AN animal rescue sanctuary is facing a cash crisis that could force it to turn away injured birds of prey.

Neil and Juliana Fowler, who run the Scotton Owl and Raptor Rehabilitation (Soarr) sanctuary from their back garden, have not ruled out closure and are appealing for funds to help them continue their work.

Juliana, a former falconer, and Neil, opened the sanctuary in Scotton, near Richmond, North Yorkshire, in 1998, to care for cruelty cases, and injured and abandoned birds.

Since then, they have taken in dozens of birds, ranging from eagle, snowy and barn owls, to Harris hawks, buzzards and kestrels.

Some have been abandoned by people who kept them in unsuitable surroundings. One kestrel was even kept in a cat box. Others are wild birds that require nursing back to full health.

The couple are looking after 22 birds. Many can never be released into the wild, and the Fowlers are spending an average of £51 a week on food for them. The couple do not receive any grants and have to raise all the funds on their own.

Mr Fowler, who works as a technical manager for a Darlington company to help finance the operation, said: "We keep being approached to take these birds in.

"But it is becoming more and more difficult to find the money to keep our sanctuary going.

"We do it because we love the birds, and we certainly do not seek to make any profit. But unless we receive some kind of additional funding, the stark truth is that we will have to turn birds away and scale down the operation, or possibly even close.

"Closure would be a tragedy because these birds need our help. Some of the tales which we hear about the way they have been ill-treated really are heartbreaking."

The sanctuary hit the headlines when the couple warned that the Harry Potter films were encouraging parents to buy owls for their children.

One of the characters in the stories created by J K Rowling is Hedwig the snowy owl and the sanctuary has received numerous calls from parents trying to buy one since the first film came out just over a year ago. They repeated the warning in November when the sequel was released.

Among the birds at the sanctuary is snowy owl Zema.

The eight-month-old bird was handed over by a breeder in southern England who grew tired of parents ringing up asking for an owl like the ones they had seen on the big screen.

* Anyone who wishes to donate money or materials to the sanctuary is asked to contact the Fowlers on (01748) 836950.