THE NATIONAL SWAN CONVENTION
THE RSPCA – as we NOW know it.
SWAN RESCUE SOUTH WALES was formed as a rescue and short term care centre more than thirty years ago. Before then birds of all kinds as well as mammals were cared for with many being successfully rehabilitated. Since making the decision to concentrate on water birds, and swans in particular, we have received many hundreds of calls for help, mainly from the RSPCA, but also from the police, the Highways Agency and members of the public. In the early years most of the rescues we attended were here in South Wales from Chepstow and the Wye Valley to Llanelli in Carmarthenshire. Then gradually we began receiving calls from as far north as Herefordshire, eastwards into Gloucestershire and over the River Severn into Avon. We are an entirely voluntary organisation run by just the two of us.
Over the years an extensive and invaluable network of trusted helpers has been built up; this includes other rescue organisations across the country which can be called on to attend an incident if they are nearer to the problem than we are. Every casualty we rescue is assessed carefully and then a joint decision is made as to which experienced wildlife hospital would be most appropriate, to enable the casualty to receive the best treatment and after care. These are the National Swan Sanctuary in Shepperton, Surrey, RSPCA West Hatch near Taunton, Vale Wildlife Rescue near Evesham, occasionally Wychbold Swan Rescue in the West Midlands, and Tinkers Hill Swan & Bird of Prey Rescue centre in Amroth, Pembrokeshire – all of which are used by the RSPCA. We do not use any other hospital.
About fifteen years ago the National Convention for the Welfare of Swans & Wildlife (now shortened and re-named – The National Swan Convention) was formed. This brought together a good proportion of swan rescue groups in England and Wales, interested individuals from the RSPCA and the Environment Agency to discuss regional problems and how these could best be tackled. Swan Rescue South Wales took the lead in setting up a steering committee to co-ordinate activities and one of these was the collation of rescue data from as many groups as possible including the three RSPCA Wildlife hospitals (West Hatch, Stapeley Grange and East Winch). An agreed Swan Rescue Report form was designed and sent to all those who had agreed to support the work. The RSPCA Inspectors and Animal Collection Officers (ACOs) from most parts of the country (except, oddly enough, here in South Wales who did not contribute even one form) were most supportive and we were receiving as many as 600 incident forms on a fairly regular basis. The data produced showed nationally nearly 40% of all rescues (although looking at areas individually, the West Midlands was nearer 75%) were carried out as a result of birds becoming entangled in discarded and lost fishing tackle with many swans showing symptoms of lead poisoning. This enabled us and the Environment Agency to note, in particular, any ‘black spots’ and to try to deal with them.
When we first became involved with the RSPCA, their organisation was divided into ten regions. Wales (region 9) was run by Regional Superintendent Kevin Manning in Brecon with a team of very dedicated, friendly and caring people who ‘manned’ the telephones. Being in Wales and being able to pronounce the names of often unpronounceable Welsh place names including having a good knowledge of the geography of Wales always made life much easier. This meant incidents we were asked to deal with were fairly straight forward but if we needed more information it was always very easy to phone through to Brecon. Now, even if you’re able to get through to the Call Centre, you can often be ‘faced’ with a recorded message asking you to press 1 for this, press 2 for that and so on which is not what members of the public want. From listening to the many complaints we receive most people want to speak to a real person to talk through whatever the problem it is they are phoning about. Its been suggested the Call Centre is very ‘target driven’ and all they are interested in is getting calls tasked out and off the screen as soon as possible which must put increased pressure on the Inspectorate, and possible reduction in overtime budgets could be why they are encouraged to put to sleep as many casualties as possible to save both time and money.
As a voluntary group with no outside funding (except for the occasional donation), to begin with all rescues were funded by ourselves so we were more than pleased (and very relieved) to receive a letter from Kevin Manning in August 2001 allowing us to claim 20 pence per mile for those rescues we were asked to deal with on behalf of the RSPCA. Kevin was always friendly and approachable – a very good Regional Manager; correspondence – the little which was necessary – was dealt with promptly and effectively.
