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An animal haven in the trees
IT was like something out of a Disney movie. Squirrels were dashing about, ducks were waddling around and birds were darting from tree to tree.
It was as if these casual visitors to Lower Moss Wood in Ollerton near Knutsford knew they were in a safe haven and indeed they were.
Tucked away in 18 acres of stunning woodland, most people know the centre as a wildlife hospital for orphaned, sick or injured wild animals.
But it is also an educational nature reserve and every day of term time a school class visits to enjoy nature walks and things like pond dipping to study food chains.
Limited Edition visited the wood to speak to warden Ray Jackson, who is having quite a year.
Not only is Ray celebrating 20 years as a warden, he is also working out how to run the hospital and take care of his first daughter, Lucy Grace.
“My whole lifestyle has had to change and so has my job. The volunteers have really had to step up,” he said.
But that has not stopped him working at the wood seven days a week and so in between looking after animals and looking after his daughter, care continues to be a central theme for the 51-year-old.
To celebrate his 20th anniversary in the job, Ray has been popping out to schools in Knutsford and the further area to give talks about his work.
He is keen to keep promoting the educational side of the wood and estimates that he has taught around 40,000 kids over the years.
Ray, who is also a keen rock musician and wildlife artist, added: “In all the years I’ve been here I haven’t had a single negative response from any of the teachers and all the kids talk about it for weeks after.
“The idea of Lower Moss Wood is to get closer links between town and country and bring the kids from the inner cities and surrounding areas into a woodland environment to teach them about the wildlife that lives within that environment and how farming and wildlife can go hand in hand.
“We’re surrounded by farmland and so we want to be good neighbours and promote the farming as well as the wildlife.”
The wildlife hospital opened 19 years ago when Ray started breeding barn owls under a breed and release scheme.
In fact, Clicky the barn owl, who became too tame to release, is still alive today and has since appeared on BBC’s Animal Hospital.
“Of all the animals in all of Lower Moss Wood, she is number one,” said Ray.
Then somebody brought in two fox cubs for Ray to look after. Mistakes were made, lessons were learned and it heralded the start of the wildlife hospital.
Ray, who received an MBE in 2006, said: “I’d never reared anything before in my life but having a basic knowledge I managed to rear these two cubs.
“I released one of them but I made one tame, which was a big mistake, it’s not what you do.
“But at the time, I wasn’t a wildlife hospital, I was just a man in the woods.
“So I took this fox home, hand reared it, it became very tame and she stayed with me for 12 and a half years. Her name was Povey.
“Povey was an asset to the wood because I used to bring her out for the kids to see and she would never bite.
“She was like a big wet lettuce when I held her in my hands. She had no reaction at all to being touched or stroked.
“Obviously it was the wrong thing to do but then I started being recognised as this man in the woods with a fox and people started bringing me all sorts of animals and it snowballed from there.”
In the first year, there were 10 animals, in the second there were 50 and this year Ray expects a total of more than 2,000 casualties or strays.
Common cases for the hospital include orphan birds in the spring time that people pick up when they should not, cat attacks and more sinister incidents involving poisonings, shootings and snares.
“Every day is different,” said Ray.
“We never know what’s going to come through the door next. One of the things is we have to have food for virtually every species of British wild animal and bird available at an instant.”
Any animals that have a chance of being released back into the wild are not named so that Ray and his volunteers do not get attached to them.
The rarest animal Ray has looked after was a frigate bird from the Galapagos Island, which was the only one ever recorded in mainland Britain.
Those who cannot be released become part of the Lower Moss Wood family and many are named after places in Africa as Ray has worked with animals there five times.
Almost every animal has a fascinating or tragic story behind it.
Talik the fox was rescued after being found in a parrot cage in a garden, Stella the iguana was found in a public toilet in Birmingham, Elvis the budgie was caught tangled up in a tennis court net and Louie the crow was hand reared, wrongly released into the wild and finally caught in a supermarket.
In fact, when Limited Edition was being given a tour, an RSPCA officer brought in a couple of birds for Ray to take care of.
A poor wood pigeon had got itself tangled up in fishing wire and Limited Edition watched as Ray delicately set about helping the creature. It was quite telling that the pigeon did not even struggle.
Lower Moss Wood also needs no less than £60,000 a year to survive, which comes mostly from fundraising.
Ray said: “The volunteers not only help clean out the animals and look after the animals, they go out and do fundraising events for me as well.
“We’re a great team in a close knit community and they dedicate their time to help the hospital.”