We consider ourselves one of the most animal loving nations in the world, yet a perfect storm of factors-puppy-farming, fashion fads and the recession- is leaving an increasing number of creatures homeless and charities struggling to cope. Last year, the RSPCA admitted its resources were overstretched, and organisations such as Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, which, in 2011, cared for 9,000 rescue animals at a cost of £13.5 million, and World Horse Welfare, which last year strongly cautioned against unnecessary over-breeding, have been raising the alarm.

‘We’ve had a 65% increase in the number of animals coming to us in the past five years,’ reports RSPCA spokesman Helen Coen, which she says equates to 40,000 new additions requiring care every year. ‘As a rule, most people want to keep their pets, but the truth is that not everybody can afford to do so at the moment.’ At the same time, the number of new owners available for rescued animals is falling: nearly 4,000 fewer dogs and some 6,000 fewer cats were adopted in 2011 compared with 2009 figures. Most animals in need of new homes are cats and dogs, but there are also mice, rabbits, goats, snakes, parrots, tortoises and ponies (visit www.bluecross. org.uk), and there remains an acute need to place retired greyhounds and racehorses with the right owners.

Several charities specialise in re-homing specific types or breeds- almost every dog-breed society will have a rescue arm, some with many regional branches-but all must find ways to meet the costs of care and treatment at a time when charitable giving and legacies continue to drop off.

As seen in Battersea’s recent ITV series, For the Love of Dogs with Paul O’Grady, animal charities are encouraging more people to adopt a rescue case instead of buying a youngster. It might be hard work at first, but most owners say rescue animals are more rewarding and more loyal. And, as the steamroller of austerity continues to squash us all, it’s a pleasurable way to do something positive to help.

Rescue a donkey

Debbie Coxall, an assessor of animal health at Warwickshire College, adopted Snowdrop and Stardust just over a year ago as companions for her Shetland pony. With no previous experience of donkeys, Mrs Coxall found the Donkey Sanctuary very supportive and she’s now smitten with her new pets. ‘Horses are like cats- they choose whether to come to you -but donkeys are more like dogs.

They’re so affectionate.’ They’re also fiercely intelligent: Mrs Coxall once caught Snowdop using a mounting block to climb a fence. They’re good with children and even have their own Facebook page. The Donkey Sanctuary (01395 578222; www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk), based near Sidmouth, Devon, has grown dramatically since it was founded by the late Dr Elisabeth Svendsen in 1973 and is now a multimillion- pound concern involved in international welfare projects. Now run by Annie Brown, the charity has some 3,400 donkeys in farms all over the UK, about 70 of which are waiting for a home. They’re fostered in pairs, because they bond for life and can become stressed, and even die, if separated. ‘We often see a mother and daughter or two lifelong friends, but donkeys pair with ponies, cows and even chickens. They’re incredible characters and very trusting, sometimes even when they’ve been badly treated.’ Requirements for a donkey foster home are an acre of land per pair, with secure fencing, hardstanding ground and a field shelter

Rescue a greyhound

Pictures of a skeletal, black former acing greyhound that had been found wandering, hopelessly lost, in a muzzle were too much for novelist Jilly Cooper when they were sent to her by the Orchard Greyhound Sanctuary in Co Offaly, Ireland, 12 years ago. She immediately agreed to adopt the dog. ‘He looked terrible-he was starving-but you could see that lovely greyhound smile,’ she recalls. A year later, Feather, her ‘quiet man with a soul’, graced her Christmas card in a bobble hat, as ‘Feather Christmas’.

In 2006, she took another black greyhound, Bluebell, from the same sanctuary: ‘She’s reassuring, kind and funny.’ Bluebell has managed to charm herself all the way into her owner’s bed, where they have wonderful pillow talk. ‘Rescue dogs are kinder, and the bond with them is stronger,’ she maintains. ‘I’d always have rescue greyhounds now.’ She admits it’s not just the beds: despite her best (and, one suspects, rather limited) efforts, the sofas are the dogs’ domain, too, and they maintained an armed neutrality with Feral the cat, although she isn’t able to promise the same deal for the rapidly growing deer population of Gloucestershire.

