After 25 years, Shropshire’s amazing Cuan Wildlife Rescue remains committed to its original vision: to rehabilitate sick and injured animals so they can return to the wild
“People thought I was mad or playing games and that it was a phase that would pass. I think my brothers, whom I love dearly, are still of the opinion I’m a bit odd.”
Megan Morris-Jones (66), founder of Cuan Wildlife Rescue centre, laughs as she talks. But when she first started caring for stricken wild birds and animals in Much Wenlock in 1989, she was a trail blazer; back then, the concept of wildlife rescue was a new one. Today, the centre is a registered charity that cares for and rehabilitates more than 2,000 sick, injured and orphaned wild animals and birds every year in order to release them back into their natural habitat. And for her years of selfless endeavour, Megan recently received a lifetime achievement award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), naming her one of 2014’s animal heroes.
The idea to rescue wildlife was first conceived hundreds of miles from the Welsh Borders, on Luing, a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland. While living in a derelict farmhouse there with her late husband, John, and their then young daughter, Anna, Megan responded to an RSPB advertisement looking for people to carry out beached-bird surveys.
“Occasionally, we’d find the odd injured seagull whom we’d take home and do what we could for,” Megan recalls. “At about the same time I happened to read a newspaper article about a couple in Ayrshire who were doing exactly this, wildlife rescue. Back then it was a concept I hadn’t really heard of, so I wrote to them and spent a couple of days with them, seeing what they did. It got me hooked.”
Above: Megan Morris-Jones, who founded Cuan Wildlife Rescue with her husband John in 1991
There was another more personal factor behind Megan’s decision to care for sick and injured wildlife. “I had Anna, my daughter, on Luing. I’d always planned to have another but lost my second baby in pregnancy and because of complications I wasn’t able to have any more. It was something of a personal crisis as I felt there was something missing.
“I remember thinking about it one night, not unduly depressed, just wondering what I was going to do with my time. It was 2am and – I hate to use the word ‘vision’, as it has religious connotations – but in my mind’s eye I could see all these creatures by the side of the road and I thought there must be some cases when people pick up these animals and take them to a vet. But, I thought, what does a vet do with them? I thumped my husband on the chest and said to him, ‘I’ve had this brilliant idea – I’m going to take in injured creatures’. He told me to forget about it and go back to sleep,” she recollects, laughing.
When the family moved to Much Wenlock in 1989, Megan got in touch with the RSPCA in Shrewsbury to see what services there were in the area for injured wildlife. When she heard there wasn’t anything, it was a ‘green light’ for her. Soon, their tiny two-up-two-down cottage was overrun with small, sick mammals such as hedgehogs and baby squirrels, while John’s homemade aviary, which took up most of their small garden, housed injured birds.
Megan read every book she could about caring for wildlife and attended talks and meetings held by the then newly formed British Wildlife Rehabilitation Council to forge links with experts. “I’d always collar the speakers at the end and get their phone numbers. Then, when I had a problem with an animal, I’d call the relevant person and say something like, ‘I heard your talk the other day and was wondering if you could help me’,” she chuckles. “They were usually only too happy to help.”
What to do if you find an injured creature
• Contact your local wildlife rescue centre (or vet, in order to get that contact) to get advice before you do anything.
• If you see a hedgehog out in the day, take it into a rescue centre straight away as a nocturnal animal will only be out in the day if something’s wrong; don’t leave it until the next day as it’ll be too late.
• Don’t keep the animal yourself for any length of time as it will become aggressive.
In the early days, it was a small-scale family affair and very much a labour of love. As it was years before they received any donations, everything was paid for out of Megan and John’s own pockets. “My husband wouldn’t have described himself as an ‘animal man’ but was always incredibly supportive, even in light of the fact the animals were always fed first.”
But word soon travelled and the Morris-Joneses began receiving more and more furry and feathered patients. “At first I thought if I had 100 creatures each year that would keep me busy. But we went from 30 the first year to 100 the next, then to 200 the year after. I remember getting to 500 and thinking, right, we can’t possibly take any more. The tipping point came when we couldn’t get to the dining table because there was a duck in its cage sitting on it.”
The family founded Cuan House wildlife rescue centre in 1991 when they moved to the house of the same name, where John – a retired Navy commander with engineering skills – built specialised facilities to meet the growing demand for round-the-clock care and rehabilitation. It was soon registered as a charity and their reputation grew – helped in no small part by Megan’s fearless handling of swans, her favourite bird and a natural choice for the rescue centre’s logo.
