It was just another day in Western Veterinary last Thursday – until a stranded sea turtle was discovered on a beach near Roundstone.
The turtle was found motionless on the shore by two women out walking, who rang the Clifden clinic once they realized it was still alive. Receptionist Nollaig Ruddy, a marine biologist, told them to bring in the animal immediately, by which stage the clinic had already begun contacting aquariums and wildlife charities.
This was vet Niamh Walch’s first turtle patient – and no wonder, as it’s one of only a handful of turtles to have washed up on Irish shores. After talking with staff of Dingle Oceanworld Aquarium, Niamh identified the turtle as a juvenile loggerhead and knew her top priority was to get it warmed up.
Niamh said: ‘The sea temperatures in Ireland are too cold for these turtles – around 16 degrees, where they need temperatures of 24 degrees. This turtle was hypothermic but in good condition, with no obvious dehydration.’
Not daunted by the task at hand, Niamh filled a paddling pool with a few centimetres of tepid water. Once the team had established the turtle could float and raise its head for air, they built an island of towels so it could leave the water. The infrared heat lamps were lifesavers until the turtle became a little too fond of them and risked pushing its body temperature to the other extreme. But, by the end of the day, it was more alert and things seemed to be heading in the right direction.
It had already been settled that the turtle would head off to Dingle the following day to be prepared for release back into the wild. Now named Mara, it was moving around more and Niamh was happy with its progress. As for that night, there was no question as to what would happen the turtle – it was going home with Niamh to sleep in the bath!
Early on Friday morning, Niamh applied a layer of Vaseline to the turtle to stop it from drying out on the long journey to Kerry. A local volunteer collected the turtle to drive it as far as Galway, then it was on to Bunratty, where it was met by the Dingle team.
The rehabilitation process could take anything from a few days to a couple of months, with the aim being to release the turtle back into its natural habitat. In recent years, turtles to have been successfully rescued include Leona, found in Clare in 2013; Eva, discovered in Wexford in 2015; and Úna, found in West Cork in 2016. These turtles were taken aboard Irish Navy vessels to be released in the warm waters of the Mediterranean.
Mara is not the first unusual case Niamh has dealt with in the past year, with patients including a pole cat, a kestrel, and a dolphin.
Niamh urged people to call the practice if they find an injured animal or bird in the wild, as they’re there to help. At this time of year, one particular problem is that Manx Shearwaters get blown off course and are found on the ground, seemingly unable to fly.
Niamh said: ‘People are trying to help – they think if they keep them at home for a few days they’ll pick up. But there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just that they cannot take off from land. They need to be brought to a cliff edge as they need to drop from a height. The lucky ones are where people call us.’
She also said that there is an incredible network of wildlife volunteers in Ireland and the team at Western Veterinary is happy to do its part.
‘If people find something, give us a call. We’re willing to treat all wildlife, as long as they can go back to the wild. There is only so much we can do – we don’t have much space – but we will take care of the medical treatment and find an experienced person to rehabilitate the animal. There is no charge for that.’
Read more on Niamh’s wildlife encounters in the October issue of the Connemara Journal