FORMER volunteers of a shamed Crowthorne bird sanctuary have spoken out in shock after its owner was banned from keeping animals for just 12 months despite being sentenced for a string of wildlife and drugs offences.

A raid of Raven Haven Bird Sanctuary in May 2015 uncovered one of the biggest cases of wildlife crime Thames Valley Police has dealt with and saw more than 180 birds seized and many put down on the spot due to untreated injuries and illness.

Police discovered filthy cages, injured birds kept in cat carriers and pigeons flying free around the house during the raid, as well as an upstairs bedroom housing 70 cannabis plants and 9kg of the drug ready for sale.

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Stephen Burns was convicted of 25 counts of keeping birds in unsuitable housing like this cat carrier (above) and overcrowded cage (below)

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Wildlife crime officer PC Ian Whitlock led the investigation and said it was a situation that had got "out of control".

He said: "I think it was probably set up with good intentions but it was inundated with birds that they were not able to deal with.

"It had just got out of control.

“I would have expected it to be a lot cleaner and a lot tidier. To then find a cannabis farm was very unexpected.”

Owner Stephen Burns, 58, has since been found guilty of 25 charges for keeping birds in unsuitable housing and 17 charges of failing to protect an animal from pain, suffering, injury or disease following a trial at Reading Magistrates Court.

He also admitted growing and supplying cannabis at the Sandhurst Road sanctuary.

However, despite requests for a life-time ban on keeping animals, Burns' ban will lift after one year.

PC Whitlock said: "The Crown Prosecution Service was clear they wanted a life disqualification on keeping animals, which is something I would have fully supported, however the judge has seen fit that that was not necessary.

"It's the biggest wildlife investigation that Thames Valley Police has ever had, it's been fairly expensive too. But these were offences that needed to be dealt with."

He added he was a strong believer that legislation must be put in place to ensure private wildlife sanctuaries, currently free to operate how they like, are licensed and regularly inspected.

Aimee Wallis was a live-in volunteer at Raven Haven for four years, paying rent to Burns and working from 6am to 10pm, sometimes looking after nearly 380 birds.

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Aimee says cages and aviaries were overcrowded with birds at the sanctuary

She left in 2014 in protest at the treatment of the animals and agrees that more needs to be done to monitor private sanctuaries.

She said: "The former volunteers are all devastated by the outcome.

"When I first went to the sanctuary I noticed that the cages were not in a great state and there wasn't a lot of water. I just thought they needed some help so I started volunteering.

“My first question was when will the birds be released, but it was clear they weren't going to be. Steve had this really funny idea that he never wanted to put anything to sleep even if they were in pain and suffering.

“He didn't agree with nature, he thought the birds were better off with him than they would be in the wild.”

Aimee says she started releasing healthy birds from the aviaries herself as there were so many owner Steve never knew how many birds he had.

She describes one instance where she broke down in tears at the sound of a bird screeching in pain.

“A thrush had come in with a broken wing and a broken leg, so it couldn't stand and we were all trying to get Steve to take it to the vet but he wouldn't. I was sat there and I could hear it screaming, it couldn't move and it was clearly in pain.

“I started to cry and Steve told me I needed to be able to handle it if I wanted to work with birds, then he took the bird into the office, I don't know what he did.”

She adds that the thrush then died and said: "I felt like a broken person because I tried my best to look after the birds. It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life watching them suffer.

"To think that birds could go through this again, I just will not have it."

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One of the many injured birds taken from the sanctuary with injured wings

Two other former volunteers, Jay Reich and Steven Barry, said they had trusted Burns knew what he was doing with the birds, but soon realised birds were on the wrong diet and being given out of date medication.

Jay said: "He spoke with such conviction that you completely believed what he said. My biggest regret is believing him.

"I think it's disgusting he got away so lightly, I think they have let down the birds of Berkshire. It's sickening and I will do anything in my power so no one else will take their birds there."

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The aviaries at Raven Haven were raided in May 2015

In total Burns received a six month suspended prison sentence, the maximum that can be handed down by magistrates, was banned from keeping animals for a year and ordered to do 60 hours unpaid work and pay £1,080 in costs for the 37 wildlife offences.

He was given a further 18 month suspended prison sentence by a judge at Reading Crown Court on June 3 after admitting the drugs offences.

In a statement, Burns said: "I pleaded guilty to the drug offences but would however like to let people know I decided to do this to try and raise enough cash to provide for a new cage fit out which was desperately needed for our intake room and recovery room after we had been let down by a donor after six months of planning. It really was a terrible decision and I’m sorry for what I did.

"With regards to the numerous charges that I was found guilty of, the birds in our care were all being treated for their injuries and we chose to put them into cat carriers to start with so they wouldn’t have so much space to further any injury and to help keep them quiet during treatment and recovery.

"I am very disappointed at the outcome of this trial as we did our best for the birds brought in to us. It just doesn’t seem fair when back in 2012 I was given a community award for 22 years of outstanding and exceptional work aiding injured birds and providing sanctuary at Raven Haven and then in 2015 being prosecuted for doing the same thing.

"I would also like to thank everybody who has supported our work over the last twenty five years."

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Stephen Burns pictured with his ravens at the sanctuary in 2012