Wildlife hospitals across the UK are reporting their busiest year ever, with hedgehogs, pigeons, bats and birds of prey among a growing number of animals brought into centres for treatment.
The rise in admissions is part of a wider trend of increasing awareness of habitat loss and the threats to the natural world, but experts also point to the Covid-19 lockdown as a significant factor in this year’s increase. The number of people venturing out to nature spots has surged during the pandemic, with almost half of the population spending more time outside than before coronavirus. A third of people reported noticing nature and wildlife more.
For Vale Wildlife, a centre near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, 2020 has been the busiest in its 36-year history. “We took in almost 7,000 animals in 2019, and we’re definitely on track to beat that,” said Caroline Gould, the hospital’s founder.
Gould said the lockdown was a factor, but the increase was also part of a longer-term pattern. “Most of the injuries sustained by animals that come in here are because of people,” she said. “Not directly or intentionally, but the way we live is having an impact on the animal world and destroying habitat. People are far more aware now that we are causing most of the problems to wildlife and they want to be a part of the solution.”
The sharp increase in wildlife casualties has coincided with a drastic drop in funding and volunteer support during the pandemic. In many centres, capacity has been reduced significantly, with volunteers and vets working in split teams and bubbles to reduce risk of infection. Wildlife rescuers have been designated as key workers.
Although there is no comprehensive data for the number of wildlife centres around the country, professionals in the sector say numbers have increased noticably in recent years. Help Wildlife, a website that offers advice on wildlife rescue, has compiled a directory of 510 operational centres across the UK, where hundreds of thousands of wild animals are treated for trauma or infection each year. Some centres are species specific, while others look after any animal that is brought in.
With British ecology in rapid decline and investment in conservation falling by 33% in five years, rescue centres often constitute a safety net for national wildlife, and involve an army of dedicated volunteers.
This year has been record-breaking for British Divers Marine Life Rescue, which provides a 24-hour emergency service for marine mammals, as well as training and coordinating more than 2,000 volunteers. Although it occasionally deals with rare species such as basking sharks, 90% of callouts are for seals.
“The total number of calls has jumped by about 24-30% each year since 2016,” said Dan Jarvis, the charity’s welfare development and field support officer. “This year we’re likely to surpass 2,000 calls for the first time.”
Jarvis identifies a range of reasons for this increase in calls, including better awareness of wildlife and a change in tourist behaviour in the past 10 years.
“There’s also an increased vulnerability to the animals themselves due to the severity of climate change,” Jarvis said. “We’re starting to see some really severe effects on grey seals, particularly as we’re getting more storms at this time of year, which is peak pupping season. We get a lot more casualties than we used to.”
Many wildlife hospitals are expanding due to ageing facilities and growing demand. In Stroud, Gloucestershire, Help A Hedgehog Hospital is well known locally for providing a fast emergency response service. It has recently raised GBP7,000 to scale up the hospital.
“We are getting more and more hedgehogs every year,” said Annie Parfitt, the charity’s founder, “but lockdown really helped this year in terms of reducing roadkill numbers.”
The hospital is now housing about 90 autumn juvenile hoglets that are too small to safely hibernate alone.
The RSPCA, the UK’s biggest animal welfare charity, has four specialist wildlife centres that took in more than 17,000 wild animals in 2019. Its national call centre, which usually operates 24/7 and took 1,218,364 calls in England and wales in 2019, has been closed overnight during the pandemic due to staff shortages, with calls prioritised according to severity and urgency.
With funding and space limited in many centres, the charity is urging people to bring in animals only if they are sure they need help, said Adam Grogan, head of wild animal science and policy at the RSPCA.
“One of the biggest issues is that a lot of animals are brought in that probably don’t need to be,” he said.