Then, in 2003 everything started to change. The regional structure as we had known it was to be scrapped and the National Call Centre (NCC) set up in Doncaster, run by a firm of contractors. Clearly, this was all to do with cost saving, and supposedly to improve efficiency. From a Welsh perspective, this was a disaster. From a situation in which a complaint about the RSPCA was a rarity, complaints became almost a daily occurrence. From our own point of view, correct identification of Welsh place names is obviously vital, but so many times they got it wrong; we received requests for help in dealing with an incident in South Wales, only to discover through our own detailed knowledge of what used to be called STD codes, the incident was actually in North Wales. And this is to say nothing of the absolutely appalling quality of the advice given out by NCC personnel to members of the public phoning for advice, especially in respect of ‘distressed’ bats, about which we are fairly knowledgeable.
This drastic decision to get rid of the ten regions and have just one call centre, for some reason, also badly affected the numbers of incident forms we were receiving as their numbers dropped dramatically to maybe just one or two a month. Despite several request letters to Sue Stafford at RSPCA HQ in Horsham to send out extra forms with reminders, and we were assured that happened, the numbers remained just the occasional one now and again from the Kent area.
Whether it was at this time, or perhaps earlier, we can only speculate, but probably in line with many large organisations embracing the latest ‘management buzz speak’ Key Performance Indices (KPI’s) appeared in the management ‘portfolio’. For an organisation supposed to be concerned with animal welfare, we cannot help wondering how this works. In terms of actually managing an organisation, no doubt KPI’s have their place, but one cannot but worry that there must be some, possibly significant, impact on the welfare of the species – perhaps domestic at the expense of wildlife – the organisation claims to have at the heart of its objectives. It has been suggested senior management may even receive bonuses if they reach their KPI targets.
Through 2006, the cost of motor fuel started to increase at an alarming rate from 70 plus pence per litre to almost £1.00 per litre. This meant we were subsidising the RSPCA even more than we were already with each rescue we attended on their behalf. So we felt obliged to write to the incumbent Regional Superintendent, Martyn Hubbard at Regional HQ in Shrewsbury to ask for an increase from the 20 pence to a more realistic amount of 30 or 40 pence per mile. The following is a dated list of the letters we wrote:-
- 24th April 2006,
- 1st August 2006,
- 23rd August 2006,
- 15th November 2006 and
- 24th March 2007.
Not one of these letters received a response or an acknowledgement and copies of all previous letters were included each time. We then decided to write to John Hancock, Regional Manager in Shrewsbury. The following is a dated list of those letters:-
- 5th August 2007,
- 15th September 2007,
- 22nd February 2008 and
- 11th March 2008.
As with our letters to Martyn Hubbard each included copies of all previous letters and also of all those we had sent to Martyn Hubbard. Eventually we received a response from John Hancock dated 11th March 2008 thanking us for ours of the 22nd February 2008 but with no mention of any of the other letters or the enclosures. His letter stated our mileage had been increased to 40 pence and a ‘boarding agreement’ would be put in place which would incur boarding charges for the Society. For all the years we have been rescuing and caring for casualties brought to us by the RSPCA and those we have rescued on behalf of the RSPCA we have never sought to be reimbursed for any boarding costs. This offer had been volunteered by management and was quite unexpected.
We eventually managed to arrange a meeting with Martyn Hubbard for Wednesday, 21st November 2007. He arrived an hour late for which he gave no apology. The meeting was to discuss amongst other things his total failure to respond to letters, the increase in our travel expenses from 20 pence per mile and a request from us this should be backdated to April 2006 which was the time we first made the approach and since it was entirely his fault our request had dragged on for so long. Although he agreed to the increase in our mileage rate he made no promises regarding backdating; in fact, it was made very clear, we stood no chance – a highly effective bit of cost saving at the expense of the voluntary sector. On Monday 3rd December 2007 we sent him an email summarising the issues talked about at the meeting and asked him to either verify or modify. Needless to say, as with all our letters, we had no response to that either despite us sending him two reminder emails.
