What a Waste: Wildlife being put at risk by litter louts, warns RSPCA

  • Watch Rob Setchell's report on the thousands of animals being harmed by litter.

Litter is putting the lives of thousands of animals at risk every year, according to a charity which is responding to 10 calls every single day where wildlife has been trapped, injured or killed by discarded waste.

Over the last two years, RSPCA officers in the East have come to the aid of a grass snake trapped in a dumped paddling pool in Bury St Edmunds, a seal with a plastic bag embedded around his neck off the Essex coast, and a swan at risk of starvation in Lowestoft after getting a bottle lid stuck on its beak.

Evangelos Achilleos said they were some of the lucky ones who were found in time and taken to RSPCA wildlife centres such as the one he manages at East Winch in Norfolk.

But in the East of England alone, the charity responded to more than 1,000 calls in 2020 and 2021 because of litter - and not all are as lucky.

"It's heartbreaking," said Mr Achilleos. "It impacts the team because obviously this is man-made and not all the animals make it due to how extensive their injuries are."

For staff at East Winch, seals choked by frisbees round their necks or tangled up in fishing nets have become a worryingly regular sight.

During the peak seal season, they will have around 55 seals in the centre and have already gone through six tonnes of salt due to injuries since the beginning of this year.

Mr Achilleos, who said injuries caused by litter were becoming increasingly common, added: "It's shocking. It's the smell of rotting flesh. I don't think people realise the impact of when you see a seal with something so tight around them that it starts to decay their flesh."

A plastic bottle floats in the river at Orton Longueville woods in Peterborough, which saw an increase in litter after lockdown lifted. Credit: ITV News Anglia

At Orton Longueville woods in Peterborough - despite the best efforts of the Woodland Trust - ducks often find themselves swimming alongside plastic bottles while small mammals run the risk of getting trapped in a discarded plastic bag.

An avenue of redwood trees have been growing there for around 150 years.

But because of littering visitors, they are also being put at risk.

"We're adding something to the ground that isn't natural," said Woodland Trust site manager Paul Jarczewski.

"We can change the soil composition. We can add chemicals to the soil which shouldn't be there and we can add plastic to the soil which will take decades to break down and change the structure of the soil."

The Woodland Trust spends around half a million pounds clearing up litter and fly tipping every year which the charity said should be spent on its conservation work.

Mr Jarczewski said the problem had markedly increased since the lifting of lockdown restrictions, which brought far more people out to explore their surroundings after months of being cooped up.

While the charity welcomes more visitors keen to enjoy the natural world, it is urging people to be more responsible.

"It's a bit depressing really," said Mr Jarczewski. "We want people to come to these places but treat them with respect.

"We want people to take their litter home with them - and if they can help us out by collecting litter along the way, that's extremely beneficial."

The RSPCA in the East was called our 1,000 times over the last two years because of animals injured, trapped and killed by litter. Credit: RSPCA

Professor Peter Liss, from the University of East Anglia's school of environmental sciences, said it was not just the litter we could see that posed a problem.

"Plastic doesn't just stay like a plastic bag or a plastic bottle," he said. "It breaks down and degrades into smaller pieces. Some of those smaller plastic get so small they can be blown around by the wind.

"We find them in every part of the globe. That's pretty scary."

But there is some hope. The RSPCA team at East Winch believes the message is getting across slowly.

"Every single time we do the message, someone new comes on board," said Mr Achilleos. "So it's always worth it. And they become advocates as well so we're slowly building an army and this army of people, over time, is going to help us tackle the impact of litter."

  • Do you fancy becoming a Waste Warrior this summer? Check out our top tips for litter picking below.