Sanctuary standing up for seagulls

Vermin, pests, thieves – gulls aren’t exactly one of Whitby’s more popular features.

But one Whitby woman has chosen to buck the trend by taking injured gulls into her home and nursing them back to health.

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Whitby Wildlife Sanctuary Feature''w133901a

In the back yard of her Stainsacre home, Alex Farmer has established Whitby Wildlife Sanctuary, which not only cares for gulls, but also a variety of other injured or abandoned wildlife.

From lost homing pigeons to a swift named Preston and a Tawny Owl hit by a car near Hinderwell, all are welcome.

But it is the gulls which are most apparent and with 34 living in a pen in Alex’s back garden, the sound can be deafening. Thankfully, the only structure within half a mile is the Whitby water treatment works, so the neighbours don’t tend to complain.

Despite the noise, Alex has come to admire the birds and she said: “when you work so closely to them you realise they are beautiful birds. We don’t have any big birds like that around here, but they are very smart and they all have individual characters.”

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Whitby Wildlife Sanctuary Feature''w133901c

Earlier in the year Alex actually had 89 gulls, which were all injured in one way or another.

Some have serious injuries and would be unable to survive in the wild, such as the blind one or another which had only one wing. But most will eventually be returned to the wild.

With gulls invoking such a fierce reaction from many residents, Alex doesn’t always get a warm reaction for her work.

“We get a few a nasty comments from people,” she said. “I picked up an adult gull that got hit by a bus. The driver had actually sped up to hit the gull.”

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Whitby Wildlife Sanctuary Feature''w133901d

Some more baby gulls were brought to the sanctuary by a woman who saw her neighbour killing chicks with a spade and jumped in to stop him.

Heading out into a smallholding behind the gull pen you pass a pen where three stereotypically grumpy geese, named Winkin’ Blinkin’ and Ned live.

Colin the tame collared dove surveys the garden, which is currently dominated by three large pigs who go by the names Zebedee, Rosie and Bella.

Annoying the pigs are nine mallard ducklings, which will eventually be released on to the Esk at Ruswarp.

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Whitby Wildlife Sanctuary Feature''w133901b

Alex launched the sanctuary four years ago when she began taking in animals from the veterinary surgery where she did volunteer work. One or two animals led to more as word spread and now injured animals are brought to the sanctuary from as far away as Bridlington, Middlesbrough or Darlington.

“I have always been a massive animal fan, ever since I was very little,” said Alex. “I think that actually started when I was really little. We lived in Bermuda and I was surrounded by lots of exotic animals. I would bring lizards and frogs back to the house.”

Caring for so many animals is a full-time job, said Alex, who spends all her spare time feeding and caring for the various animals - meaning she will usually be up at the crack of dawn.

“I haven’t got out at all over the summer holidays,” said Alex, “This summer has been the busiest, and the baby birds I can’t leave for more than half an hour. So it’s definitely affected other parts of my life, but when you release a bird you’ve nursed back to health, it becomes worth it.

A teacher, Alex has often had the permission of her employers to bring some of the more vulnerable animals into class. She said: “If you have got baby birds that need feeding every 15 minutes, I take them to school. The children got quite used to me getting a bird out for feeding time.”

But it’s not all good news and Alex has had to come to terms with the fact there are some animals she can not help.

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Whitby Wildlife Sanctuary Feature''w133901e

She said: “It’s just part of it now. I think, we did the best we could and you just have to think of all the animals you have helped. You can’t dwell on it too much and you have to concentrate on the ones you have left.”

It has been largely on-the-job training for Alex, who has no training other than a diploma in caring for British wild mammals, and she said: “It just goes to show, if anyone wants to work with animals you don’t have to do it professionally, you can do what you can at home.”

Another species of animal which can regularly be found at the sanctuary are hedgehogs. A litter of four were brought in after they were attacked by a dog. The hedgehogs must get to a weight of 700g before they are released in the spring, so there’s a lot of feeding to be done.

Providing food for so many animals isn’t cheap - one bag of hand-rearing food for a juvenile blackbird costs £60, while each nest box costs £100.

To keep the sanctuary running, she therefore relies on the Whitby community chip in to help out. People have donated old animal cages, while she often gets leftovers from Whitby Fish Market which she uses to feed the gulls.

Eventually Alex hopes the sanctuary can become a registered charity. To do so she must keep strict records and prove the sanctuary has an annual turnover greater than £5,000.

All the animals taken in have their pictures taken and they are posted on a Facebook page, which can be found by searching for Whitby Wildlife Sanctuary.