“One thing that never fails to give me a buzz, no matter how many times I do it, is when I get an injured swan back to its mate,” she tells us. “Even before you arrive at the pool, before the water’s in sight, the swan’s head goes up and he knows he’s going home. When you put him by the side he starts calling and out of nowhere comes his mate. Anyone who says animals don’t have feelings is ignorant.”
Above: A family of swans 'packed up' and ready to be released back into the wild. Swans are founder Megan’s favourite bird and were a natural choice for the rescue centre’s logo
Another significant turning point came in 1995 when they enlisted the help of local vet Chris Woodroff, from Severn Edge Veterinary Group, who’s still with them today. His knowledge and expertise enabled them to treat and release many more creatures.
Sadly, John died in 2006 – a time Megan reveals was by far the most challenging she’d experienced. “Quite apart from the great personal loss, I was faced with doing December’s accounts and didn’t know how to use a spreadsheet,” she reveals.
At this time, it was Megan’s turn to be ‘rescued’ and she was overwhelmed by the kindness of others, from a friend who taught her IT to a couple of women who offered to take over the wildlife food shopping, something else John had taken care of. “I thought they’d do it for a couple of months but, eight years later, they were still doing it,” she smiles.
Megan admits she never gave a great deal of thought to what would happen to the rescue centre when she couldn’t run it anymore: “I just thought I’d keep at it until I dropped,” she says. “It never crossed my mind that Anna would want to do it – even though she did her first solo badger rescue aged just 16 – because she already had a career she loved.”
Luckily, although there was never any expectation on her to continue her parents’ legacy, Anna, who clearly shares her mum’s passion for wildlife, and her husband Sean – both of them firefighters – decided to take the reins. With one proviso: “We were adamant we had to move to bigger premises to support where the charity was going; and somewhere that would afford us some privacy,” explains Anna.
In 2014 they moved to a 14-acre site, also in Much Wenlock, and converted a barn complex into Shropshire’s first purpose-built wildlife hospital, complete with treatment room and small bungalow on site, where Anna and Sean live. This time, there’s be plenty of room for expansion.
The move, which represents the next chapter for Cuan Wildlife Rescue, has enabled them to treat greater numbers of wildlife more effectively (last year, they looked after 2,314 animals, 500 more than in 2014) and to get them back into the wild, Cuan’s overriding aim.
It’s a professional set up, with separate rooms for new admissions, treating animals, storing food and bedding, with rooms and enclosures for small birds, small mammals and bigger wildlife, too. Boards outside each room indicate which ‘patient’ is inside and what it’s being treated for. It’s a far cry from the charity’s humble beginnings.
We visited in winter, the centre’s ‘quiet’ time, when the only residents were juvenile hedgehogs who’d been confused out of hibernation by the unseasonably mild weather, along with a barn owl who’d been hit by a train and a squirrel with shattered teeth from a car collision. It’s when important maintenance work is carried out and everything is readied for spring and summer, when a steady stream of badger and fox cubs, rabbits and hares, birds, bats and even deer come through the doors. Scores of food bowls are piled high and the ‘pantry’ is groaning with tins of cat food for the hedgehogs, locally made granola that’s been donated, bags of mealworms for the birds and hogs, and Farley’s Rusks for weaning baby squirrels. There’s a whole walk-in cupboard dedicated to bedding, such as fleeces and cat igloos perfect for housing owls, and cuddly toys that are used to help comfort orphaned baby animals.
From spring to autumn, the centre takes in up to 50 creatures a day – they never turn anything away – each with different needs. Every bird or animal is treated for their injuries or illness and cared for until ready to be released back into the wild, either where they came from or at a carefully chosen location. If they can’t rehabilitate that animal to the point where it could survive in the wild, it’ll be put down; a principle that can be painful but is followed for the good of the animal nevertheless.
Ways to help wildlife
• Avoid using harmful chemicals such as slug pellets in your garden as they’re poisonous to animals when ingested.
• Make your garden friendly to prickly pals by building a hedgehog house.
• Take care when disposing of rubbish; squash can lids so animals can’t get stuck inside and cut rubber bands, net bags and plastic four-pack rings.
• Strimmers can cause horrific injuries, so look around where you plan to strim first.
• If you have netting around fruit or vegetable plants, check it daily to ensure nothing has got trapped inside. • If turning over compost, check for hedgehogs first as they love compost heaps.
