David Chapman meets the staff at Secret World Wildlife Rescue, to see the new summer arrivals

PUBLISHED: 19:22 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013

It's all hands on deck helping the new early summer arrivals at Secret World Wildlife Rescue in Somerset. Words and photos by David Chapman.

David Chapman meets the staff at Secret World Wildlife Rescue, to see the new summer arrivals

My last visit to Secret World was in March when staff were busy caring for badger cubs, but apart from these furry fellows the admissions to the hospital were fairly low. All was to change over the following few weeks as spring got under way and now in summer a plethora of birds and mammals have found their way to Somerset's leading wildlife hospital.

My arrival for this, my second visit coincided with that of a roe deer fawn, the twelfth of the season. This one was quite exceptional though. A man walking in the countryside witnessed another man shooting an adult female roe deer. The hunter was about to turn the gun on the deer's now orphaned fawn when the walker decided he had seen enough and put himself between the fawn and the gun.

Obviously this sort of behaviour cannot be recommended but his actions did save the fawn from a certain death; he now had to act to save it from an extended death. The fawn was taken to Secret World and its well-being was guaranteed.

Of the other 11 roe deer fawns brought to the hospital last spring five had been attacked by dogs, there was one road traffic accident and the others had been orphaned in one way or another. All of these roe deer fawns had been found in Somerset and this goes some way to showing us how many roe deer there are in the wild around us.

The fawns are first given any medical treatment they need and then provided with warmth and milk to sustain them. At first they are kept indoors until their health is assured but then they are placed in a secure grassed pen where they can be together and act in a semi-natural way. As they grow they will be provided with solid food in the form of carrot, apple and goat mix. When it is time for their release in the autumn they are taken to a pen in a wild area where other deer roam. Here they will be able to feed naturally and associate with wild deer before the pen is opened and they are left to go free. The deer can continue to gain access to the pen for a few weeks and supplementary food will be available if required but gradually the deer become wild.

When I visited back in March the first few fox cubs had already arrived, but this time there were 28 of them in total. Nearly all of these were housed in the outdoor pens where they could live as natural a life as possible before being released. It was clear to see that they hadn't become imprinted even on the people who fed them; they were shy and wild.

The same could not be said of the five resident foxes that had lived here for the last ten years or more. These foxes had become too tame, having previously been kept as pets by other people, and were kept on so that they could be seen by visitors to the centre on the open days through the year. They live in a large natural area where they can avoid the gaze of human onlookers if they so wish. Other residents include the badgers that can be seen in a special underground sett arrangement through windows in a darkened hide; it is fascinating to be able to see them when they are unaware of our presence.

Another type of mammal that is kept here throughout the year is the harvest mouse. These are kept not because they are injured but because they can be bred for release into the wild. The harvest mouse is our smallest mouse and an animal that has long been associated with crops in arable fields, hence its name, though in truth it lives in any rank grassland, reed bed or hedgerow as much as it does amongst corn. On the day of my visit I was lucky enough to be able to help release a small group of harvest mice in the Millennium Wood at Secret World. This is an area of trees planted in the year 2000 to help provide better shelter for wildlife in the area.

One other mammal, a pipistrelle bat, was in residence. This bat had been named 'Dyson' and you are probably already wondering why. It is thought likely that a cat had brought him into a house and when the house owner did the vacuuming under the sofa the poor old bat was sucked up! Fortunately the bat was found and was still in one piece so it was taken to Secret World where its progress was good and the bat was released later in the season.
Lots of young birds had been brought in during the spring, the commonest being garden birds such as song thrush, blue tit and blackbird, but the most enthralling for me was a pair of young swifts.

At the same time as I was introduced to the swifts I also met Marie Denston who is a full-time employee at Secret World. Each member of staff specialises in a type of wildlife, a strategy which allows successful treatment of a wide range of wild creatures. It also means that such animals become their responsibility, so, for instance, if the swifts need feeding before Marie comes back on duty then the swifts go home with her for the night. You can see that this line of work is more a vocation than a way of earning a living: imagine going out on a date with someone and explaining that you have to go home to feed your baby swifts!

Swifts are unusual birds. From the time they fledge they fly continually for two-and-a-half years without ever landing. In that time they will fly to Africa and back three times, and who knows how many miles they will cover in that time. They eat and sleep on the wing and when they reach maturity they will even mate on the wing! They only land when they fly up into a hole in an old building where they will lay their eggs and raise their young.

Not only do they not land but if they should come to ground they are actually unable to take off again. Their legs are designed only for clinging on to the sides of buildings, not for jumping into the air. If a young swift falls from its nest to the ground then there is nothing the adult birds can do to help it and they must leave it or become grounded themselves. This is the fate that befell the two young swifts at Secret World.

In the wild adult swifts will fly many miles in search of food; 40 miles is nothing to a swift. Their natural food is insects but at Secret World they get something even better: minced beef!

These swifts will need care and attention for many weeks but they don't need much space because they are used to living in cramped holes. All they need is the space to perform press-ups on their wing tips to build up the muscle strength in their wings that they will need to fly. When it comes to their release they must be thrown into the air to give them enough momentum to take off; if the timing is wrong they simply fall to the ground and Marie will try again a week later.

I found my second visit to Secret World to see the residents of this animal hospital to be another fascinating insight into the natural world of Somerset.

Secret World is a charity and could not continue to operate without donations from the public. To learn more, visit the Secret World website at www.secretworld.org or 01278 783250.

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