A date was arranged by John Hancock for us to meet with him and Chief Inspector Elaine Spence to discuss these new arrangements and to produce, read and sign the Boarding Agreement. This meeting took place on 29th April 2008 at the RSPCA Ringland animal shelter in Newport. After the meeting we assumed, foolishly we now realise, everything was sorted. We were contacted very regularly by our local ACOs and Inspectors to deal with most of, if not all the rescue of swans and other water birds. This allowed them extra time to concentrate on their other calls. We dealt with every incident passed to us no matter what or where it was, in fact we were busier than ever. There were times when we had to make repeat visits to the same incident due to it being a difficult rescue. From 5th January to 19th February this year we dealt with 25 incidents passed to us by the RSPCA with some birds needing very specialist treatment.
We care very much about the birds we rescue and always take them to the best bird hospital we know wherever it is – at no cost to the RSPCA. We are fully aware of the RSPCA’s policy of immediate euthanasia for some injuries and we quite agree if a bird really does need to be put to sleep then we have no problem accepting it but only under the guidance of an experienced vet. What we cannot accept and neither should the RSPCA, bearing in mind what their name stands for, is a bird being euthanased without first being assessed by an experienced bird vet. We understand Elaine Spence has complained about the high charges vets are making to euthanase a bird – something which she obviously believes should be carried out by an ACO even although that ACO has no technical training in veterinary matters, let alone suitable qualifications. (It must be stressed again, we do not have these qualifications either, which is why we have always deferred to those who do, to make these decisions). This is no criticism of the ACOs as they are obliged to follow RSPCA instructions, rules and regulations whatever they are, whether right or wrong. In this connection, and again, it is not a criticism of the ACO’s, they admit to knowing little if anything about swans, and some say they have never even caught a swan. If there is a criticism at all, it relates to the apparent shallowness of the training given to ACO’s before they are let loose on distressed wildlife.
We have always had a very good relationship with the RSPCA so it came as quite a shock when, on 19th February all calls from them stopped. From that date onwards we have not received any calls from the RSPCA except those which continue to come to us from outside the area, via the local animal shelter and the Call Centre in Doncaster. According to the Boarding Agreement, point 8 on page 4 states:- ‘Either party may terminate this Agreement with immediate effect by written notice if etc. and then it gives a list of conditions none of which apply to us. Even now three months on, no-one in RSPCA management has had the courtesy or decency to inform us officially of the reasons for this decision to remove us from their approved rescue support list This total silence from them has prompted us to ask a number of very pertinent questions to which we have demanded answers repeatedly. The following is a dated list of each time we sent those questions to Elaine Spence:
- 29th April 2009,
- 25th May 2009,
- 31st May 2009,
- 2nd June 2009, and
- 9th June 2009.
None of them were acknowledged let alone answered. On 10th June we received an email from Martyn Hubbard telling us to direct all future messages and questions to him and not to Elaine Spence as he would be dealing with them. Foolishly (again) we believed him and the following is a dated list of emails we sent to him:-
- 11th June 2009,
- 21st June 2009,
- 27th June 2009, and
- 1st July 2009.
As expected given the history, we have received neither acknowledgement nor replies.
On 13th May, after constant pressure from us to find a solution to this issue, a long overdue meeting by nearly three months, was arranged between us, Inspector Evans and Inspector Hogben (his area is Pembrokeshire – not here in East South Wales!!!). The meeting we were told was to discuss our views on euthanasia (even although, as has been noted already, we do not make the decision as to whether a bird lives or dies – we leave that to the experts) and whether or not we could be ‘approved’. Both Inspectors have always been well aware of our views on this subject which, until 19th February this year had apparently not been an issue, particularly as we had been ‘approved’ last year and previous years. Until then the RSPCA had been quite content to use us for rescues, and our facilities for ducklings in particular.