• If you hit or clip something with your car, do stop as a broken leg or wing can often be fixed.
• If you have bird feeders in your garden, keep them clean. If dirty, they can carry disease and could wipe out all the birds who feed from them.
During their busiest periods, Anna and Sean and full-time team members Fran and Claire are joined by another full-time member of staff, along with an army of volunteers, all needed because orphaned birds demand round-the-clock care, while baby mammals are even more demanding.
“We’ve had fox cubs, baby polecats and hoglets; they’ll come back to the house with us and we’ll feed them through the night every few hours,” explains Anna who, like Sean, is always ‘on call’ for both the wildlife centre and her fire station. Although rearing a young animal involves a great deal of work, both Anna and Sean agree nothing is more rewarding than seeing that creature released back into the wild.
“It’s amazing. It makes you forget all the negatives,” says Sean. “Because it can be a very sad job. When you’ve got a beautiful barn owl or a baby hedgehog and it doesn’t survive or you have to put it to sleep because there’s no way it’ll survive, it’s heartbreaking.”
The Cuan team try not to get too attached to the animals they look after, and house policy is not to name them because of this. However, neither Anna or Sean find losing animals gets any easier. “There are always some that affect you more than others,” confides Anna. “Sometimes it’s because of what brought the animal to you in the first place. Other times you’ve just worked so hard feeding and treating an animal and it dies anyway and you think, ‘What have I done?’ But it’s nothing you have done, nature never meant for it to survive – that’s the way we have to look at it.”
Rescuing adult animals comes with a different set of challenges. Large injured mammals can be aggressive because they’re frightened and stressed, while water fowl such as a swan that’s been wounded by fishing line can be hard to capture as they’ll often avoid the banks. “Foxes and badgers are probably the worst, aggression wise, deer will cut you, swans can whack you with their wings and it does hurt,” says Anna. “It’s harder, though, when you’ve nursed the animal back to full health and have to catch it in order to release it. Mum’s been bitten by a badger before.”
Anna and Sean’s experience as firefighters is an invaluable asset. “We’re very good at risk assessment and talk through possible scenarios beforehand. Anna and I also work together as a team very well,” adds Sean. Consequently, the pair have escaped with only minor scratches and bruises over the years. That said, juggling a demanding career with work at a 24-hour wildlife rescue centre isn’t easy.
“You could be up most of the night feeding and then have to go to work the next day,” says Sean, who, incredibly, also works part-time for Northwood & Sons funeral directors. “It can be very hard,” agrees Anna. “I grew up seeing mum put everything into the charity. I try to be religious about having a day off from firefighting and wildlife, but if someone calls in sick or there’s a rescue and it’s a larger animal it falls to us. We also try to go on holiday twice a year, usually to a cottage with our dog, Chester, somewhere like Scotland. Then we’ll turn our phones off as it’s our time.”
While Anna is generally more hands-on with the wildlife care, Sean is in charge of raising the money they need to keep the centre running. While they’ve doubled the amount raised in a year, with ever-increasing animal numbers the running costs are high. In 2015, they made an impressive £115,000 but it cost them £107,000 to run the centre. While they apply for grants and trusts for specific equipment and facilities, such as an X-ray machine, about 70 percent of the money they raise comes from public donations in some form or another. They also have a small charity shop in Much Wenlock, organise events, hold open days and give presentations at local primary schools to educate youngsters about looking after wildlife. “We never ask people for money when they bring an injured animal to us, as we don’t want to deter them from doing so in future. However, we’re always incredibly grateful when they do give us something.”
Above: Sean and Anna Nicholas, who run the centre with Anna’s mother, Megan
The term ‘wildlife hero’ is sometimes used too freely, yet there’s no title more fitting to describe Megan, Anna, Sean and the rest of the team at Cuan. While the hours are long, the work hard, unpaid and involving a lot of personal sacrifice, they’re all in complete agreement about why they do it.
“We owe our wildlife a tremendous debt,” says Megan. “As a very rough estimate I’d say about 90 percent of our casualties are there because of man’s interference in some way, either direct or indirect. So I believe we owe it to our wildlife to give them a second chance, to get them back to the wild where they belong. That’s something that’s kept me going all those years as it’s something I believe absolutely.”
If you’d like to help Cuan Wildlife Rescue, either by volunteering, donating money, food or bedding, fundraising, sponsoring an animal or becoming a fosterer, get in touch on tel: 01952 728070 or visit www.cuanwildliferescue.org.uk
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