Deep in Kent’s Broadwater Forest, lies Folly Wildlife Rescue Trust, run by Dave and Annette Risley. I didn’t quite know what to expect as I drove in. I had pictured a few scenarios on my way from London. One of those was a chaotic scene of feathers flapping and birds screeching, while people rushed around trying to do their best, probably covered in bird shit… I could not have been more wrong.
Folly is remarkably well run. Perhaps that’s something to do with Dave, the director, and his 25 years experience working at London Zoo. Don’t get me wrong, it was packed to the rafters with animals, but instead of chaos, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and togetherness. The reception area doubles as an assessment area where all sorts of birds were being seen to. Space is certainly not wasted at Folly. They even share the space with The Fox Project, another fantastic group of people helping out everyone’s favourite underdog.
Dave had agreed to meet me and show me around, so without a minute to lose we set off on the grand tour. Everywhere I looked there were birds being fed and checked by staff who looked like they could probably de-tick a hedgehog with their eyes closed and their hands tied behind their backs. Dave showed me his new aviaries, yet to be finished, and the badger runs. As we stood, willing a badger to emerge, I noticed a blackbird hopping around on the fence. “Oh yes that’s probably one we released,” Dave said, frequently visited by past patients.
As we walked the perimeter, we came to cages full of collared doves, starlings, song thrushes and even lapwing. Dave told me how he and two others had fitted all the enclosures themselves. It’s clear that Folly, although immaculate and thriving, is run on the bare minimum financially. The Trust doesn’t receive any funding, and relies heavily on donations and legacies being left to them. Bill Oddie is a patron, but even with the support they do get, it’s clear they’re up against it.
We paused the tour to stick our heads into the nursery, where a tawny owl chick was about to have his lunch. It was buzzing. Staffed by two dab hands, it was home to woodpeckers, little owls, blue tits and several entire families of nestlings in custom made wooly nests. I got a very shifty look from the little owls as I poked my head into their cage. The woodpecker hid behind his wooden stump, poking his head around just enough to keep an eye on us. The little nestlings thought they were going to get fed and opened their beaks wide. I have to admit though, I had a soft spot for the tawny. His steely blue eyes looked right at me, and as I leaned in to take his photograph, he leaned in to get a better look at me. I think we had a moment.
We left the nursery and headed into the boardroom to have a chat about Folly and how it has grown from a couple of cages in the garden, to the wildlife hospital it is today.
Tell me about the first animal that started all of this.
The first animal we had was a hedgehog. Annette used to work for Animal Aid in Tonbridge. The name sort of implies that they aid animals, but actually they are a campaign group. Annette worked in the office there when one day someone brought in this hedgehog. “What are we going to do with this?” they said. So, Annette said, “I’ll have a go.” and she took it home. This was before the internet, so we had to ask around to find someone who knew a bit about it. Then we just sort of felt our way along, and it was a success. That was the beginning of it all really.
Did this founding hedgehog have a name?
Um… his name was, Prickly Hedge. That’s just come back to me!
Were there times at the beginning when you thought you’d bitten off more than you could chew?
That’s been continuous all the way through, up to present day!
Of all the rescues you’ve made, are there any that stick in your memory more than others?
The ones that stick in your mind are the traumatic ones, so it’s mostly deer. Deer are so unpredictable. We’ve gone along to places where someone’s said there’s a baby deer and when we’ve got there, found a fully grown buck weighing about 75 kilos! We once had three fallow deer bucks wrapped in electric fencing going around like a sort of demented merry go round. In those days we were more foolhardy I suppose. We got in there with big duvets and managed to get them to the ground. I wouldn’t do it now!
It must be hard to lose some of the animals you’ve treated.
Well it’s always a shame. Sometimes you’ve got high hopes for things, but until they’ve been checked over by the vet and perhaps had an x-ray, you’re never really sure. Once I was talking to someone on the phone about this bird that was doing quite well, when it literally just stopped what it was doing, fell over and died. On the plus side, there are so many that you think are on their last legs that eventually come round and are released. That’s amazing, when you’ve got something so badly injured and you don’t think it will survive the night. Then, after a week or two of care it can be released, good as new. That’s the rewarding part.
Spring must be your equivalent of New Year’s Eve for the ambulance service, but for several months on end. How do you cope with the numbers?
It’s dependant on the weather. It can be quiet if it’s particularly cold, but then the sun can come out and it can catch you off guard. We try to anticipate things and prepare, and hope that it will all come off. You can’t plan for everything. The biggest problem is staff. Being largely volunteer based, if people get sick or drop out that can be a problem. On a good week we have 80 volunteers, but that can fall right off.
How often are the animals injuries caused by humans?
90% of the animals that come in have come to grief in some way by human hands. It can be; road traffic accidents, entanglement in netting, injury through discarded litter like ring pulls and glass. Occasionally we have incidents of poisoning or even people taking pot shots at animals with air guns. We also see lots of dog attacks. The other 10% are usually through some sort of predation or bad weather.
How does it feel to be picking up the pieces?
The thing is, accidents happen. Most people are mortified when they find out that they’ve done something, say… left a trough of water outside that baby birds have tried to have a bath in and ended up drowning. Or, they might have found a dead hedgehog in their pond because there’s no way for it to get out. We do have small education programmes with schools and community groups to try and highlight these hazards to people. Having said that I haven’t seen any improvement. Perhaps it needs to be extended, but it’s quite difficult to get the message across to people. There’s no public service for it at all. It doesn’t seem to be a priority.
Have you noticed the decline of hedgehogs over the last 28 years you’ve been running Folly?
Yes, I mean we used to get as many as 750 hedgehogs in a year and now we’d be lucky to see 300. It’s probably a combination of things; habitat loss, badgers and foxes… although foxes actually predate them more than badgers. As roads get bigger and busier and places get built up, they’re getting isolated. Hedgehogs certainly don’t like disturbance either and there’s a lot of that.
Since that first hedgehog 28 years ago, you’ve come a long way. What does the future look like for Folly?
Getting it finished I should think! Having our own vet here and being able to treat animals on site is going to improve our success rate. Another thing is to work out what to do about the deer. They’re difficult animals to deal with. To do it properly you need a team and vehicles. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of support from the public for deer.
How can people get involved and help?
If people can’t physically come here and help, the best way is to believe that what we do is worthwhile and support us financially. I know that sounds a bit hard nosed, but at the end of the day that’s what keeps us going. It’s people who set up standing orders, you know, giving £3 a month or something, that gives us stability. You can join our supporters group and get newsletters from us. The money goes exactly where you would want it to, straight to the care of the animals.
How does it feel to be a Wildlife Hero?
Oh I don’t know about being a hero. I think we’re more of a wildlife catalyst, my wife and myself. I mean we set it up and the ethos of the thing is just to do some good you know, for animals. The catalyst part is enabling other people to do it. There are lots of people who want to do it but they don’t know how. We’re able to provide the setting for people to join in.
Having put the world to rights it was time to take my leave. Just as I was walking to my car a badly injured fawn was brought in. It was in a bad way and they suspected it had been shot. Annette rushed off to examine the animal, while Dave ran off, into a sudden and torrential rain storm to feed yet more of their patients. There is clearly never a dull moment at Folly.
Dave and Annette Risley are truly inspiring people. If you’re not already considering becoming a supporter, here are five reasons why you should.
There are so many ways you can support the team at Folly, from adopting a hedgehog to buying a bird perch. Even if you’re strapped for cash there are ways you can help. Visit their website to find one that suits you.
I will certainly be joining up… as soon as I get the smell of fox out of my nostrils.
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