HOME for Ray Jackson MBE is a beautiful 18-acre nature reserve in Knutsford.

Surrounded by stunning woodland, wildlife and ponds, Lower Moss Wood is idyllic.

But as the Guardian discovered when we visited the 63-year-old naturalist, it's the work that is carried out behind the scenes that makes this the most special of places.

Every year more than 2,000 sick, injured and orphaned animals and birds are brought to Ray's wildlife hospital to be cared for and, hopefully, released back into their natural habitat when they're well enough.

Winsford Guardian:

Ray Jackson treats a fledgling

But just as important to Ray is the work he does with schoolchildren – having invited more than 50,000 pupils to the reserve over the years so they can learn about and be at one with nature.

“It’s all about education," said Ray. "The reserve was built for educating the kids. The hospital was just my hobby that got out of control.”

It all started for Ray back in 1987 when he left his job with British Rail because he didn’t want to spend his life 'clocking on and clocking off’.

He had a passion for the great outdoors and embarked on a Government-funded community scheme at the School Lane site, which was then just an education centre.

Winsford Guardian:

Ray with one of his dogs Ziggy

Earning £40 for a 40-hour week, Ray, cleared paths and planted trees but within six weeks everything changed.

"The warden, Len Smith, saw potential in me," explained Ray.

“I didn’t have any exams, but as a kid I was a self-taught naturalist. Len was impressed with my knowledge and asked if I could help to teach the kids who came here. I thought it would be difficult but I found it really easy. It was something I never in my life planned to do."

When Len retired a few months later, Ray was his natural successor.

Winsford Guardian:

Looking after an orphaned fox was the inspiration for the hospital

But a twist of fate changed Ray's life forever.

"A member of the public brought me two orphaned fox cubs," said Ray, who is married to Rachel and has a 12-year-old daughter, Lucy.

"I looked after them and it was then that I got the idea for the wildlife hospital. I released one fox but the other remained at the sanctuary for 12 and half years and I became a surrogate mother and helped to rear 37 cubs in her lifetime. I then became known as the 'man in the woods'.

Ray started to build on his dream and in 1999 Lower Moss Wood became a registered charity – but the timing couldn’t have been worse as foot and mouth struck two years later.

“We didn’t have a penny in the bank to run the site,” said Ray. "Thankfully, the Friends of the Wood – which people can join via the website – helped generate much-needed income.

“Basically everything had to shut for nine months during the crisis. That membership kept us going. Me and the volunteers were out fundraising seven days a week.”

In 2002 the farmer who owned the land put it up for sale and gave Ray first refusal.

Winsford Guardian:

From left, Gaynor Charles, Ray Jackson and volunteer receptionist Angela Edmonds

“I got everyone I knew involved to help raise the money. I got interest free loans from friends and even Virginia McKenna from Born Free was a special guest at one fundraising event," explained Ray.

“A chap gave a generous donation of shares. He told me his children had visited the site and nobody had ever had such an influence over them as I had.

“A lady I knew from an ornithology club gave me a donation in memory of her son who had died and the animal hospital was named in his memory.

"We finally raised enough money to buy the wood."

Winsford Guardian:

A patient at Lower Moss Wood

During the Guardian's visit to Lower Moss Wood we saw a myriad of creatures. From tiny chicks, cygnets and ducklings to injured birds of prey. Hedgehogs - one of the most common animals brought to the sanctuary - to a fox that was found weak and frothing at the mouth but thanks to anti-biotics and some TLC will be back in its natural habitat by the time this article is printed.

“I’m self-taught – I know about the wild, I’ve learned how to treat and care for animals and birds and what they require when they go back out into the wild," said Ray, who also has the support of vets from Holly House when needed.

Winsford Guardian:

An injured bat

Ray was awarded an MBE for services to animal welfare and to the community of Knutsford in 2006 from Prince Charles – but he says the highlight of his career is actually something quite different.

"Vets will often phone me for advice because they haven't handled foxes and badgers and I have," he said.

"Foxes aren't nasty, they're just scared. You have to overcome the fear and be confident when working with them.

"My biggest accolade was giving a 90-minute lecture to 200 vets at the London Veterinary College.

"I couldn’t believe I was there – I'm just little me."

Running Lower Wood Moss seven days a week is a labour of love for Ray – who described himself as an optimist – but he wouldn’t swap it for the world.

The schoolchildren who visit spend five hours with Ray as he teaches them in a fun and entertaining way about nature – walking round the woods, playing and pond dipping.

Winsford Guardian:

Ray carries a cygnet to the pond

Ray said: "Sometimes you get pressure, you get that in every job, but I’ve made this wood from being funded to being self-sufficient. I’ve worked on a budget for years and suddenly things started to move and people started to recognise us and the work we did and we’ve gone forward.

“I’ve always had a positive attitude and promote the wood and what we do.

“It's all about care and giving and teaching the children.

"Education is the future. Schools have been coming for years and the children say it's the best trip they’ve had. I've taught thousands of kids and never had a naughty one. I was a rummun when I was a kid so I’m one step ahead of them!"

He added: "Having worked in a factory you’re never going to swap this life for anything are you? I don’t think I will retire. I love every minute of every day."

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RAY is helped by a band of 20-plus volunteers including Gaynor Charles who is also a trustee.

"I was looking for voluntary work for a couple of days a week and started here about 13 months ago. I love animals and I'm a vegan so this is an ideal job for me," she said.

"It's nice to give back. It's very rewarding working here. I'm a softie so I get upset when some animals don't make it, especially when you've got to know them, but I take comfort that we've done our best for them."

While we're being shown around the site, Denise Hatton from Urmston brought in an injured pigeon she found at the side of the road.

Winsford Guardian:

The injured pigeon

Unfortunately the bird's legs are broken and it has to be put to sleep, but Denise says she's glad it won't suffer anymore.

"I have brought several injured birds to Ray over the years. I have cats so unfortunately we have quite a few incidents," she said.

Winsford Guardian:

A tiny chick being fed

YOU have to take out the human emotion and put the welfare of the animal first.

That's the motto of Ray Jackson who's been treating wild animals and birds for more than 30 years.

Some of the creatures in his care will not get back to full health but Ray says: "I even see a 'put to sleep' case as a success, because we can relieve the suffering – otherwise they would starve to death or really suffer."

And he has some advice to residents if they come across wild animals and birds.

"A fledging chirping on a lawn is being fed by parents so you must leave it there or move it to a quieter hedgerow nearby.

"If you bring it to me I have to force feed it and it may not survive.

"Blackbirds, robins, sparrows, leave their nests before they can fly because they’re vulnerable in the nest so don't worry if you see them on the ground.

Winsford Guardian:

Ray has a passion for insects

"If you see a baby owl on the floor move it to the base of a tree – it will climb back up at night.

"However, if you find a hedgehog in the daytime bring it in. It shouldn't be outside during the day and it will be attacked by flies and maggots if left."

He added: "Unfortunately some people who look after wild creatures start making them tame and when they put them back out then they will die – they don’t realise what they need."

You can contact Lower Moss Wood on 01565 755082.

Ray also fronts a rock band called Slug. Catch him at the Lord Eldon in Knutsford town centre this Saturday.