ON walking the track to Bracklune Wildlife Centre, West Cork, the first animals to greet me are two large emus.
Though apparently fond of visitors, their curiosity and sheer size result in a hasty retreat to the car, until owner, bird whisperer and sometimes philosopher Alex Skade comes to the rescue, subsequently advising ‘If you run, they run’.
Bred for meat in Ireland, he adopted two, just ‘to give them a life’. Sleeping in the trees, he states that if they end up on the main road, ‘it’s pandemonium’ trying to get them back.
And they’re not the only escapees from his sanctuary; two owls, bred in captivity, recently escaped to set up home at the nearby abandoned Cross House. Having opened up the owl aviary to reintroduce them to the wild, they flew off, forsaking their two chicks and leaving Alex to rear them single handed.
Buying three acres of scrubland at Cahermore, Allihies, Alex started his animal rehabilitation project in 2005. Initially planting trees and building a place to stay, his friend and neighbour Kevin Tim O’Sullivan then arrived to create the gardens and ponds.
These ponds host a myriad of birds the most celebrated of whom include the retired Castletownbere harbour swan, and a poised Canadian goose.
Sharing his home with William, a house goat, and three Jack Russell terriers, Alex has no electricity. A small wind turbine enables him to power a mobile phone.
Cooking with gas, he says the wood burning stove keeps ‘everybody warm’. Alex attends to the contents of a container perched on top of the stove, a tiny dove chick that he’s rearing by hand.
He feeds it using a syringe, the delicate heat emitted from the low burning stove keeping the chick cosy and warm. His kitchen table offers a view directly into an aviary; colourful Chinese pheasants strut about and a rare Icelandic seagull, having arrived with a damaged wing, is now almost ready to take flight.
There’s a pigeon that was attacked by a rook; half of it having been ripped away, he cured it with comfrey. A crow in recovery from a seagull attack serves as his current alarm clock. The enclosure is topped with nets ‘to keep things out’, the birds in rehabilitation enabled to come and go as they please through a strategically positioned hole in the net.
He delicately removes an enormous spider from a cup before pouring coffee, continuing to speak enthusiastically about his sanctuary. Aside from small garden birds, Alex has nurtured peregrine falcons, sparrow hawks, pigeons, doves, kestrels, swans, owls, and seagulls. Olive, a South American woodrail and one of his favourites, now lives in the trees.
A painter and decorator and sometimes artist by profession, Alex states that having always looked after things, he now dedicates his retirement to the welfare of animals.
Although most birds are brought to him by friends or acquaintances, he sometimes buys caged birds such as budgies, with potential to be released back into the wild. A few years back he was brought a young gannet with a severed foot.
Found floating, it had lost its leg as a result of fishing twine in the nest. Alex kept it as a pet, regularly taking it to the sea for swims and commissioning local Allihies dental technician Dave Griffin to make a prosthetic foot for it.
Alex states that unfortunately the leg never really worked, subsequently another injured gannet attacking and killing it. Alex was saddened, as it had been a loyal pet, living in his house for four years. He speaks of a pet jackdaw. Particularly fond of children, it used to sit on his shoulder before it flew off.
Last summer there were up to 50 birds in Alex’s care, his raison d’etre being to help other creatures, especially those that are injured. He believes that by showing respect and consideration for other animals, light is allowed to enter your mind and help you evolve as a human being.
Caring for animals has taken him on a spiritual journey, and sensing a demand for the service, he now has an animal crematorium on the grounds.
He recently hosted a Zen Buddhist ceremony for ‘a wee dog’s funeral’. It was just him and the owner. He also has plans to build a chalet and retreat down by the cliff near his home, somewhere ‘off the grid’ for the terminally ill who are still capable of looking after themselves.
Alex and his Bracklune Sanctuary are very much part of the community in Beara. He doesn’t have a car but people give him lifts to town and the local vets are patient and supportive. Loop de Loop, a shop in nearby Castletownbere, sells second-hand books in aid of the sanctuary and this, together with donations, pays the vet’s bills.
With an artist’s studio attached to his house and a further six donkeys and two ponies outsourced in a neighbours field, life at Bracklune is not all plain sailing and mindfulness.
Alex states that life at the sanctuary can be challenging because ‘birds don’t always do what you want them to.’
And even though he doesn’t drink or smoke and has no car or electricity bills to worry over, it’s not always effortless to meet the birds’ food bills.