FOUR adorable red squirrel kittens are making headlines across the world as unlikely survivors of Hurricane Katia.
The five-week-old babies were taken in by The Sanctuary Wildlife Care Centre in Ulgham after their nest blew out of a tree when the tail end of the hurricane brought heavy winds to Northumberland last week.
The squirrels were rescued by Alnwick residents Graham and Caroline Simpson, who noticed them in their garden and took them to a local vet.
They were then passed on to experts at The Sanctuary, before volunteer Eileen Welsh moved them to her home in Cramlington to give them round-the-clock care.
“We assume that when the squirrels were rescued the mother was frantically trying to re-build the nest and had a dilemma whether to leave the kittens on the ground or take them into the tree,” said Mrs Welsh.
“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 Abidec baby vitamins every two-and-a-half hours, but now Mrs Welsh 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 a stoat and two squirrel kittens from the age of two weeks, eventually 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,” she said.
“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 a soft release into the wild in the early spring.”
Mrs Welsh has not named the kittens to avoid getting too attached, 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.”
The 64-year-old, who is a legal secretary by profession, has vast experience of animal care, having volunteered at The Sanctuary since 2004.
“I’m happy to do anything I’m asked,” she said. “I have always had a passion for animals and I did want to be a girl groom. I had a job offer at a racing stable when I was 16, but my father persuaded me to keep horses as my hobby and to get a job with a decent salary and a future.
“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.
“I’ve cleaned, worked in the tea room, the shop, gone out to village fetes with the animals, done fund-raising and worked as an education officer, anything that helps.”
However, there are serious fears about the future of the animal rescue centre as it is suffering 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 Mrs Welsh.
“We have no money whatsoever to feed the animals. The volunteers are bringing anything in they can, someone has just done the Great North Run to help us and we are trying desperately to do anything we can to raise money.
“There are 150 animals here which 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.
“We had an autumn fair, which was good, but not as good as it has been in the past. We raised more than £2,000, which we’re very grateful for, but that has gone already on the hay bill.
“Things are really desperate.”
Anyone wishing to help The Sanctuary should call 01670 791778.