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Best of British: Zoos and Wildlife Centres


1st Jan 2015 Travel

Best of British: Zoos and Wildlife Centres

Lions, tigers and koala bears! Britain's many wonderful zoos and wildlife centres offer a comprehensive selection of the world's most fascinating animals. Here are a few of the best.


Home to more than 1,000 animals, this attraction in the middle of the Scottish capital has two types of animals you won’t find anywhere else in the UK.

Male koalas Goonaroo and Yabbra have been at the zoo for seven years, and were joined just over a year ago by a female called Alinga. Unsurprisingly, she became pregnant shortly after, giving birth to a joey called Yooranah.

With a proud tradition of innovation—the zoo was the first in the world to breed king penguins in captivity back in 1919—Edinburgh also boasts Britain’s only giant pandas. The breeding pair, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, did their best to produce some offspring last year, but the hopes of a first panda cub to be born in the UK faded when Tian Tian lost her baby late in her pregnancy.

On a lighter note, the zoo also runs adults-only nights, where over-18s can roam the zoo without candyfloss-covered kids pestering them. You can even buy drinks—but, says CEO Chris West, “We don’t allow crazy drunkenness. It would upset the animals. In fact, in the absence of children, adults tend to revert to a childlike wonder at the animals, reconnecting with nature.”

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Lingfield, Surrey

Proving that homegrown animals can be as fascinating as those from the other side of the world, the British Wildlife Centre is dedicated to preserving and promoting the animals that hail from our shores.

“We’ve got everything from harvest mice to Britain’s largest land mammal, the red deer, all in natural habitats, as they would be in the wild,” says spokesperson Liza Lipscombe.

Among the 40 or so other species at the site—which used to be a dairy farm—are stoats, otters, pine martens, water voles, barn owls and adders. Though native, one rarely gets to spot many of the creatures in the wild, because they’re nocturnal, shy or rare.

“We’ve also recently had two litters of Scottish wildcats born as part of a reintroduction-to-the-wild programme, which was a nice surprise as they’re teetering on the edge of extinction,” says Liza.

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Colwyn Bay, Conwy

Although this is a relatively small, intimate zoo, it has a rather special USP—everything around it.

“We’re perched high on a hill at the edge of the Snowdon range,” says marketing officer Jamie Toffrey. “There are views—360 degrees in places—across the sea, mountains and down the Conwy Valley. In other zoos, you’re looking at the animals and maybe a perimeter wall. Here, there’s always some kind of other backdrop.”

The zoo has some fabulous exhibits too, including Sumatran tigers, sea lions and snow leopards. And in the summer, the penguins do parades led by the keeper. “Occasionally, we have snow up here when it’s clear down in the bay. The penguins don’t mind. They just carry on as normal, as do the European bears. The chimps aren’t so keen, though, but all the animals have somewhere warm inside!”

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Gweek, Cornwall

It’s already been the busiest year ever for this 40-acre rescue centre on the banks of the Helford Estuary, dedicated to helping injured or lost seal pups and releasing most of them back into the wild.

“We’ve rescued more than 60 pups since January,” says care supervisor Tamara Cooper. “A lot of the injuries, such as broken jaws and puncture wounds, are probably due to storm damage, and the bad weather has had other effects too—there have been ten abandoned pups.”

The public can see pups at various stages of rehabilitation as they play in the pools, and you can even go behind the scenes in the seal hospital. Since local resident Ken Jones started the sanctuary in 1958, it’s helped thousands of animals, with numerous heart-warming success stories.

“Gemini, one of the seals that came in recently, had taken such a blow that her lower jaw was shattered and six of her teeth came out. But our vet wired her jaw up and within hours she was back feeding herself. Soon, she’ll be released back into the sea.”

The sanctuary also has penguins, sea lions and two otters called Starsky and Hutch

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A combination of tropical blossoms, fish-filled pools, waterfalls and more than 1,500 free-flying butterflies make this the largest attraction of its kind in the UK.

