After three decades Wigginton Heath's Waterfront Sanctuary and Children's Farm's gates are closed

An animal sanctuary, between Milcombe and Hook Norton, is facing an uncertain future after running fowl of new health and safety and animal welfare regulations and needs the community's help to re-open.

Saturday, 18th January 2020, 10:27 am
Updated Tuesday, 21st January 2020, 10:38 am
For now the gates are closed

Since 1989 the sanctuary has been educating and entertaining young and old alike with its eclectic mix of two and four legged friends.

Bought in 1987 by Mabel Warner, who turns 89 in April, the site opened its doors two years later and has been ran by both Mabel and her son, Rodney Robbins, ever since.

Currently the 22 acre site is home to around 400 animals including chickens, ducks and emus, pigs, llamas and goats and an array of small furries such as rabbits, gerbils and chipmunks.

Mabel with a book written about her life and love of animals

Since December 31, however, the sanctuary has had to cease trading as it attempts to comply with animal welfare and health and safety directives.

Mabel said: "Because I'm slightly dyslexic I can't read and write properly, because of this we really didn't read their (Cherwell District Council who licence such enterprises) warnings from last year."

In the letters, one animal welfare issue raised was the cohabitation of rabbits and guinea pigs, a practice now forbidden but one which puts the animals at no risk and which Mabel has been doing for years.

This infraction came to light during a routine inspection last year when council officials arrived at the sanctuary, an incident Rodney admits he mismanaged, only to return later with a police escort.

Some of the many rabbits that call the sanctuary home

Rodney said: "In the summer months they turned up for an inspection, which they are completely entitled to do at any time. I said I can't deal with it at the moment as there was a lot of people coming in and I was on my own. So I asked them to leave which apparently, you cannot do.

"So the council then sent a letter saying they would return with the police, which they did. They said some improvements needed to be done with paperwork etc.

"They came back for another routine licencing inspection on December 3 with three policemen again, they saw that there was rabbits and guinea pigs together in the breeding barn and they said 'that doesn't matter as it is in the breeding barn and not in the shop' they said that verbally.

"Then when we get the paperwork and they had told us we would get our licence but the post comes through and it was rejected, and we haven't got a licence.

He added: "The trouble is it they said the rabbits and guinea pigs didn't matter verbally, so we have no record of it."

There is a difference of opinion surrounding the licencing and what that forbids the sanctuary to do. Mother and son insist they have been told to 'cease trading' and have a check list of things to put right before reapplying for a licence, the council's official stance, however is slightly more nuanced.

They have also had no contact with anyone from the council since the December inspection.

A CDC spokesperson said: "It is wrong to suggest that the council has closed down the Waterfowl Sanctuary. In fact, our licensing and environmental health teams have supported them with detailed practical advice over the course of many years.

"Officers have worked hard to explain everything the sanctuary would need to do to meet the new welfare guidelines for pet shops, which came into effect in 2018.

"It’s unfortunate that they have failed to meet these standards, leaving us with no option other than refusing their pet shop licence.

"The decision does not stop them for continuing to operate as an animal sanctuary and the council is open to continuing to work with the owners to help them meet the welfare guidelines and re-open the pet shop.”

A quick tour of the facility confirms that the animal's welfare is foremost in the pairs mind as all the animals appear healthy and happy with plenty of room to play and fresh food and water.

After three decades there are, however signs of wear and tear.

Rodney said: "I know we are not immaculate and shiny and stainless steel and I think a lot of people expect that. We always make sure the animals are healthy and happy, that's always been our priority."

Without customers there is no income and with hundreds of animals to feed Rodney and Mabel can only survive for a short time. Ideally they want to re-open in time for Easter, a particularly popular time for the sanctuary.

In the meantime, however, they are looking for more hands on assistance.

Rodney said: "We'd like someone to step in who knows how to speak to the council. If the council could be more lenient with us and speak to us."

Donations of animal food and volunteer help with improvements would also be readily accepted.

"I wonder if there are any people or companies that could sponsor us perhaps, builders merchants and things like that, if they could sponsor us and help us get it looking nice we can advertise that they have helped us.

"This place can't close, there's too many people that love it and it has been serving the community for 30 years."

To contact Rodney or Mabel call 01608 730252.