A CRAMLINGTON woman is giving round-the-clock care to four baby red squirrel left homeless by Hurricane Katia.
The five-week-old squirrel kittens were taken in by the Sanctuary Wildlife Care Centre in Ulgham after their nest blew out of a tree as the tail end of the hurricane hit Northumberland.
The squirrels have hit headlines around the world since being rescued by Graham and Caroline Simpson after they found them in the garden of their Alnwick home.
They were then passed on to experts at the Sanctuary before volunteer Eileen Welsh moved them to her home in Cramlington to give them 24-hour care.
“We assume that when the squirrels were rescued, the mother was frantically trying to rebuild the nest and had a dilemma whether to leave the kittens on the ground or take them into the tree,” said Eileen.
“The people who rescued them saw them on the path and took them to a vet because at that stage they weren’t self-sufficient.”
Initially, the group guzzled a combination of goats’ milk, full cream, probiotic yoghurt and baby vitamins every couple of hours, but now Eileen is bottle-feeding them every four hours, as well as introducing Farley’s Rusks to their diet.
She is well placed to care for the quartet, having previously hand-reared two squirrel kittens from the age of two weeks before releasing them back into the wild.
“The other squirrels were much younger than these ones. They had no fur and their eyes were still closed, so they were very vulnerable, but I successfully released them the following spring so these ones have a good chance,” said the 64-year-old.
“Normally, in the wild, they wean at eight to 12 weeks, so when they are fully weaned, they will go into a pen over the winter for release into the wild in the early spring.”
Eileen has not named the kittens to avoid getting too attached to them, but she is already recognising their individual characters.
“The boy is a wimp and is definitely the runt of the litter because he is small, while number one girl is the most outgoing and the greediest. The other two girls are somewhere in the middle.
“When they are awake, they are bundles of energy, then they zonk out completely for two or three hours, before waking again. In their active phase, they are incredibly fast, and it is frightening when you hear how fast their heart goes.”
Eileen, a retired legal secretary, has vast experience of animal care, having been a volunteer at the Sanctuary since 2004.
“I have always had a passion for animals, and I did want to be a girl groom,” she said.
“When I was coming up to retirement and looked back on my life, my biggest regret was not working with animals.
“I saw a leaflet for the Sanctuary, so I came up to have a look, and I liked what I saw. I saw animals being properly looked after. I volunteered on the spot, and I have been here ever since.”
How long the animal rescue centre can keep going is in question, however, as it is now facing its worst ever funding crisis.
“We are in a crisis situation here. Every year, it gets worse, and without question this is the worst it has ever been,” said Eileen.
“We have no money whatsoever to feed the animals. The volunteers are bringing anything in they can, and we are trying desperately to do anything we can to raise money.
“There are 150 animals here that need feeding. The squirrels’ future is assured because they will be released. It is the disabled wildlife that we can’t release that is the problem.
“We have a brain-damaged fox, a fox with a badly broken jaw and an owl with a bad eye – these are just a few of them.
“Things are really desperate.”
Anyone wishing to help the Sanctuary is asked to call (01670) 791778.