Species flapping past your nose include the metallic-looking Blue Morpho, which is as big as a side plate, and the Owl Butterfly, which is almost the size of a dinner plate. The farm breeds its own butterflies, or gets them from conservation projects in tropical countries such as Thailand, Kenya, Costa Rica and Surinam—raising butterflies is a source of income in many rainforest communities.

As well as all the fluttering, the Insect City section is one of the biggest displays of live insects in the world.

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Newent, Gloucestershire

One hundred and twenty rats (cut in half and gutted), eight kilos of mice, 8,400 cockerels…the monthly catering plan at what’s probably the largest dedicated birds-of-prey centre in the world leaves a lot to be desired. Happily, though, it’s mainly for its 250 or so winged inhabitants—there’s a very nice cafe for human visitors.

But the centre’s big selling point is watching its magnificent birds do what they do best. “We try to make sure that no one leaves without seeing them fly,” says director Jemima Parry-Jones. “We have an indoor centre where kites will dart through the air catching bits of meat. But we only allow most birds to fly outside—particularly the peregrine falcons. They can reach 60mph and have very poor brakes.”

Jemima, whose father Phillip Glasier opened the centre in 1967, helps with conservation projects around the world, such as a recent breeding programme for rare vultures in India. Centre staff have also been asked to clear factories of small birds, drive starlings out of the city of Bath and remove ducks from rice fields in Australia.

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Near Hythe, Kent

Though similar attractions such as Whipsnade and Longleat may be more famous, nowhere offers a visitor experience like Port Lympne.

You can enjoy animal “encounters” with gorillas, tigers, primates, rhinos, giraffes and bearcats, getting up close to or even entering the enclosures of the animals during feeding time. Dusk safaris take you out into the wilds of the African Experience section to enjoy a buffet meal, while watching the animals prepare for nightfall. You can also book a personal safari where an expert guide takes you and up to eight companions around the various animal compounds in an open-topped Land Rover.

Adults and children alike can be a keeper for a day, participating in cleaning, health checks and making enrichment toys. And if you really want an immersive experience, you can stay overnight in luxury tents in the middle of the park, waking up to the sight of giraffes a few feet away and some rather nice breakfasts.



Friskney, Lincolnshire

It’s not often you visit a wildlife attraction where half the animals can talk to you. And with more than 100 species at the Parrot Zoo, they’ll probably have a few different accents too.

Founded in 2003 by Steve Nichols, who’d spent the previous decade collecting rescue birds and needed somewhere to put them, the attraction, a registered charity, is now the largest collection of parrots in the UK.

It’s also home to lemurs, lizards and an eccentric meerkat enclosure, styled like a Wild West frontier town. “We tell visitors that a group of meerkats left Africa to find riches, and while some went to Russia and found fame—you’ll have heard of Uncle Sergei—the others settled in the US,” says Steve.

Even the zoo’s patron is a left-field choice: Derren Brown. “He’s a real animal lover and has supported us for nine years. The grand plan is that one day he’ll hypnotise everyone in the UK into supporting our work!”

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Wareham, Dorset

“First and foremost, this is a rescue centre,” says director Dr Alison Cronin. “Our 250 or more monkeys and apes are here mainly as a result of suffering abuse or neglect. Opening the park pays for our work.”

The centre, which is the subject of Animal Planet’s Monkey Life series, has inhabitants from around the world, including Spanish chimps previously made to dress up to amuse tourists, orphan African monkeys who lost their families to poachers and animals once used in laboratory testing. The in-house medical teams and behaviouralists provide some of the best treatment available, and all the primates have large, natural enclosures.

“They’re as fascinated by looking at visitors as we are by looking at them,” says Dr Cronin. “There’s a great video on our website of a chimp called Rodders playing peek-a-boo with a little boy.”

Visit for details.

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