Close encounters of the furry kind

HAVE you ever seen a weasel or a stoat? A dormouse, perhaps, or an otter, badger or tawny owl?

So may of our wild creatures are fast-moving and furtive that it can be hard to catch more than the briefest glimpse of them disappearing into the undergrowth.

For city kids, the problem is even tougher. Other than an unwelcome house mouse or scruffy urban fox, many young people will have never encountered most of our iconic British wildlife – which is one of the reasons the British Wildlife Centre was founded back in 1997.

A dairy farmer for 30 years, David Mills had always been inspired by pioneering conservationists like Sir Peter Scott, Gerald Durrell and John Aspinall, who had started their own wildlife centres.

By the time he took the plunge to realise his own conservation dream and sold off his award-winning herd of pedigree Jersey cows, he had a very clear vision of the type of visitor attraction he wanted to create.

It took 18 months to get planning permission to transform Gatehouse Farm in the small Surrey hamlet of Newchapel, during which time David toured the country looking at the smaller collections of animals to see what people were doing and to make contacts.

Rather than opening a traditional zoo for rare or exotic species, he wanted to focus on British wildlife and the concept of “conservation through education”, teaching children to recognise, understand and appreciate Britain’s native wild species and encouraging them to develop a lifelong interest in their protection.

But when most of your collection is shy, small, nocturnal and elusive, how do you ensure that visitors are not just touring a series of apparently empty enclosures where snoozing animals are hidden from view?

It’s a problem that’s most obvious in the winter months, when many animals are hibernating. But it struck David that the secret to engaging visitors’ interest in his collection of fascinating but often reclusive native species lay in keeper talks.

The policy of actively encouraging keepers to form close bonds with animals is coupled with an extensive programme of breeding and release into the wild, helping to rebuild the country’s red squirrel population, for example.

Indeed, the appealing little animals played an important role in the conservationist’s personal life, too – he met his partner, the Oscar-winning actress Judi Dench, after inviting her to open a squirrel enclosure in 2010.

They have been together ever since, and in 2016 she was at Buckingham Palace to see the “elated” 73-year-old pick up an MBE for his conservation work.

Rather than attempting to maximise the centre’s footfall or income, the emphasis has been on becoming a non-commercial specialist attraction, remaining closed to the public on weekdays in term time so that school visits can take place.

“We can then focus on teaching children to appreciate and respect Britain’s own wonderful native wild species,” says David.

Building stimulating natural environments for the animals reflects growing concerns about seeing animals in captivity and encouraging close keeper-animal bonds of trust makes it easier to show the wildlife off to visitors without interrupting their natural daily rhythms.

Weekend visitors can learn about different species at half-hourly keeper talks, scheduled to coincide with feeding times or when the animals are at their most lively.

Here, animal welfare is the top priority, and visitors can’t expect wildlife to “perform” on cue. But even in winter, patient observers can be in just the right place at the right time to catch a particular resident popping their head out to see just what’s going on, or burrow into a darkened underground display where a bundle of cosy badgers can be found curled up asleep in their sett.

This is also not a place where healthy wild animals will be trapped behind bars for a lifetime, although the centre has occasionally offered a permanent home for rehabilitated animals that cannot be returned to the wild – for example those with a permanent injury or too used to human contact.

But wherever possible, animals will be reared and released, and the centre participates in a range of specific conservation projects dealing with everything from hazel dormice and Scottish wildcats to water voles and polecats.

A drizzly January day isn’t the ideal time to see the centre at its best, and two years of coronavirus restrictions have made life tough hard for visitor attractions across the country.

It’s also fair to say that Newchapel is hardly a wildlife wilderness. Thundering traffic on the adjoining main road or the roar of a jet from nearby Gatwick are reminders of just how much our natural habitat is under threat.

Information boards around the cente tell the now familiar story of mankind’s incursion on the natural environment, with a long list of animals hunted to extinction across the centuries or suffering overwhelming habitat loss.

Once bears, lynx and wolves stalked the landscape. Today it is much more humble creatures like hedgehogs, toads and butterflies, along with countless varieties of insects and birds, whose declining numbers are a cause for concern.

The British Wildlife Centre may not have all the answers to the problems of the modern age, but over the past two decades it has allowed generations of school pupils to get close to more than 40 different types of wild animals and birds, animal encounters which complement a range of national curriculum topics in science, history and geography.

The centre has also transformed 26 acres of former agricultural grazing land into a wetland nature reserve where a huge variety of wild birds, mammal and invertebrate species have set up home.

There’s also a field study centre for school nature trips, and the centre hosts a range of photography days and workshops for enthusiastic amateur photographers on days when the centre is closed to other guests.

For tickets, opening times and full details of other facilities, conservation work and special projects, see the centre’s website.