Two days into the New Year, saw the Striking Faces mobile office speeding towards the Norfolk coast to the RSPCA East Winch Wildlife Centre where we had been commissioned to highlight the extraordinary work the centre undertakes each year in the care of wildlife – most notably rescued seals who are orphaned, sick or injured. We believe it is the largest seal rehabilitation centre in the UK and accommodates approx 4 to 5 thousand casualties ( all animals ) per anum. When we arrived there were forty seal residents. January is a quiet time of year, although the seals were far from quiet as we were soon to find out. At its busiest times, the centre can accommodate up to 105 seals and have the best accommodation and care a sick seal could possibly wish for.
“We have two busy times for seals – July/August for the commons and December/January for the Greys – due to their different breeding strategies. We didn’t know we could accommodate 105 seals at once but we did following the surge tide in Dec 2013” – Alison Charles – Centre Manager
We were warmly welcomed into the inner sanctum by the Manager Alison Charles and her team of highly qualified and dedicated staff. With 107 hedgehogs, 40 seals, a ten day old fawn, numerous swans, ducks, geese, kestrels it was a relatively peaceful day. At their busiest time, the centre also has badgers, foxes, deer, bats, rabbits, hares, stoats, weasels, squirrels – even frogs and toads in care.
We had a long but productive day, shooting and building a 360 tour and some static work despite the dismal January light. Alison and her dedicated team were quite amazing – their level of care, devotion and expertise astounded us both – together with their exemplary attitude towards their work and every animal in their care – they were all truly inspirational.
Our 360 tour took us to just about every room in the centre, from the operating theatre to the X-ray room where a majestic swan was sitting peacefully on the table while being X-rayed, to the store cupboard rammed from floor to rafters with newspapers, blankets and towels, donated by the public, all of which are always hugely appreciated by the staff.
View the completed 360 tour here
The seals are processed through three areas – the first resembled a changing room in a public swimming pool (‘The isolation unit’ enabling the staff to administer one-to-one care); the second area is housed under the great roof of a 17th century barn – a magnificent structure leading us to wonder how many other 17th century barns in the world are homes for convalescing seals (we suspect not many). The last area is outside – 3 large pools inhabited by numerous seals who are on their way for release. Each time we approached they dove back into the water only to return moments later with their inquisitive and endearing heads just above the water’s surface. Sadly, for us, the dim January sun had begun its decent making life difficult for the Nikons to capture the enchanting faces of these remarkable mammals.
Nevertheless, we were thrilled to be so close to such an extraordinary animal – their fathomless black eyes, their vertical eyebrows, amazing whiskers and their exquisite coats.
What we hadn’t anticipated was the noise – seals “wail” and groan – a haunting noise which makes your hair stand on end – but we were assured that the noise was their own way of communicating – calling for food. It was quite disturbing, perhaps reminiscent of a Victorian asylum ! We were no better prepared for the pervading smell of fish – kilos of mackerel and later that day when Guy was sorting through his images in a wonderful hotel, The White Horse in Brandcaster, he could still smell the pungent aroma of fish.
When asked repeatedly to don white wellington boots and white boiler suits we thought, momentarily, that we were entering a Hollywood film’s isolation unit ,and the endless trays of disinfectant showed us just how important health and safety is, and led us to question how many times a day do the staff have to pull their wellies on ?
One of the most comical sights was a trio of majestic swans and two mallard ducks who spend their day waddling between two cubicles – one knee deep in wood shavings and the other in two feet of water, used as a physiotherapy pool for waterfowl. The way that they toddled, in procession with the mallards bringing up the rear, between the two spaces was nothing short of hilarious. When in the water they slowly swam around in circles, calmly and elegantly, and when they’d had enough they scrambled onto the ramp and headed back towards the wood shavings. Guy decided that he wanted to do a 360 in the water cubicle, precariously propping up his tripod in the water. A wildlife assistant stood guard as he spun his camera around, as she warded off any opportunities that the swans took to knock over of the tripod.
One particular case which tore at our heartstrings was a Muntjac fawn, born on 23rd December, the mother having sadly died after giving birth. The delightful fawn was nestled in a large plastic crate (with no door) being fed every four hours – the wide eyes, the delicate soft, mottled hair and the vulnerability of the wee orphan was truly enchanting.
The majority of us associate the RSPCA with cats and dogs, rabbits and hamsters. Far less is known of the extraordinary range of wild animals and birds, that they care for every day of the year. For example, East Winch have admitted and cared for 259 species of birds from robins to kestrels. The rarest and scariest case has to be the woman who came in with a shoe box containing a black mamba snake, covered with a pair of tights.
It is always exciting to be commissioned to capture a project which is not only fascinating but deeply rewarding. To be allowed access to projects and places such as the wildlife hospital is a strong reminder of why all at Striking Faces are so passionate about photography. And on this occasion it was an honour to help promote and support such a fantastic charity.
Striking Faces are specialist and Google Trusted Photographers, and are proud to work with The RSPCA on their high profile projects. Another significant project which Striking Faces undertook was the Birmingham Animal Hospital, within which we featured a live operation, which we believe to be the first ever to be published on Google Street View.
RSPCA Animal Hospital Birmingham