Behind the scenes of RSPCA Chester-le-Street where the demand for a pet foodbank has risen by 300% in a year

RSPCA Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Tyneside Branch, based in Chester-le-Street
-Credit: (Image: RSPCA Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Tyneside Branch)

While many people will be familiar with the RSPCA animal welfare charity, they may not be aware that this local branch is actually a small local independent charity.

The RSPCA Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Tyneside Branch, based in Chester-le-Street, has been helping the region's animals and their owners since the 1970s. The charity works to prevent pet relinquishment in the North East and support those who are struggling to meet some of the costs associated with pet ownership.

This includes a pet foodbank, where the charity says demand has increased by approximately 300% in the last year. Among the animals supported by the service is a dog which had been sharing bread and butter with its owner to survive.

Read more: Cat owners warned of new rule in force with £500 fine for not complying Keep up to date with all the latest local news from Newcastle with our free newsletter

Branch Coordinator Melanie Hunter said: "When we started to put the word out there we were hearing more and more about how people were really struggling to meet the costs of pet food. When we talked to one of our service users about it, at one point they were sharing bread and butter with their dog just to get by.

"There's been a huge increase in demand. We opened in April last year but people didn't really know about us until July onwards. Over the winter months and the Christmas period demand just soared, obviously with the cost of everything going up and winter being a harder time to get by."

The pet foodbank, which operates directly from the charity's Community Hub in Chester-le-Street, currently feeds around 30 local animals per month; a number which the charity expects will continue to rise. It is now looking to offer a pet foodbank delivery service to enable a wider reach for those unable to access transport. The charity is seeking a volunteer driver who may be able to support this.

As well as the pet foodbank, the Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Tyneside Branch also supports pet owners with services such as support with neutering costs, free microchipping events, pet health clinics and advice seminars. Ahead of a new law this month, which requires all owned cats to be microchipped, the charity held four free cat microchipping events in Chester-le-Street, South Shields and Sunderland. A total of 146 cats were microchipped free of charge and the charity aims to host more of these events in the future.

All of this work is made possible by Melanie and Allison West who are responsible for generating funds from local sources to continue the vital work of this North East animal charity. There is also a team of four part-time staff who work in the local charity shop.

RSPCA Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Tyneside Branch, based in Chester-le-Street
Pet foodbank at RSPCA Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Tyneside Branch, based in Chester-le-Street -Credit:RSPCA Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Tyneside Branch

Overall, it costs an average of £12.5k a month to keep the branch running at current capacity, which includes staff costs, rent, utilities, and most importantly, animal welfare support. It would take roughly £300-400 per month to operate the pet foodbank based on current demand.

The main source of income is the charity shop in Chester-le-Street, which includes online sales from an eBay shop. However, the North East branch has only recently re-opened a charity shop in the town after its previous shop in the area, and the store in Hartlepool, closed during the pandemic.

Melanie, who has worked for the charity for five years, said: "During Covid both of those shops closed and it left us with no income. We were just an office working behind the scenes after that. But about a year ago we got the hub because we knew we needed to do something different and we knew we needed that community presence.

"It has allowed us to push ourselves out there, get into the community and start doing more community facing work, so people can get to know who we are."

"We are operating on low reserves at the minute and it is a struggle and that's what is driving us at the minute. We need more people to understand what we do and how they can support us," she added.

While the branch shares the brand and core values of the National RSPCA charity - which celebrated its 200th birthday this week - and works in partnership with National teams, RSPCA Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Tyneside is a local charity, focusing on the needs of animals and pet owners living within the local catchment area. The local branch does not receive national charity or government funding and all funding comes from within Sunderland, Hartlepool and South Tyneside. This also means that these funds are spent locally.

Melanie said: "People see the brand and assume that we are a big national charity so sometimes we can struggle to get that extra support.

"We want to be able to increase the amount we do for animal welfare and at the moment we're having to limit what we can do, rather than expand it, because we need more support."

Information about how to support the charity can be found by contacting the branch direct. There are also a number of upcoming events for the charity. This includes:

  • The Cluny 10th Annual Charity Duck Race in collaboration with RSPCA Newcastle Branch and The Cluny - Sunday, June 30 from 11am, The Cluny Pub, Ouseburn, Newcastle. Buy your ducks now ONLY from The Cluny bar.

  • Free: Pets and Fireworks Seminar (Desensitisation Techniques - help relieve fireworks anxiety in your pet) at the Chester-le-Street Community Hub on either Friday evening - July 26 at 6pm or Saturday July 27 at 2pm (the seminar is approx one hour) - Booking is essential (call or email).

  • Free pet health clinics and microchipping events coming up in July - details TBC.

  • Corporate Charity Christmas Ball at the Grand Hotel, Seaburn, on Saturday, December 7 at 6pm.