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Where The Wild Things Are

Chris McCoey visits a medical centre with a difference

Arguably it has one of the best- equipped Intensive Care Units in the Southeast, if not in the country … but it’s not in Pembury and it’s not for those with life-threatening illness or injury – not human, anyway. It’s for hedgehogs born too late in the year to stand a chance of surviving their first hibernation, badgers who’ve been hit by cars and the many hundreds of birds and other animals that have in some way or other come to grief in various man-made accidents

The new hospital for wildlife run by Folly Wildlife Rescue marks the charity’s ten year anniversary, seeing it move from a series of somewhat dilapidated garden sheds to state-of-the-art premises at the Broadwater Forest Wildlife Centre, just outside Tunbridge Wells.

Dave Risley, founder of the trust along with his wife Annette, is telling me about the hedgehog unit, which can accommodate up to 30 animals in their own cages. “They often wake up during the winter feeling a bit peckish, so we have some dried biscuits, normally for kittens, in a dish for them, but not the fishy ones as they upset their stomachs. When the hedgehogs are fully awake but not yet ready to go back into the wild, they like to eat Whiskers or Felix cat food. They’re fussy little things and will turn their snouts up at cheaper brands …”

Hedgehogs were the first animals to be rescued by the Trust and are still its specialty. Annette used to take them in as a hobby when the couple lived at Tonbridge some 23 years ago. Dave was still working at London Zoo and his wife was bringing up their three children, who have subsequently flown the nest.

“Some species, like foxes, suffer depredation by being killed unnaturally but their overall numbers remain reasonably constant. This is not the case, though, with hedgehogs. Their numbers are declining rapidly, due mainly to loss of habitat but also because of the accidents that regularly befall them. Steep-sided ponds, electric strimmers, plastic netting, dogs and broken or uncovered drains, litter of many sorts: all are taking their toll on the poor old hedgehog. The key to stopping all this is to educate the public,” says Dave,  “so that accidents are reduced.”

But it could already be too late for the hedgehog: “even seeing them squashed on the road is becoming a rarity these days, because they’re disappearing fast from many of their former strongholds.”

In 1994 the family moved to Folly Cottage near Eridge and began to get a reputation for taking in not only hedgehogs, but other species, tool.

“In our first year here we took in 180 birds and animals,” recalls Dave. “Today, our intake has increased so much that we regularly take in that number in just a week at the height of the season. The overall total for 2011 was 3,400 creatures, including about 500 hedgehogs and 29 badgers, making us one of the busiest wildlife centres in the Southeast.”

It’s demanding work, though, 24/7 and 365 days a year. In 2002, Folly Wildlife Rescue was registered as a charity and, two years later, David and Annette realised that if they were to remain ‘in business’ and keep their sanity, they’d have to find larger premises. So began the exercise of raising the estimated £200,000 needed to buy a site and set up a specialist facility. Four years later, a five-acre site was found and outline planning permission for the hospital obtained.

Work on the new centre began in early 2011 and now, just over a year later, they’re ready to open it, having already spent nearly £300,000.

The Trust’s dedicated wildlife ambulance, together with a team of volunteers who cover much of West Kent and East Sussex, rescue huge numbers of animals. Working closely with The Well House Veterinary Surgery in Crowborough, which through its work with Folly now has great experience in carrying out surgical procedures on wildlife, it expects to release about 60% of the animals it admits back into the wild.

Wild birds admitted in the last year include a water-rail caught by a cat, a young gannet and several cormorants, as well as all the regular swifts, goldfinches, thrushes, sparrows and blue tits. Baby birds of all sorts are admitted, too. Over the years the Folly team have finely-tuned its wild-bird-feeding skills:“Using very low-fat ground beef, blended with crushed sunflower hearts, vitamins and parrot-rearing food, we can even rear newly-hatched chicks. But they have to be fed dawn to dusk, every 20-30 minutes and be kept scrupulously clean, if they’re to have a chance to survive,” says Dave.

The couple and their dedicated staff and volunteers, don’t wear rose-tinted glasses as they go about their work. With young animals especially, just the minimum human contact needed to feed and keep them clean is provided. If such an animal becomes ‘imprinted’ with its human carer, then it could never be released back to the wild.

“We keep meticulous notes so that, whenever possible, the recovered creature – a badger, say – can be taken back to exactly where he had his accident,” says Dave.

“Just prior to release, we give him a quick Highway Code lesson about crossing roads, and then release him. There’s enormous pleasure to be had in seeing him snuffling off, even if there is no backward glance and a ‘Thanks Mate’ kind of look.”

If you have a wildlife casualty or need free advice, call the Rescue Helpline on 07957 949825 between 8am and 8pm. To join the Supporters’ Group (£10 a year, including two newsletters) contact Broadwater Forest Wildlife Centre, Fairview Lane, Broadwater Forest, Tunbridge Wells, TN3 9LU, or visit the website

The Fox Project now has a dedicated building on the same site. To September 2011, 470 foxes had been rescued. 01892 824111 Folly Wildlife Rescue also works closely with the RSPCA Mallydams Wood Wildlife Centre at Fairlight, Hastings. Call 0300 123 0723 for further information.

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