When the Inspectors arrived, it was more than obvious from their body language their minds were already made up and this meeting was just a token gesture. It was as if they had been given their orders from above – ‘go get ’em whatever it takes’. This was confirmed as after about an hour of trying to ‘trap’ us with various questions and accusations, Inspector Hogben hurriedly packed away his papers and left muttering something undecipherable under his breath. Inspector Evans remained for a short time appearing somewhat embarrassed and apologetic. Having had time to think over what had happened (or not happened) since 19th February we now firmly believe this ‘set-up’ by the RSPCA had absolutely nothing to do with our views on euthanasia (that was just a pathetic excuse) but everything to do with their obsession to reduce spending at all costs, prompted we suspect, by our last larger than usual claim for travel expenses (due entirely to the increase in our 40 pence fuel allowance which they alone had granted) to cover the 25 RSPCA incidents with which we had dealt. We now seriously question where do their priorities lie – with cost saving or with the animals? What a pity no-one in management was capable or felt able to write to us to explain the charity’s financial situation and ask if our travelling expenses could be reduced. We would readily have agreed to this had we been asked – if only for the sake of the birds. Even having been granted the increase in our mileage rate, we were still subsidising the RSPCA on every rescue we dealt with on their behalf.
Following advice from an informed friend, we sent a letter on 2nd June by recorded delivery to Tim Thomas of the RSPCA Wildlife Department in Horsham enclosing documents detailing the history of our organisation and the problems we were experiencing. After nearly four weeks and not receiving a response, we wrote again on 29th June. This prompted a short communication from Horsham telling us Tim Thomas was no longer with the RSPCA and the matter would be dealt with by Adam Grogan. Needless to say, nearly a month later and we had heard nothing.
On the 17th June we wrote to Steve Carter, Regional Manager in Shrewsbury who had replaced John Hancock and who had been copied in on a number of emails sent to Martyn Hubbard so would be very aware of what was happening (or not happening). This letter was ignored as was our second letter dated 8th July and similarly our third letter dated 16th July. We eventually received a response from him thanking us for ‘all the help we have given the RSPCA and wishing us the best in the future’!!!! Our questions were ignored completely, and he failed to give any reason for our ‘dismissal’. We are now firmly convinced anyone who wishes to apply for a job with the RSPCA must first be able to prove their complete inability to reply to or acknowledge any communication they receive either by post or email before their application can even be considered!!!
To expand on the issue of ducklings – every year until this year, from spring into summer we have received around 80 Mallard ducklings via the RSPCA – this year we have not received any except those via members of the public. So we now have to ask what has happened to them this year. Have they all been euthansed or have they been taken (in small numbers) to the Gower Bird Hospital near Swansea some 60 plus miles away or to RSPCA West Hatch near Taunton, even further away? Can it really be cost effective to travel all the way to Swansea or Taunton rather than to bring them here, certainly the nearest care centre?
Every now and again we receive calls for help about Mallard ducks showing symptoms of wing or leg damage (probably caused from being shot by trigger happy yobs) and what can be done about it. Anyone who has tried to catch a duck, injured or not will know how extremely difficult it can be. Mallards take off vertically and they can also dive so our usual advice is, unless the bird is obviously suffering and/or deteriorating to the point it will not survive without some action being taken, then we suggest it is left in the habitat it knows with other ducks it knows and to monitor its progress. Ducks are gregarious and like all wildlife, their instinct to survive is very strong. This advice has always worked well so why spend hours trying to catch something which is managing very well and is not really suffering just to have it put to sleep. However, we have found out this is not how the RSPCA deals with injured ducks. According to information we were quite openly given, their method of dealing with such a situation, at least it appears to be here in East South Wales and we believe under the instructions of Elaine Spence is ‘if you can’t catch it then shoot it’!!! Could this be ‘to put it out of its misery’ and who says its miserable? A typical example of anthropomorphism?
During the last three months we have talked with other rescue centres. One acknowledged they have never been ‘approved’, another was unaware of any problem and even their local RSPCA Inspector knew nothing. Another centre had been approved but that was a few years ago and another which also took in domestic animals for the RSPCA was told in no uncertain terms, only the cheapest food must be given to them even if they didn’t like it. The comment to this from the RSPCA personnel who delivered the food was ‘if they are hungry, they will eat it’!!!!
