Behind the scenes at Fearne Animal Sanctuary
- Credit: Archant
Tony Jackson visits Fearne Animal Sanctuary in South Somerset
For well over 75 years thousands of unwanted and abandoned animals and birds have found refuge and often new homes, at Ferne Animal Sanctuary near Chard in South Somerset. The 51 acre sanctuary, set in idyllic South Somerset countryside and close to the River Yarty, is not only a loving and caring home for unfortunate animals, but a centre where visitors can stroll, view the current residents, enjoy the natural wildlife and, perhaps, make plans to offer a home to an abandoned dog, cat, rabbit or even a ferret or cockatiel.
How did it all start? The sanctuary was established in 1940 by Nina, Duchess of Hamilton and Brandon. Then living in London at the start of the Second World War, she realised many people departing overseas were being forced to abandon or, even destroy, their pets. She was recorded by the BBC saying that she would willingly take in animals, rather than see them put down. It was a rash statement for suddenly she found her London home inundated with animals and was even asked to take in unwanted horses. The answer was to re-locate her swelling menagerie to a sanctuary at her family estate at Ferne in Dorset.
Inevitably, when the war ended many former owners failed to return so the inmates had to be looked after for the rest of their natural lives or found new homes. Some 40 years ago the Sanctuary re-located to a setting in Somerset where there was more space and the opportunity to care for even more abandoned animals. It was, initially, a modest affair with simple enclosures but as the years passed and ever more rescue animals arrived, appropriate buildings had to be installed and upgraded. Today, the Sanctuary lay-out is smart but welcoming and, as visitors swiftly appreciate, the hundreds of rescued inmates are cared for by professional staff in ideal conditions.
In charge of Ferne Animal Sanctuary is chief executive Elaine Hayes. Dedicated, enthusiastic and welcoming, Elaine gave me a conducted tour of the Sanctuary, a tour which opened my eyes to the dedicated work and effort involved in the rescue and, in so many cases, re-homing of unfortunate creatures.
“We take in whatever we have space for,” says Elaine, “and have over 300 animals in the Sanctuary at any one time. Last year we found homes for 215 dogs and 250 cats. We were also asked to take in over 100 rabbits throughout the year, but we couldn’t cope, so used our network of contacts to find homes for them. However, a lot of animals stay here to the end of their natural lives when, of course, space is freed up.”
The Sanctuary also offers a ‘home to home’ system. Elaine explains that if someone has an animal looking for a home, the Sanctuary will try and match it with someone seeking the same, so it goes direct to the new owner and never comes to Ferne. Careful pre-home checks are made for all animals being re-homed, followed by two further checks at three months and a year later to make sure the re-homed animal and its carers are in harmony.
A new visitors Centre was opened in April this year, not only creating a formal entrance into the Sanctuary, but which can be used as a space in which to teach people about animals. Smart, modern and with a conference room, the Centre can also be rented out.
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In the region of 30-40,000 visitors a year pay a modest fee to enter the Sanctuary and enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, the animals, birds and wildlife. There is a peaceful garden entrance and thought has been given to catering for children though, as I quickly noted, the Sanctuary inmates keep them well amused. In addition to areas for geese, donkeys, pigs and birds, there are also dedicated enclosures for horses, cats and dogs, while a two acre field is home to a herd of tall, short, fat and thin goats. Several are pygmy goats, others Nubian but all 30 or so are obviously in goat heaven. Elaine explained that there is even a home here for old goats which can live up to 15 years, where they can be kept warm and given plenty of TLC.
Numerous cats are brought in to the Sanctuary, many of them pregnant, nervous or ill-treated and requiring assessment and rehabilitation away from visitors and there is also an area for cats which can’t be re-homed, perhaps due to old age, ill-health or because they are too unfriendly. They enjoy the luxury of their own area, indoor and out, where they can stay to the end of their lives.
A maximum of 15 horses and ponies can be looked after but as they are usually at Ferne as the result of physical or psychological trauma, they are kept in a stabling area which is not open to the public. There is, however, an ancient donkey who is 40. I saw her grazing in a paddock and looking remarkably well and healthy.
The kennel complex cost a million pounds to construct and provides outstanding housing for dogs brought in for re¬homing. There are two types of kennel, one an isolation block where the health of a new inmate can be assessed, while a normal kennel has three sections enabling dogs to come and go as they please. There is an inside area with bedding, then a covered area and lastly an outside play run.
All dogs have to be capable of being re-homed and it is essential to make sure they integrate together. In addition there is an essential neutering programme. “There are,” says Elaine, “enough unwanted dogs in the world without adding to them”. By far the majority of dogs brought in for re-homing are cross-breeds, while popular breeds such as labradors or golden retrievers are seldom seen. It also has to be made clear to anyone surrendering a dog that this is a re-homing centre, so any dog with aggression issues cannot be accepted.
However, quite a number of nervous dogs are brought in and it’s then a matter of gaining their confidence and teaching them that people can be trusted. This is where the highly qualified and competent staff has such an important role to play, while volunteer dog-walkers also help to ease the work-load.
Ferne Animal Sanctuary is an oasis of good will and comfort in a world where animals are so often abused and discarded. Today, the Sanctuary relies completely on the good will of the public to visit, make donations not only of money, but also of food and even items such as old blankets which can be used for dog beds, while volunteers to help walk dogs are always welcome.