The South Devon Seabird Trust was formed in 1993 by me (Jean Bradford), up until that time it was known as the Teignmouth & District Seabird Unit, and part of a group of rescuers which stretched along the coast of Devon from Axminster to Plymouth.
My involvement with distressed and injured birds started as a child whilst assisting my father whose own love of wildlife stemmed from his childhood in Scotland.
My little rescue centre which was run from my own garden became part of a larger network of similarly minded people who specialised in the rescue of pelagic birds, in particular oiled auks which in the 1980s came ashore daily every winter.
To begin with I would just take in oiled birds, mainly guillemots, from the local area, and then pass them along the line to a rehabilitation centre in Plymouth for further care and release. Periodically we would gather for meetings and it was during these meetings that I became increasingly concerned that all was not well with the work the group were doing. The rehabilitated birds were ringed before release to track their progress, and there were reports that many of the birds were coming ashore, moribund, soon after release and there had not been any sightings of rehabilitated birds on seabird colonies.
I voiced my concern at one of the meetings that I felt the birds were being washed too soon after admission, and not being held long enough at the rehabilitation centre before release in order to regain their strength. This emanated from the fact that when the birds backed up, due to sudden influxes, out of necessity, they were held longer than the desired time of ten days, I found they were actually much, much stronger. On one occasion I was holding on to my guillemots for three weeks before they could go on to the rehabilitation centre and when they did get there they were so fit and strong that they were very hard to handle.
I would have thought that this would have been enough to convince everyone that having a longer time for the birds to recover was the answer, however, that was not to be, various spurious reasons were given for getting them back to sea quickly. I decided there and then that if I was to prove (as I believed) that auks, particularly guillemots, responded well to treatment, and could be saved, then I would have to do the complete rehabilitation myself.
Actually I wasn't alone, my husband Roger felt the same and so did one of the other members of the group, Keith Grant, the benefit of having Keith on board was that he was a well regarded Ringer with the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and it was obvious that if we were to prove our point the birds would need to be ringed and the data gathered.
We ringed our first batch of birds in March 1993 and decided on a ten year programme which ended in March 2003. The decision for a specified time frame was to enable the data collected from the ringed birds to be looked at for that period alone, otherwise new ringing recoveries from the most recently released birds would constantly bring the overall totals down and corrupt the data giving a false result. There needed to be time for long term recoveries to be added to the table to give a balanced view.
We were so pleased that we started out on this project because in 1997 the BTO published a report (No.186), in which it gave a very bleak picture concerning the rehabilitation of guillemots. We did not have sufficient data at that time to refute this report, but as the years passed we gathered sufficient evidence from our rehabilitated guillemots to not only refute the claims, but show that oiled guillemots were actually excellent candidates for care and rehabilitation. See page 'Rehabilitated Guillemots'.
The BTO report used non rehabilitated guillemots ringed in the wild as the control group with which to compare the oiled and rehabilitated birds. The control group are ringed on colonies, most of the guillemot colonies are in the north of the UK, it is obvious that if these birds encounter problems the chances of them being found is unlikely because of the remoteness and the sparse human populations near these colonies.
The majority of rehabilitated birds in the UK however are released in areas of dense human population, if any of these birds encounter problems post release there is a high probability that they will be found. This fact must be considered when making a judgement.
There are very few oiled seabird rescue centres in the UK. The work is hard and dirty, in addition to this special conditions are required for the specific needs of these pelagic birds.
From 1983 until 1997 all the work was carried out in a suburban garden in a very confined space and there were times, like the Sea Empress disaster, when sadly needy birds had to be turned away. We were also taking birds from as far away as Kent and Cornwall and if we were to continue we knew we would have to expand.
Thanks to the generosity of the owners of Jack's Patch, a local garden centre, we were able to accomplish this. They offered a plot of land upon which we were able to build aviaries and buildings capable of housing up to 300 oiled seabirds, in comfort at any one time. We also had a visitor's centre from which the birds could be observed without disturbance.
Pictured below Claude our resident cormorant in the front aviary, acting as a buffer between invited guests at the official opening, and the more timid birds further back. He loved to chase the ball around on the pool.
Pictured below at the official opening of the centre in 1998 - from left to right Fred Symons Chairman of TDC, Alan Norsworthy Mayor of Teignmouth, Jill Hepworth co-owner of Jack's Patch, Jean Bradford, Roger Bradford.
The centre was officially opened by Brian Carter, Author and wildlife presenter.
Besides giving talks every opportunity was taken to make people aware of the Trust and the needs of our sea birds. Pictured below Anne Channing & Roger Bradford receive a cheque from Mary James of the Silver Spurs Line dancers.
Anne Channing (above) running the charity's stall at a wildlife event held at Jack' Patch & (below) Jean Bradford at a wildlife event in Dawlish Warren, Devon. Some events ran consecutively and we were often hard pressed trying to attend them all.
Beside taking part in outside events, we also had hundreds of visitors to our centre each year including BBC and ITV crews doing pieces for news items or wildlife programmes. In 1995 whilst still working from a garden Michaela Strachan and her crew spent several hours filming for the BBC's Really Wild Show.
Miranda Krestovnikoff came with the crew from ITV to film for 'Water Warriors'. We were working from our new centre by that time so everything was much more relaxed. It was great meeting both of these presenters and they seemed to enjoy their time with us.
There were many visitors to our centre from overseas, which always pleased us, as the only time we got to meet rehabilitators from other countries was at the International Conferences which only occurred every 3 years and there was never enough time to talk in depth to everyone. A visit from the International Bird Rescue & Rehabilitation Centre, California (IBRRC) was, therefore, most welcome.
The new centre was in operation for 7 years, it would have been good to keep it longer, but funding for sea birds is not easy, they are, by far, the Cinderella of charities. All of the work was voluntary, not even expenses were taken by any of the volunteers, but even so there was always only just enough money to break even. There is no doubt that all the negativity in the press when the BTO report was published affected fund raising badly.
After closing the centre at Jack's Patch we continued in our original premises until 2015. Thousands of birds came into our care over the years, and an average of 74% have gone back to the wild so we are very pleased with our efforts. However, a time arrives when retirement beckons - a time to catch up with family and friends that have been neglected in favour of our work with the birds. There might be an opportunity in the future to support another venture helping seabirds, only time will tell. I will always be available to answer queries and help others and, of course, the Rehabilitation Methodology is on line for anyone to download. We never charge for advice, always just happy to help the birds.
Our thanks to all those who helped us with their time or donations, your support has been invaluable, not only for the birds that we have dealt with locally, but because of our work, together we have prevented the mass slaughter of oiled seabirds all over the northern hemisphere, the work of this Trust is like no other and could not have happened without your support.
We are most grateful, Jean & Roger Bradford.
One of the releases at Hopes Nose.
We published our first Report in 2001. and it was well received, especially by other rehabilitators world wide who had become quite depressed with all the negativity in the press about oiled seabirds.
There was a time when helping oiled seabirds was considered a waste of time, but through our endeavours, this charity - The South Devon Seabird Trust changed all that.