AN animal welfare charity has had its busiest ever year, with calls to its helpline increasing by nearly a fifth.

The Scottish SPCA dealt with a record 228,143 reported incidents as demand soared.

It also carried out a record number of investigations, with 58 people banned from keeping animals.

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Chief Superintendent Mike Flynn attributed the surge in calls to a possible rise in awareness about the charity and its services.

He said: "Many of the calls we receive are from people reporting suspected neglect and mistreatment, alerting us to animals in danger and either wanting to rehome an animal or asking us to take in their pets.

"We can't be certain if cruelty is increasing as more people are aware of how we can help animals, which means we are possibly uncovering cases which may not have been reported in previous years.

"However, we know our inspectors were faced with a catalogue of neglect and abuse. While most of the cases we dealt with were caused by ignorance and a lack of understanding of what an animal needs, many involved wilful and mindless cruelty."

Mr Flynn said the number of people being banned from owning animals was a "shameful average of more than one a week".

The cases included Perthshire farmer John Ferguson, 51, of Alyth, who received a lifetime ban last January at Perth Sheriff Court after he admitted neglecting more than 1000 sheep and cattle. He was also ordered to carry out 300 hours of unpaid work in the community.

Chief Inspector Brian Cowing described it as "by far the worst animal welfare case I have dealt with in 32 years with the Scottish SPCA".

Others dealt with by the courts included Charles Swan, 68, of Stirling, who was jailed for eight months after he admitted neglecting 57 dogs while running an illegal puppy farm on the outskirts of Airth, Falkirk. He was also banned from having any contact with animals for 10 years when he appeared at at Falkirk Sheriff Court in March.

Robert Thompson, of Larkhall, was banned from owning animals for six years and was sentenced to 150 hours of community service after he admitted breaking his 18-week-old puppy's leg by throwing her down the stairs.

The number of investigations carried out by the Scottish SPCA increased to 20,111, from 17,373 the previous year. A total of 6563 pets were re-homed and 2939 animals were rehabilitated and released back into the wild.

Mr Flynn said the rise in calls to the charity's helpline could be seen to be encouraging as it showed that many people care for animals. "That's a very positive sign and suggests overall we are still a nation of animal lovers," he said.

The charity has been expanding its capacity to deal with the rise in calls and last year announced a £4.8 million extension to its rehoming centre in Glasgow. It has also opened the National Wildlife Rescue Centre in Clackmannanshire and a rehoming centre in Aberdeenshire in recent years.