Great Outdoors Wednesday, December 2nd Words by: Dr Sasha Norris, pictures by: Mark Bowen

Sasha Norris: life of a wildlife saviour

Great Outdoors Wednesday, December 2nd

Sasha Norris: life of a wildlife saviour

In her first column for Herefordshire Live, Sasha Norris writes about the trials and triumphs of setting up Herefordshire Wildlife Rescue.

I am standing in a shop and call over to Jamie, 'did you get some minced beef for the seagull?'.

The queue of people by the till turn to look at me. 'Sorry' I mumble.' Your life sounds very interesting' says a lady beside me,' earlier on you were talking about whether you had put the swans away'. 'I run a wildlife rescue, I reply, 'Herefordshire Wildlife Rescue'. We've just been doing it for a year or so'.

This isn't quite true. Rescuing wildlife is, for most of the slightly bonkers people that do it, a calling.

We are all supposedly masters of our own destiny, but in the case of wildlife rescue it really does feel that this has chosen you. You open a box, and peek in at a creature brought to you, in the hope you can save its life, a creature which in good health and strength would not let you anywhere near it, let alone pick it up, wrap it in a fluffy blanket and transport it in your car. 

It is impossible for me, to not respond to this plea.

These animals live their own lives, make their own decisions, receive no hand outs, live and die on their own wits. They suffer the harshest of winters and the driest of drought. They find and build their own homes, and rear their young, and are free individuals, citizens of the wild. It is an honour and a privilege to hold them in your hands, and to help them for a moment in their journey through life. And it is an honour to serve the impulse to kindness in the hearts of the humans that collect them up and bring them to me.

I have lost count of the times I have uttered 'that's the most beautiful thing I have ever seen' on catching sight of the grey down of a growing cygnet, the black, whale-like beak and scythe -curved swallow tail of a swift, the enormous eyes and moomin-troll gaze of a woodcock.

These animals enchant you, entreat you to help them, even if you scare them witless. And this work is 'interesting'. In fact I find it completely engrossing, and spend hours, researching the best way to care for animals. It is also very messy. I spend a lot of time cleaning different cages of different types of animal poo.

My life has become a series of bizarre, exploratory happenings, in turns enthralling, desperately sad, uplifting, depending on the outcome for each creature that arrives. We run an A and E department, a care home and an orphanage for wildlife. Every day is different and because every animal has such specialised needs, my learning curve is rocket steep.

When I moved back to Herefordshire in 2006, I had just finished filming a TV series called 'Wild Thing I love You', in which I featured as the zoologist in a crackpot team which, together, solved wildlife dilemmas, and saved animals from terrible fates. As the series, (ten one hour programmes on Channel 4) aired in the October, and I gathered round with my young family to watch I didn't know my life was about to change dramatically. My children were one and three, and the following July, their father left me. Single parenting is not conducive to TV work.

Someone has to stay with the children when you're on Sky News live and need to be in the studio in London at 5am.

'The media' take no passengers, unless you are Megan Traynor, or Justin Bieber, you can either do what they ask or you can't and they find someone else. After several such requests, I took a long hard look at my life. My tiny children needed someone who could be there for them reliably, unconditionally.

I spoke to my agent. I had had three books published previously. I would focus on writing. But writing is a solitary profession, requiring long periods of quiet to focus thought. Young children are not ideally suited to combine with the life of a writer and I was dog tired most days and too fuzzy to think.

My life has become a series of bizarre, exploratory happenings, in turns enthralling, desperately sad, uplifting, depending on the outcome for each creature that arrives

 

One day my vet, Holmer's inimitable John Bell, mentioned that he had an injured crow that just needed a few weeks of TLC before it could go back to the wild. He looked at me quizzically, have you got somewhere it could be kept?

I took the animal and duly returned it to the wild after three weeks of guest accommodation and fine dining. A few more birds down the line, and I placed a very basic page on my website saying that I took in wildlife.

This started a frenzy of calls from the public needing help with everything from feral pigeons to foxes, badger, pheasants (many many pheasants) and birds of prey .

I had an inkling that locally there would be a need for wildlife help.

Our nearest professional rescue centre is Vale Wildlife, an hour and quarter away. People cannot always accommodate such a journey into their busy lives. But I didn't know just how needed this local service is.

By Summer 2015 I was taking 7 calls a day. Sometimes, people just need advice, to leave fledgling bird be, or keep a window-strike bird quiet while it recovers from mild concussion. More often than not, we admit the animal and provide care. Holmer vets have been brilliant providing free consultations, medicines, and operations. Other vets have now started working with me including Belmont, Hay on Wye, Marches, Bromyard, Leadon Vale, and Brookfield.

Their help and input is priceless.

I have had the police arrive at midnight with a tawny owl, had to cancel a holiday to care for a buzzard with a broken wing which arrived on Christmas Eve, we have turned around at 10pm when nearly home to collect week old cygnets abandoned by their parents in Allensmore nurseries. One morning last June, I was called out to a family of baby owls only to see mum happily sitting nearby.

I regularly drive into town to buy maggots from the Fishtastik, before popping next door to collect baby dog milk from General Dogsbody and then heading to Hampton Bishop, or some such Herefordshire village to collect a woodpigeon with a broken wing.

These are normal days for me.

November 8th, Sunday afternoon I fed and cleaned and watered all the animals, administered medicines, checked weights on hedgehogs, put the slow cooker on for my kid's dinner when they return from visiting their dad.

Just as I was sitting down for five minute a young man calls me to say he'd found a woodcock on the side of the road in Sutton St Nicholas. The day before, Saturday, my partner Jamie and I had driven over to Wychbold Swan Sanctuary and spent a very informative and helpful day with Jan Harringan MBE, who has been working with swans for over a decade. Jan showed me how to administer the antidote to lead poisoning by injection into the breast muscle.

The Friday before, Jamie and I had just been sitting down to some lunch in the Litchfield vaults when the call had come in to say a swan had crash landed on a tennis court. I miss my appointment with Henryka jewellry and head out to Tillington.

The swan has been freed from the tennis court and was now stuck in a ditch with its wing tangled in barbed wire. We collect the swan and settle him into our barn with a range of food, chopped spinach, goose mash, corn, rehydration fluids and water, with a heat lamp if he chooses.

Meals prepared through the summer on a daily basis in our household include a watery mash of rice flour, oats and bird vitamins for the pigeons, day old chicks for birds of prey, mashed cat meat with mealworms for hedgehogs, wild bird seed, soaked kitten biscuits for baby blackbirds, the list is long and expensive.

There is so much to tell you, so many stories, like the day a goshawk was handed to me in a car park in Leominster, a GOSHAWK - one of only 400 in the whole of the UK living wild, like being handed a massive diamond, the most precious thing in our land, and then she died, and it was like mourning a queen.

And that crows and gulls fed chips have really scruffy feathers and can't fly, and need to live with us a whole year to moult and re-grow them,. And how woodpeckers find being in captivity incredibly stressful and bash their heads on their cages to get out and how not to imprint a baby owl.....

But there is plenty of time.

Herefordshire Live has asked me to write these blogs which I will gladly do it. Because there are other stories too, about how best to help wildlife in your own gardens and lives, and how our county needs special status as a protected area, National Park status, because it is so uniquely rural. And how peace and quiet and green space and hedgehogs go hand in hand.

And I need to go, now because someone is calling me and it could be a creature needing help, and soon I will be uttering those words again, the 'loveliest thing I have ever seen', and it will be eyeing me with suspicion and just wanting to go back to the green of its home, and I will do my very best to get it there as quickly as I possibly can.

Find out more about Herefordshire Wildlife Rescue here.

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