So far this year, two swans known to us have ‘gone missing’ and we can’t help wondering if the RSPCA is responsible for their ‘disappearance’. One was a male swan with a mate and five cygnets and the other a female swan which, although she had a noticeable limp she was able to mate, lay eggs and rear successful broods of cygnets. We knew her well and we find her disappearance very disturbing.
In early January 2008 we were involved in the draining of the Knap lake in Barry, South Wales inasmuch we took the initiative to organise the catching and moving (under licence from the Welsh Office) of 54 Mute swans to allow the lake to be cleaned. The Knap is a man-made lake and the last time it was drained was in 1994 when we were also involved. We suggested the work should be carried out during the time when the majority of swans were in moult. Unfortunately, the council decided against that and started the draining in late December 2007. As the water level was lowered we began receiving calls about dead and dying swans – some at the Knap and others at a nearby lake where some of the birds had flown. These calls continued for nearly a month.
During this dreadful time the staff at West Hatch RSPCA Wildlife hospital were most supportive; in fact this whole episode could not have been managed without their help and input. Post mortems were carried out at the hospital on a number of the dead swans whilst others we took to the VLA in Langford near Bristol, as a result of an introduction provided by the veterinary surgeon at West Hatch. Here the cause of death was identified as necrotic enteritis brought on by exposure to overwhelming concentrations of the bacterium clostridium perfringens the swans had picked up from the sediment which, until the water level had been lowered they had been unable to reach.
Several months following this dreadful episode we began to wonder if the Vale of Glamorgan Council had thanked and reimbursed West Hatch for their involvement so just in case, we emailed the Vale on 17th September 2008 and were eventually told no contact had been made at all. This was quite unacceptable and after sending several emails over a number of weeks to the council we eventually secured an amount of £500 for them plus a ‘thank you’ letter. Had it not been for our persistence the RSPCA West Hatch would not have received any acknowledgement for all their support and hard work.
It has taken a considerable effort to assemble this statement into some sort of logical sequence but the fact remains we continue to be ‘barred’ from the RSPCA’s approved supplier list. We believe RSPCA management have behaved disgracefully and dishonestly, and have compounded our feelings of complete and utter disillusionment by using a tactic of failing totally to communicate with us professionally whilst we, on the other hand, have endeavoured to conduct ourselves professionally throughout. All the evidence suggests we have been excluded from playing the role we did successfully for so long, not because of our views on euthanasia, but purely because we were so good at what we were doing, RSPCA management took the view we were too expensive. So, why in these difficult economic times did they not approach us with a proposition suggesting a reasonable reduction in our mileage rate? We would have been very sympathetic to such an approach, but instead, we have no alternative but to conclude the RSPCA would prefer to allow distressed wildlife to suffer. What else are we to believe? In their frantic effort to reduce spending at all costs, the RSPCA (at least here in East South Wales) has destroyed an extremely good working relationship and probably to the detriment of our precious wildlife. Shame on them.
Ellen & Peter
This Newsletter was completed a month ago and ready for distribution. However, before sending it out we decided we should give RSPCA management a chance to have a rethink. So a copy was sent to a friend who is on the RSPCA council and at his suggestion and with our agreement, he would present it in person to Mark Watts Chief Executive, Daphne Harris Council Chair and Sally Hyman Welsh Regional Rep on the council, and ask for their comments. We agreed they should have three weeks in which to respond. That was four weeks ago and we have heard nothing. To us, this is an absolute indication of their inability to conduct themselves in a professional manner, their inability to understand the animals must be their prime concern at all times and their ability to realise they sometimes get things wrong and should be big enough and adult enough to admit it. Without the help and support of voluntary groups around the country it would be difficult for the RSPCA to continue as the animal welfare and rescue organisation which it was originally set up to be.
Ellen & Peter
Swan Rescue South Wales
e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
Tel : 01633 895241