Updated: Jul 1, 2021
Littering is on the rise according to the recent ‘Litter in lockdown: a study of littering in the time of coronavirus’ report by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which highlights the contribution of single-use plastics such as face masks and takeaway packaging in the wake of the pandemic, to this problem.
The environmental impacts of littering can be devastating, not least for animals. The RSPCA received a staggering 21,600+ reports of animals injured or caught in litter over the past five years, and there are around 5,000 items of marine plastic pollution per mile of beach in the UK, contributing to the 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds that are killed by marine plastic pollution worldwide each year. To find out more about this issue, and what can be done to help tackle it, we spoke to Georgia Podmore from UK-based charity Freshfields Animal Rescue.
For those who aren’t familiar with Freshfields, please can you tell us a little about the charity?
Freshfields Animal Rescue was founded in 1975 when founder Lesley Tarleton decided to open up her home to unwanted animals. After four years, Freshfields was registered as a charity that helps care for abandoned, abused and unwanted animals along with sick and injured wildlife. The rescue continues to grow each year – currently at the Liverpool centre, we have a range of animals with us, including: dogs, cats, sheep, pigs, ducks, chickens, hedgehogs, domestic birds, wild birds, rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets.
We work towards rehabilitating, rehoming or releasing individuals to give them a second chance at life. Alongside this we also run various community outreach programmes to help educate people on the impact that they can have on all species of animals. Our aim is to promote high standards of animal care and welfare, while inspiring people to protect animals and nature, making sure that no animal is left behind.
What is your role at Freshfields?
I work as the Deputy Operations Manager for the farm, small animals and wildlife units. I have only been working in this role since February 2021, so am very new to Freshfields. My main responsibility is to oversee the units, making sure that the teams are supported and have all the necessary equipment, facilities and time to provide the highest standard of care for the animals. It is also part of my role to help promote the work that the staff do, so I regularly take to the Facebook and Instagram pages to post images and videos of the animals we have in our care.
The RSPCA have seen a sharp rise in the number of wild animals injured by litter – have you observed a similar trend through your work with Freshfields and if so, why do you think this is?
There has definitely been a rise in wildlife admittances over the past few years, and in 2020 we admitted 605 wild birds and 493 hedgehogs. We admit wild birds and hedgehogs for various reasons, so all of these did not come to us due to an injury caused by litter. However, with a rise in numbers it can only show that wildlife needs our help, and help from local communities, to support them in their natural environments.
I believe that urbanisation plays a huge role in the current state of UK wildlife – with cities expanding and roads being built between habitats, this increases the risk of wildlife becoming injured by vehicles for example, and also means that they have to travel further to find food. All of this then increases the chances of wild animals becoming trapped in litter along their way. People are not always aware of what wild animals they have on their doorstep – many can happily live in an urban setting – so I urge people to watch out to see what types of wild animals they see around their homes, and then research how you can help them in your garden.
In your experience, what type of animal(s) are most negatively affected by litter?
I think that is quite a difficult question to answer as all wildlife is negatively affected by litter. No matter what animal it is, if they digest or become tangled up in litter the results can be fatal. Sometimes the animals are lucky and the litter item is able to be removed easily with little damage caused. In my experience, hedgehogs are negatively affected by litter items such as garden mesh, thread, cans and plastic such as the six-pack rings. Wild birds are also affected by these but they also have the added risks from fishing equipment and also digesting micro-plastics that have broken down – specifically water birds. I feel that currently, there is a big discussion surrounding the impact of ocean species in regards to plastic pollution. Any publicity from this will impact all wildlife species as the overall aim is to educate people on the problems with littering.
What are the most common litter items that cause injury and harm to animals?
Plastic bottles, jars and cans will attract animals as they will often be able to smell the remains of food in them – it is common for animals to get their heads stuck inside them, and also cut themselves on any sharp edges. Wild animal can also get stuck in the six-pack ring holders, so it is recommended to cut these up before binning.
Balloons and Chinese lanterns also pose a huge risk to wildlife. Animals sometimes try and eat balloons – which can cause them to choke or become impacted. Releasing balloons also poses a risk to wildlife, as they may become entangled in the balloon string - this is the same with Chinese lanterns, which can also cause burns to animals.
We find that is the seemingly harmless items that cause injury to wildlife – this includes things like elastic bands and thread from clothing. Objects like these can wrap around small animals and birds, which can sometimes lead to loss of limbs/digits due to lack of circulation. Fishing wire is also hugely responsible for causing injury to wildlife – particularly wild birds. Birds can become entangled in the lines, and along with the wires fishing hooks can also cause injury through piercing skin or being swallowed.
Wildlife can become trapped and tangled up in garden mesh – we have admitted numerous hedgehogs here at Freshfields that have mesh wrapped around their whole body. It can sometime be quite difficult to remove and at times, a vet’s assistance may be needed. It is really important that people are aware of the general household items that can pose a risk to wildlife – by storing garden mesh appropriately, cutting thread before throwing away and ensuring that fishing equipment is disposed of appropriately, many wild animals would not be as at risk of injury. It is really important that people are made aware of how they can help, and what they can do – as sometimes it can be as simple as showing someone what damage can be done, so that they realise what little things they can do to help.
What advice would you give to a member of the public if they find an animal injured by litter (or otherwise)?
Observe the animal to see how injured it is. This will help when phoning a wildlife rescue/rehabilitator as they may suggest taking the animal straight to a vets, if needed. We recommend to always phone before bringing in the animal. This is to make sure that first of all we have the space to care for the individual, that we take in that species (we do not have the facilities to take on large wild birds, however, we do have contacts to other rescues that we can provide) and again as we may recommend that the animal is taken straight to a vets. People should be aware that most vets will treat wildlife free of charge, so no costs will be incurred.
If it is safe to catch and handle the animal, then I recommend wearing gloves when doing so, and making sure that you wash your hands thoroughly after. You can use a towel to catch an animal by covering it and wrapping the towel around its body. Animals should be placed in to a ventilated cardboard box, that has a towel or newspaper lined at the bottom. Keep them in a quiet area, and then take them straight to the vet or wildlife rescue.
How do you think the littering situation can be improved, and how can members of the public help?
The littering situation across the country is a huge problem to solve. So many people litter and it can be difficult to change individual behaviours. I believe that first of all, more national schemes need to be rolled out to encourage members of the public to recycle, reduce and reuse. The introduction of the plastic bag charge was reported to make a huge difference in reducing the amount of bags bought in supermarkets. We have discussed numerous times here at the rescue how the packaging firms need to become more involved in national schemes to educate customers and take responsibility in reducing the amount of packaging that they use.
Members of the public can get involved in helping reduce litter problems through supporting campaigns and petitions that aim to reduce packaging. You can also get involved in beach and street clean ups. Keep Britain Tidy is running the Great British Spring Clean from May 28th – June 13th – you can go to their website to pledge to pick up litter in your local area.
It is vital for people to spread awareness and educate friends, family members, work colleagues etc. I think it is really important for people to remember that they can make a difference, whether their actions are simply not buying single-use plastics, to organising large litter clean ups. Every action helps us work towards a common goal of less littering on the streets.