Beatrice Brinkler would never have described herself as an environmentalist. She first starting looking after sick and injured animals over 30 years ago but she didn’t plan to set up The Highland Wildlife Hospital Trust and I doubt if she would have seen herself holding a banner in support of Marine Protection Areas at Holyrood whilst having eggs thrown at her!
In the 1980’s Beatrice lived in the Scottish fishing port of Ullapool where she was known locally as someone who occasionally took in injured animals. It was during this era of the Klondykers (the large eastern bloc mackerel processing ships) that people began to bring her oiled sea birds such as guillemots. She admits to knowing nothing about how to clean an oiled bird but since there was no-one else to turn to, she felt unable to leave them to die. She learnt as she went along, eventually becoming an expert in looking after not only damaged birds but also caring for orphaned and injured wildlife such as seals, owls and otters. In 1985 she formally set up The Highland Wildlife Hospital Trust as a charity with her husband Mike, at this time it was the only organisation of its kind in The Highlands. Beatrice became particularly well known for her work with seals, on many occasions she reared orphaned pups before releasing them back into the wild. Some people call her the ‘seal whisperer’ due to her exceptional ability to care for them.
Over many years of working with local wildlife and observing trends she began to recognise how the patterns of commercial activity in the area directly impacted upon the wellbeing of local species. After the Klondykers left Beatrice noticed less oil birds coming to her but she then came to see how overfishing of Sandeels for commercial fertilisers was connected to an increase in starving and sick birds. She regularly looked after orphaned otters and seals whose mothers had been killed as part of industrial activity. In the early days Beatrice was simply responding to the immediate needs of the animals that people bought to her but as time went by she felt that through her efforts to rehabilitate them she was trying to balance something out.
Each animal had its own story of how it came to be with her and what had happened to them. She recognised that more and more animals were struggling to cope with changes in the environment and were often suffering as a result of what she called direct interference from man. She remembers a time when otters were referred to as ‘vermin’.
It became apparent to Beatrice that other people had their own agendas and in some cases her rescue work was met with resistance. She acknowledges that there was a tension, she says ‘I suppose the environmentalist was always there, it was frustration and annoyance and yes sometimes anger’, she felt she was fighting the industries but not able to say anything. She also says it’s not straight forward, some of the people who worked for those industries were from the local community, and also people would bring in injured animals by the back door so to speak; like the game keeper with a baby deer whose mother had been shot. She felt she had to sit on the fence, she didn’t feel for a long time that she could be vocal.
As she became more widely known she began to give educational talks for groups and schools and she is happy to say that there is a much greater understanding of the need to protect wildlife these days. In 2007 Beatrice was given the Animal Action Award for her work, although she no longer runs The Wildlife Hospital she feels that the legacy of her work is not just about the rescue and rehabilitation of wildlife but the raised awareness about how wildlife is affected by human activity. She believes that when both children and adults met the animals in her care and heard the stories behind their rescue and rehabilitation, it enabled them to understand and connect with them on an individual basis, this in turn she believes encourages people to protect wildlife and the environment. Sadly, despite the progress she has witnessed over the years amongst the general public she is also aware of continuing and new problems that affect wildlife in Scotland, for example she believes proposals such as the ship to ship oil transfers in Moray Firth will just be accidents waiting to happen and that wildlife will suffer.
Beatrice did not set out to become an environmentalist, it was her special connection with individual birds and animals that led her to begin rescue and rehabilitation work, and it was this work that lead her to ask questions and see the bigger picture of wildlife protection. Fortunately, the ‘seal whisperer’ now feels her time has come to be more vocal about the environmental issues. Now as an active member of SeaChange Wester Ross and a supporter of Marine Protected Areas across Scotland she is able to continue making a difference as part of a group of likeminded people.