I am a dedicated naturalist; one who needs to be out and about in the countryside to be at their happiest. I also happen to be one of the generation, the 70-plus population, affected the most by Covid-19 and have spent rather a lot of time in the garden or in the immediate environs of my home in Hertfordshire – taking the air.
There are many visitor centres and attractions based on the natural world that have had to furlough staff and, in some cases, make redundancies. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that now the lockdown is being eased these places will thrive again. They are, of course, out in the open air, which is the best place to be.
One of my favourite places to visit belongs to a very special man, David Mills, and this is a tale about his unique wildlife collection – the story of one man’s dream. David gave up a lucrative dairy farm and his pedigree herd of Channel Islands cattle on land just off the A22 at Newchapel near Lingfield in Surrey to pursue a dream. In 1994 he took a huge gamble; sold his herd and created a unique wildlife collection, housing virtually all of the native species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians found in the British Isles – as well as the odd furry immigrant.
After developing the concept, the next stage was to create enclosures and cages. These needed to have sufficient space and be filled with the right sort of habitat to allow the animals to feel comfortable enough to behave in as natural a way as possible. The core philosophy of the British Wildlife Centre being to conserve species and educate both children and their adults.
Main picture – Scottish Wild Cat, top right Red Squirrel, bottom right, Weasel
The wildlife residents range in size from red deer stags, tall as a man and requiring acres of land – to harvest mice weighing just a few grammes and capable of climbing a stalk of wheat without bending it. In between these extremes of size there are 40 or so different species of British wildlife, including the ancestor of the domestic ferret, the inquisitive and rather haughty polecat, (called “foulmart” in medieval times) and its elegant and inquisitive mustelid cousin the pine marten (known as “Sweetmart”.) Both are small, cat-sized predators driven to virtual extinction by gamekeepers over much of lowland Britain. Indeed, the polecat is still largely confined to Wales.
Pine martens very much at home hunting in trees, particularly Scots pine forests in northern England and Scotland. But these attractive predators are spreading south making themselves popular in mixed-species woodland where they tend to predate the introduced grey squirrels in preference to the endangered native red squirrel. They share their northern fastness with Scottish wildcats, arguably the rarest and most endangered our all our native wild mammals. Another victim of habitat loss and game preservation brought to the brink. They also suffered from dilution of the ancient wild cat genes through dalliance with feral domestic cats.
All three species, the two martens and the Scottish wild cats are housed in superb naturally planted enclosures and the Scottish wild cats, in particular, feel safe enough to breed with genetically pure native wildcats allowing visitors the opportunity to see them. They are so scarce and so shy in the wild that even dedicated naturalists have never seen one in the wild in the UK.
The enclosures housing weasels and stoats allow extended sightings of these mercurial little hunters. So fleeting and only spotted for a few seconds in the countryside yet they are far from rare. It’s a place where you can spend hours watching the antics of these beautiful hyperactive hunters.
Left above – Red Fox – Right above – Badger
Certain areas at the Centre draw people like iron filings to a magnet. One of them is the fox enclosure. Foxes have a poor image generated in part by ill-informed headlines. Shy by nature, but wonderfully adaptable they are one of Britain’s two largest native predators, the other being the badger. The foxes here are in perfect physical condition, behaving much as foxes do in the wild, exploring and sniffing, scent marking and simply lazing in the sun. All too often our view of Reynard (the old country name for the fox) is limited to a sad corpse at the roadside, or a brief glimpse of an urban fox exploring the rubbish that we, who litter our environment, leave behind, yet there are few wild creatures to match a wild healthy fox in its winter coat.
Two large lakes nestle in a valley, home to a pair of otters. I’ve spent many hours watching them on the river dart in Devon. They exude enjoyment, living on a high protein wetland diet and spending a great deal of their time snoozing quietly on the bank before plunging, with hardly a ripple, into the water where their favourites pastime is playing. Feeding time with otters is very special. I have the privilege to be the Joint President of IOSF, The International Otter Survival Fund, a charity based on the isle of Skye and dedicated to the support and conservation of otter species around the world… many of these are endangered
Among the most special features of this fabulous collection of native wildlife is the breeding colony of red squirrels that inhabits a large enclosure of trees, shrubs and grass kept in check by a family of muntjac deer. It is perhaps the most successful breeding colony of red squirrels anywhere in the UK. So at home are they, that they breed in sufficient numbers to allow some to be reintroduced to the wild; truly a case of conservation in action. A raised walkway allows you to see the squirrels and for them to see you too. Indeed, they are so accustomed to people that they move along the rails of the walkway looking for all the world like Beatrix Potter illustrations come to life.
Feeding times are well signposted and popular, providing an excellent opportunity to see the animals at close quarters interacting with their keepers and the public. David Mills is a superb communicator and at one time conducted most of the ‘in-cage’ lectures, but now his staff of four and a head keeper have taken over as he deals more with the administration.
Proof of the success of the Centre is the number of school parties that visit; the children are spellbound as the keepers explain the fascinations of nocturnal animals, or the way rabbits live underground, or the difference between a black rat and a common brown rat and, of course, these days, because of the pandemic, the role of black rat role in the bubonic plagues of the Middle Ages, Details on the everyday life of hedgehogs, wood mice, owls and snakes is woven in between and, if the timing is right, (usually about 3.00pm) badgers may well come out to explore and pick up the food left out for them by the staff.
When the Covid-19 ceases to be quite so restrictive, I am sure they will resume the special photographic days when the Centre is closed to the general public. It’s well worth the extra cost for the opportunity to get much closer to the animals, fit and healthy and enjoying their superb surroundings.