Barking, mewing, whinnying mad

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The Independent Online
CARLA LANE, one of the most successful television scriptwriters in Britain, author of The Liver Birds, Bread and The Mistress, waited in the dark by the back gate to her 28 bedroomed mansion in Sussex, Broadhurst Manor.

She hopped from foot to foot with huge excitement. Her black sweatshirt and leggings were spattered from chest to ankle with what appeared to be bird droppings.

The horsebox for which Ms Lane had been waiting pulled up opposite her 16th-century barn. Tentative and shaken, out came four foals: two New Forest colts, one of them lame, a Shetland and a tiny donkey. They entered a stable like a scene from a Christmas card, and fell on the hay. The donkey foal rolled on his back and waved his small hooves at the spectators.

Carla Lane sighed. On the rafters above her were perched eight hens and cocks, the latter rescued from sentence of death for noise pollution: she seemed in imminent danger of adding to her bird dropping collection. But she was unperturbed. 'I'd rather do this,' she said, 'than buy diamonds.'

A kind of madness has overcome Carla Lane, for which she herself finds it hard to account. Now in her fifties and grandmother to seven, the cause of animal salvation has, in the last year, taken her over almost completely. She lives surrounded by 1,500 rescued creatures, from a kestrel to a frog with a broken leg.

Her clothes were not, in fact, covered with bird droppings but sick- pigeon food. This writer of sophisticated comedy had spent the day writing the first scene of a new series, in between giving feeds to one pigeon in a sling, and therapy to another, which had brain damage.

Her move from London to Broadhurst Manor, with its 20 acres, at the end of last year, was forced on her because she had rescued so many New Forest ponies. Most of her income now sinks into her charity, Animaline. Every week pounds 1,200 is eaten, pounds 300 goes in wages, pounds 100 to the vet. Then there is the wood, the wire, the telephone bill, the transport.

That morning she had handed pounds 600 to her charity manager to spend saving New Forest foals from being sold to dealers at the Beaulieu Road Sale, near Lyndurst in Hampshire. Paul and Linda McCartney had donated enough to buy two foals, and a local establishment for adults with learning disabilities had given enough to buy another.

Mrs McCartney is the patron of Animaline. 'If I ring Linda,' said Ms Lane, 'and say I've got a rabbit here that needs letting free, she says come over and let him go in my place - it's fox-proof.'

The auction was a complex operation. Dealers and women in jodphurs and padded jackets crowded round the ring. Well to the back stood Ms Lane's sanctuary manager. On another side stood Animaline's undercover bidder. 'If they see me bidding,' said her manager, 'the price will go up.'

Round the pens he had gone, picking out the weakest-looking of the foals that stood bewildered. The cheapest go for around 35 guineas. There were more than 600 lots, of which perhaps half were foals, removed each autumn from the New Forest to prevent over-grazing. The better foals are sold as future riding ponies. Animaline claims that the poorest specimens often go to slaughter, but the forest commoners deny this. One said: 'Their prices are too high for the meat man. They all go as riding ponies.'

Anxiously, the small group from Animaline watched the foals enter the ring, whinnying for the mothers. At the edge of the ring a thickset, large-stomached man leant against a pole. He was, they claimed, a meat man, the enemy in a check shirt. A commoner claimed there were no meat men there.

The donkey foal entered the ring to a chorus of Aaaaahs. 'Fifty]' went the bidding. '55. 60 . . . 95. 100.' As the bidding went up, it was impossible to know who the undercover man was up against. A kind private buyer? A dealer? 'One hundred and forty five guineas]' A sigh of relief went up from the Animaline team. At the end of the day, the Animaline manager had bought two foals for just over 40 guineas, and the Shetland for over 80. So far Ms Lane's charity has bought 70 New Forest ponies in this way. They are given on permanent loan to homes checked by Animaline twice a year. Some, of course, would have ended up in good homes as riding ponies anyway. Ms Lane's passions are not entirely susceptible to cold logic.

Once her new finds were deep in hay I asked why she was buying ponies, rather than calves or sheep, which go to slaughterhouse daily. Her eyes lit up. 'Oh]' she said. 'I'm going to rescue calves] I want some calves - and some lambs, too] I don't really have enough land for what I want to rescue.' There may not be enough land in Britain for what Carla Lane would like to rescue. 'You realise,' she said, 'that we are nutters of the highest order.' Ms Lane is, when it comes to animals, barking mad, and probably mewing, whinnying and braying into the bargain.

But at least she is spending her money on something other than herself. She lobbies ministers. Her charity says it has conducted more than 100 successful prosecutions for cruelty. 'I wish,' said Carla Lane, 'that everyone was as nutty as we are.'

With her 13 cats, she retires to bed and peaceful sleep, disturbed only on cold nights when she wakes to worry about dogs that are locked out. In her grounds, silence has fallen on the hedgehog garden, and the brain-damaged pigeon sleeps.

Animaline is open on appointment. Ring in advance: 0342 810596.

(Photograph omitted)