Some 8,000 greyhounds retire from racing each year, about half of which are found homes through the Retired Greyhound Trust (www.retiredgreyhounds.co.uk). Founded in 1975 and part-funded by the racing industry itself, it has 70-plus regional branches and, last year, it rehomed its 60,000th dog. When the dogs arrive, usually aged about two, they’re first neutered and ‘socialised’, explains the charity’s Samuel Zelmer-Jackson. ‘They’ve never met another kind of dog before, let alone a cat, but they’re usually brilliant with other animals.’

Debunking some common misconceptions, he points out: ‘Greyhounds don’t have to be walked for miles a day-they sprint for perhaps a minute, and then they’re exhausted.’ Two 20-minute walks a day is all they require and they’re generally docile, loving and lazy. Veterinary bills should be minimal: racing greyhounds are bred to be healthy. The only snag is that their chasing instinct rarely leaves them-cats can be fair game.

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Rehome a racehorse

Equestrian journalist and long-time horse owner Pippa Cuckson found that Admission, a Flat racehorse in which she had an interest, was being retired. After coming to an agreement with the other owners, she took him on herself, and has learned a huge amount. ‘You have to remember that they’ve been institutionalised,’ she says. ‘They’re accustomed to a regimented routine every day and you can’t just remove that from their life.’ Admission has ‘a lovely nature’: like lots of Thoroughbreds, he’s ‘beautiful, athletic, highly, intelligent, inquisitive and sometimes skittish’. But a former racehorse’s training can also make them easy to handle: ‘They’re amazing in so many ways, because they’ve had so much of life thrown at them. They’re easy in the stable, and they’re brilliant at loading and travelling because they’ve been there and done it all so many times.’

The glut of unwanted retired racehorses, and the question of overproduction, especially in Ireland, have been contentious issues over the past decade. Not everyone is capable of riding a former racehorse, but the charity Retraining of Racehorses (01488 648998; www.ror.org.uk), which was launched in 2000, has done much to secure a future for these horses by helping to fund four charitable Thoroughbred rehabilitation centres and providing meaningful competitions for new owners to aim at-in the right hands, it’s perfectly possible for a racehorse off the track to adapt to becoming a ‘happy hacker’, a hunter-2008 Gold Cup winner Denman is thriving with the Duke of Beaufort’s-or to have another career, such as polo (in which there are often prizes for the best playing former racehorse), dressage, showing or eventing. William Fox-Pitt won Burghley in 2011 on the former racehorse Parklane Hawk. Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and a powerful player in the racing world, owns the Darley Thoroughbred Rehoming Programme at Newmarket (01638 724817; www. darleyrehoming.co.uk), which is run as a non-profit organisation. New arrivals have up to six months’ winding down, after which they gently begin work to see what they enjoy. The relationship with a potential new owner starts as a three-month loan, and if that works out, the horse is officially purchased for a minimal fee, and its passport stamped ‘nonracing’ to confirm its new legal status.

Rescue a hen

The Duchess of Richmond, a patron of the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT), admits that the former battery hens that regularly arrive at her Goodwood home in West Sussex are a daunting sight and far from pretty. ‘They have white combs and barely any feathers when you get them, but it’s wonderful watching them learning how to be a chicken again,’ she says. ‘They quickly learn to run-they fall over an awful lot in the beginning, but afterwards they just go tearing around-and the eggs are a bonus.’ The BHWT (01884 860084; www.bhwt.org.uk), which also counts Jamie Oliver, Amanda Holden and Pam Ayres among its patrons and has 28 regional centres, has helped rehome more than 350,000 hens- about 60,000 a year-which would otherwise be slaughtered. There are still 16 million caged hens in the UK and, although the barren battery cage has now been banned in Britain, hens still live in colony cages that house 80 or 90 birds at a time.

North Devon-based BHWT founder Jane Howorth prides herself on working beside, rather than against, commercial poultry farmers: ‘The UK industry is meeting welfare requirements, which is great, but there is more to be done.’ Mrs Howorth explains that, after a year, hens tend to have a natural break from laying. ‘It’s not worth farmers waiting for a fortnight for them to begin laying again, so that’s when we take them in, de-mite them, de-worm them and ask for a small donation for each bird when it’s rehomed.’

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