The dark side of Ireland's relationship with its wildlife

Ireland is not a safe place for wildlife but, if we wish, we can play an active role in aiding creatures in need, writes Rita de Brún.

We think we love them; perhaps because what’s wild and free enthrals us.

Like unexpectedly glimpsing a set of antlers, half-camouflaged among trees in a shaded wood, it’s thrilling to hear the startling screech of a black-eyed barn owl drenching the night with mystery; exciting to spy a pair of long ears above the uncut grass of an Irish meadow; the only visible sign of a hare, happily hopping about its business.

We don’t have to be outdoorsy types to experience the pleasure that wildlife brings. It sweeps over us on those mornings when we wake sleepy-headed to the slow, steady loudening of birdsong outside the window.

But there’s a dark side to the relationship we Irish have with wildlife; a deep-seated bloodthirst or apathy within us, one that permits us to accept with little protest, the lawful infliction of agonising torture and death on the defenceless creatures with which we share this island.

We use language to sanitise the reality of the gore; to make-pretend there’s no savagery in us. 

But ‘cull’ will always be a four-letter word, one that means slaughter, and no matter how you pronounce it, the word ‘snare’ will always have an ugly ring to it; a vicious sneer of sorts.

For the most part, our politicians are deaf to the plight of the wildlife we so blithely destroy. Last June, Maureen O’Sullivan TD’s Animal Protection (in relation to hares) Bill 2015 was defeated, when only 20 TDs voted in favour and 114 — shamefully I think it’s fair to say — voted against.

The dark side of Ireland's relationship with its wildlife

The plight of Irish wildlife was highlighted again in recent weeks, when Arts and Heritage Minister Heather Humphrey’s Heritage Bill was being debated in the Seanad.

If passed, the legislation will extend the period during which hedges can be cut and plants burned and bring increased suffering, starvation and death to countless wild creatures along with the destruction of their habitats and vital food sources.

Ireland is not a safe place for wildlife. 

While we can lobby and peacefully protest, we can, if we wish, get hands on in helping wild creatures in need. 

Aideen Magee does that. A board member at Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland (WRI) and a voluntary wildlife rehabber for the Kildare Animal Foundation wildlife hospital, she converted a tiny boxroom at her north Dublin home into a dedicated wildlife unit.

There, she rehabilitates ‘pretty much everything’ that comes her way, from hedgehogs and ‘tonnes of pigeons’ to the occasional fox. 

The dark side of Ireland's relationship with its wildlife

Asked why she does that, she says: “Because every life counts.” 

She lives by her word. At one point, she was minding 17 baby hoglets and a hedgehog in her box-room. 

On another, she had 31 nesting birds. In admitting that this had her ‘tethering on the brink,’ she laughs. 

But she’s a lady who exudes quiet capability and calm and I suspect that nursing multitudinous winged-ones in not something that would faze her.

Of course what fazes the rehabber is less important than ensuring that those who present themselves as such have the necessary skills to help or at least do the creatures they work on no harm.

WRI runs an entirely excellent two-day Basic Wildlife Rehabilitation course which provides an excellent starting point for those who want to gain wildlife rehabber skills.

I went along and found the classroom work to be intensely detailed and informative, covering topics as diverse as wildlife thermoregulatory problems, syringe use, stress, shock, emergency care assessment, head and spinal trauma, and more. 

The density of the workload was lightened by the tutors who relayed tips, advice and stories from their wildlife rehabber work.

“I’ve seen a mealworm bite a pipistrelle on the nose,” was one shared recollections that kept us riveted.

Excellent as the classwork was, it was in the lab that the real learning happened. There, we wore face-masks and surgical gloves to work on deceased wildlife such as owls, badgers, swans, hedgehogs, pine martens, bats and seals. 

The dark side of Ireland's relationship with its wildlife

Using animal corpses we learned to tube-feed, inject, bandage, administer fluids, and otherwise treat shocked, dehydrated and injured wildlife.

I was surprised to find that I didn’t mind working on dead animals. While some of the remains seemed fresh, others were positively gamy and quite worn and delicate, as in barely intact and no longer robust.

This was a blessing of sorts. Given that there was no life left in the wildlife we worked on, the very fragility of their remains required students to be vigilant and careful to avoid damage infliction, in the way we would have had to be, had we been working on sentient creatures.

Before we began, we joked among ourselves about the possibility of one of us passing out, particularly when we were asked to gather around to observe a dead hedgehog being dissected and its entrails examined.

None of us keeled over, and shocking as the post-mortem type process was, my lasting memory of it was a decided fascination at the internal similarity between hedgehogs and humans.

As for the hedgehog/human relationship, that’s something about which Rosie Campbell knows plenty from the great wildlife rehabilitation work she does with her partner Dennis McCarthy at their Animal Magic rescue centre in Limerick.

Adamant that we need to look out for hedgehogs she says: “They go foraging for food and get trapped in discarded tin cans. In fright their spikes go up and they can’t get back out. They suffer ferocious strimmer injuries.” 

Almost every injury Campbell sees is caused directly or indirectly by humans: “75%-80% of the injured birds and animals we rescue are the victims of cat attacks,” she says. 

