For 27 years, Veronica and Rye Mepham ran an animal sanctuary taking in thousands of abandoned pets, injured wild animals and unwanted livestock.
On the one side are the small-scale animal sanctuaries – often run by couples, like the Mephams, on shoestring budgets and with rudimentary facilities.
On the other is the RSPCA, the country's leading animal charity, which handles more than a million phone calls a year from members of the public concerned about incidents of animal cruelty.
Both sides say they are driven solely by the desire to help animals. Yet they are increasingly coming into conflict about how best to achieve this aim, with a mounting number of sanctuaries closing under pressure from the RSPCA.
Most sanctuaries have an open-door policy and find it hard to turn away any animal in need – and in the economic downturn, with a rise in abandoned pets, they are seeing increasing numbers.
But the RSPCA believe this can all too easily lead to problems, as it becomes too difficult for sanctuary owners and volunteers to provide suitable care to their growing menageries – the cleaning, the health checks, the feeding and watering.
David Bowles, head of communications for the society, said: "There is a thin line between people wanting to do their best for animals and them getting into difficulties.
"When these places are set up, they get a reputation locally and get more people giving animals to them. Things can spiral out of control very quickly. That is when we tend to get called in.
"A lot of people may have run sanctuaries for a long time. They are getting old. They can no longer raise the funds that they used to raise. They can no longer feed the animals they used to feed."
He said the society was supportive of well-run sanctuaries, and tried to offer advice before taking firmer action. But that is not how the Mephams feel their case was handled.
The couple started with just a few sick animals but as their reputation grew they began to take in more and more.
When Mr Mepham received a redundancy payout from his job as a medical engineer, they used the money to set up their site. Later they moved into a mobile home on the smallholding to be near their animals.
At their peak, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the couple looked after around 200 creatures, including horses, pigs, owls, dogs, fox cubs, and squirrels – mainly handed in by the public.
Their clash with the RSPCA began in August 2010 when they were reported to the society by a council inspector. They were arrested and charged with 18 counts of "animal cruelty".
Among the allegations were that they kept a fox and fox cub in unsuitable conditions, failed to stop a duck from suffering preventable injury, and failed to give a wood pigeon adequate food and veterinary care.
But Mr Mepham, 66, said they could have defended themselves against all charges. "The foxes were in the on-site hospital, which was always clean and tidy, so I never understood what the RSPCA were complaining about.
"The duck came to us with the injury so I really can't see how we could have done anything to prevent it. We were merely trying to nurse it back to health. And with the wood pigeon, we fed and watered it in the evening, as we always do.
"Then the RSPCA came the next morning. They wouldn't allow us into the pens to feed or water the animals, so the fact that they were unfed was the RSPCA's fault."
He added: "It's a sanctuary, so the animals come to you when they are in a bad way. Of course you are going to find some that don't look very healthy. Our job is to restore them back to health. We don't put down the animals, unlike the RSPCA."
More than 1,000 people signed a petition in support of the couple and many offered witness statements to assist them, including their vet.
The couple were due to appear before magistrates last year but the charges were dropped before the trial, after the couple signed a legal agreement to shut down. All the animals had to be re-homed. The couple now have only five pet dogs.
Mrs Mepham, 72, a former funeral director, said: "The sanctuary has been our life for almost 30 years. We've put everything we have into it. We've been deeply traumatised and our health has even suffered because of it."
The lack of financial resources – either to take on the RSPCA in court, or to meet its demands for changes – is a common reason given by sanctuaries closing down.
Dawn Critchlow, 44, last year shut the "Animal Haven" sanctuary, in Sheffield, which she had run for 22 years and which looked after dozens of dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, rabbits and guinea pigs.
When RSPCA inspectors told her she needed new kennels costing £12,000, she felt she had no choice.
"The RSPCA offered no help whatsoever. You would think they would want to support little organisations like this one. Everything we do is for the animals, not for ourselves. It broke my heart having to give up but there was no other way," she said.
But Mr Bowles said: "If you are running a sanctuary, like any business, you have to have the money to make sure it is operating properly and to the standards demanded by the [animal welfare] legislation.
"If some of these places do not see themselves as businesses then that may be the issue. They may just be animal lovers who have taken on more than they can handle."
In some cases, animals have been seized from sanctuaries and later destroyed by the RSPCA.
Three dogs – Stocking, Diesel and Clarke – were put down by vets accompanying RSPCA officers in a raid on the Rosedene Animal Rescue Centre, in Walsall, last year.
The animals were deemed to be too aggressive – a claim which was strongly contested by volunteers from the centre who regularly walked them.
Around 1,000 people joined an internet campaign in support of the centre, which looked after around 25 dogs, and it eventually reopened after the council returned its license.
Currently, anyone can set up a sanctuary and there are no regulatory checks. The RSPCA wants sanctuaries to have clear policies on their capacity, accommodation, staffing levels and staff-to-animal ratios.
Partly in response to these difficulties being faced by sanctuaries, a new organisation is being set up, to represent their interests: the Federation of British Animal Sanctuaries.
Sue Burton, who runs a horse sanctuary in Essex and is behind the new group, said she would endorse a "measured tightening up" in the rules, but warned: "The RSPCA need to understand that the smaller sanctuaries do not have millions of pounds in their bank accounts but work hand to mouth - so any changes need to be reachable targets.
"This is about sanctuaries getting together to help each other out. There is no one speaking for them with a powerful voice and that is the idea behind the federation. Centres need advice and help on the law."
While there is no register of sanctuaries, it is thought their number could extend into the thousands.
John Hemming, MP for Birmingham Yardley, said he would investigate the emerging threat to sanctuaries.
He said: "The RSPCA don't seem to care about killing animals, but they do care if they are overcrowded.
"Sanctuary owners are animal lovers who don't like the idea of stray animals. Most are very responsible and simply want to look after animals."