussex-based Alphapet, say the issue runs much deeper than that.

The charity recently came under attack for putting down birds being delivered by well-meaning rescuers.

But Emma says if they put an animal to sleep it’s because it would never survive in the wild or even in captivity with other birds.

‘This is wildlife we’re talking about. The other animals can sense weakness and injury and will immediately pick on them.

‘Human emotion gets in the way an awful lot. It’s the hardest decision for us to end a life. It’s not easy and every time we do it we break our hearts. So we take it really personally when people say things.’

A blackbird brought to the trust with a shattered and infected wing recently had to be euthanised and Richard says there was no other option.

‘I wouldn’t amputate a wing, it really wouldn’t be appropriate,’ he says.

Emma explains: ‘An animal should be able to express its natural behaviour. It wouldn’t be able to do something that was so natural to it.’

She says the team will do their utmost to help an animal recover. She and Darren were up in the middle of the night recently after a driver turned up with a muntjac deer that had been hit.

‘This place is pretty much our life really. We don’t have much time away,’ she laughs, revealing that the deer just needed painkillers and anibiotics and was released to the wild a few days later.

But they also rely on people acting sensibly and seeking advice when they find an injured animal. ‘We had one case of a man who took in a hedgehog and was giving it human antibiotics.

‘They were out of date, he was administering too many and they weren’t the kind that we would use for hedgehogs,’ says Richard

‘It was all very bizarre and the hedgehog didn’t survive. It would probably have stood a chance otherwise.

‘Sometimes people think they’re being kind but they’re actually making things a lot worse.’

The charity recommends that people make enquiries about how to deal with wildlife. If a bird has been attacked by a cat it needs medical attention from a vet whether it has outward injuries or not as the cat’s bacteria can prove fatal.

And it isn’t always wise to remove baby birds that appear to have been abandoned.

The parents can continue feeding and protecting a baby even if it’s away from the nest.

One of the biggest problems, says Richard, is people leaving fishing tackle lying around. It can cause horrific injuries to birds.

But thankfully, there are happy stories too with animals being released back to the wild, including most of the baby hedgehogs.