“Domestic cats belong at home. Being well-fed, they don’t hunt to survive. They catch little birds and animals, cause massive injuries and release them. 

“People know their cats go hunting yet turn a blind eye to the consequences when they should take responsibility.” 

Describing the carnage that laying poison can bring she says: “Hedgehogs get poisoned by slug pellets. Dogs are just some of the animals that die when they pick at poisoned rats. 

“Birds die that way too. Barn owls naturally take the slower rats first; the poisoned ones that are weak and wobbly. 

“Herons do the same thing with poisoned mice, and so the deaths mount up. Poison interferes with nature’s balance. By using live-traps to catch and release rats into the wild, we do no harm.”

Describing how swans and other birds swallow discarded fishing hooks and get fishing lines tangled around their legs and wings she continues: “They suffer terribly, then slowly starve to death. Gulls pick up chewing gum and choke. 

“Deer get entangled in wire then get hurt trying to break free.” 

Irish wildlife are also disadvantaged by the fact that there are so few wildlife shelters and hospitals in Ireland, so few vets who have the skillset to treat those in need of care, and not enough trained and experienced wildlife rehabbers.

WRI is currently planning to build a wildlife rehabilitation and teaching hospital. This is good news indeed, at a time when Irish wildlife has never been more threatened.

How to help at orphan season

With a shortage of expert wildlife help, dedicated volunteers are doing their best to fill the void in the busy orphan season, says Rita de Brún.

As landmarks on the wildlife calendar go, orphan season has an entirely chilling ring. For sure, it has none of the poetic charm of mating season which conjures up earthy images of coquettishly cavorting creatures. Nor has it any of the hominess of nesting season with its imaginings of moss-carrying birds swooping low over hidden snuggeries.

Instead, orphan season paints mind-pictures of emaciated, shivering creatures of the helpless and delicate kind: open-beaked motherless hatchlings, closed-eyed infant fox cubs, lost leverets and hapless hoglets, whose very survival or imminent expiration is decided by who or whatever finds them first: man or beast.

The shooting and snaring of nursing badgers is one of the shameful ways in which animals are orphaned in Ireland. Vixens being killed on the road, leaving young to starve is another. Sometimes those perceived to be orphaned are anything but.

Concerned members of the public regularly mistake fledgeling birds as such, when they are in fact merely on the ground, learning to fly, under the watchful gaze of a parent perched nearby. 

A rescued baby pigeon
A rescued baby pigeon

Those that whisk those little-feathered ones away to a shelter do so with the best possible intentions, but in reality, their kindness makes orphans of birds that are anything but.

Orphan season, which runs from April through to September, is the busiest time of year at the Kildare Animal Foundation’s wildlife unit. 

“Last year during that period alone, we cared for more than 400 animals and birds in our wildlife unit alone,” says shelter manager Dan Donoher.

The dark side of Ireland's relationship with its wildlife

“Because we expect to be inundated this year again, we need the public to get behind us so we can buy more specialist cages and crates to house the large number of orphans that will be needing our care” 

Explaining that birds become afraid when they see their own reflections, he says the units the shelter needs to buy are neither shiny nor reflective. 

“They’re well designed, comfortable and secure, so they’ll be of great benefit to the orphan and wildlife patients being cared for.” 

The dark side of Ireland's relationship with its wildlife

Appropriate housing is vital, given the importance of stress reduction for wildlife spending time in a shelter. It’s tough enough for them being indoors, being handled by humans, no matter how caring, far from the families and habitats they miss.

You only have to see Donoher at work at the shelter, nimbly bandaging a broken-buzzard wing, hand-feeding a hissing sore-footed heron, medicating a mange-ridden fox, weighing a tiny hoglet, carrying an injured swan, or assessing a bashful badger to see the affection he has for these animals.

Albert Kleyn is a similarly devoted guardian of animals. As head-honcho and co-founder at the Animal Care Society in Cork, his shelter is full to capacity with companion animals. 

“We don’t often have wild animals here, but we have had orphan foxes and birds in our care,” he says.

A formidable advocate of animal rights, Kleyn doesn’t mince his words when it comes to expressing his dismay at the lack of out-of-hours specialist help for ailing and orphaned wildlife in Ireland: “Wildlife requires specialised care and that expert care is not always available when needed.

“You could go looking for a wildlife rehabilitator who works solo, only to find that there’s only one for an entire county or region. In a crisis, getting hold of those that work alone can seem virtually impossible.

“If the help they need is not available when they urgently need it, they may be left to rot and die. This is clearly wrong, especially given the fact that there are powers-that-be who are responsible for overseeing the welfare of wildlife in this country.”

The problem is exacerbated by the fact most vets are not experts in caring for ailing eagles, badgers, pine martens and other such creatures. Somewhere in the midst of the nationwide shortage of expert help for wildlife, Donoher and a handful of others, endeavour to source and provide help for wildlife on a 24/7 basis, and kind individuals like Kleyn while not specialists, do what they can in a crisis.

Want to help?

Send a cheque to Animal Care Society, Hillview Lodge, Clashbredane, Kilmichael, County Cork, or donate via

Or send a cheque to Kildare Animal Foundation, Lough Andy’s House, Southgreen Road, Kildare.

Support its orphan season GoFundMe campaign


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