Founder David Mills MBE on 21 years of the British Wildlife Centre

David Mills (Andy Newbold Photography)

David Mills (Andy Newbold Photography) - Credit: Archant

The British Wildlife Centre opened its doors 21 years ago and a year later embarked on its first guided visitor tours. Claire Saul celebrates over two decades of conservation excellence with founder David Mills MBE

It is a glorious summer day and a group of young schoolchildren peer into the otter enclosure at the British Wildlife Centre, watching excitedly as the animals approach from their lake. As the keeper chats animatedly and the otters enjoy a gastronomic treat or two, David Mills casts an approving eye as the venue’s stated remit of Conservation through Education is realised.

When David took the decision to halt his highly successful dairy farming career at Gatehouse Farm in 1994, he seized the opportunity to achieve a life-long dream to create his own zoo. His extensive research for the project identified exactly how he should do it.

“It took 18 months to get planning permission to change from a dairy farm to a visitor attraction and during that time I toured the country looking at the smaller collections of animals and a few of the larger ones too, to see what people were doing and to make contacts,” David explains. “I decided not to replicate what they were doing with more exotic animals, but just to concentrate on British wildlife and as our wildlife is shy, small, nocturnal and elusive I realised that the way for visitors to be able to see the animals was to have keeper talks.”

David’s approach was to actively encourage close keeper-animal bonds of trust which would allow the keeper to show the wildlife to the visitors and to provide natural and stimulating enclosures for the animals, a technique that has now been universally embraced as the best way to keep wild animals in captivity. The British Wildlife Centre opened its doors for pre-booked tours in 1998 with animals sourced from rescue centres, zoos and animal collections along with orphans that were brought in by the public and hand-reared by David.

With only a friend to assist with administrative duties, David conducted the guided tours himself while also managing all the animal care. Twenty years on, a 20-strong team are behind the UK’s finest collection of British wildlife, now boasting over 40 species ranging from tiny harvest mice to deer. It is a destination enjoyed annually by 37,000 paying visitors, 9,000 schoolchildren and 700 photographers who attend courses, workshops and the centre’s popular photography days.

Animal Magic

Animal conservation and care, not commerciality, are the bywords here. To add animal-themed rides and chase greater numbers of footfall would be to undermine the centre’s USP; the intimacy of a venue where the animals are the focus and people can connect with nature.

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Keeper talks run half-hourly throughout the day, providing visitors with that all-important opportunity to see our reclusive native wildlife and to learn about the challenges they face in the modern world. The centre opens at weekends, pubic holidays and during school holidays to the general public. During term time, schools are welcomed every day and photography groups and film crews visit during the afternoons.

“Our school party catchment is mostly within an hour’s drive,” says David. “In some cases the children have no knowledge of British wildlife. They’ll say excitedly, ‘Ooh, we are going to see crocodiles and lions!’ Of course they don’t, but they do go away enthralled because they hadn’t realised that British wildlife was so interesting. We also have a little garden here to demonstrate what everyone can do at home to help their local wildlife, even in an urban environment, such as an upturned dustbin lid to collect water, a hedgehog house, a compost heap or pallets stacked to make a bug house.”

It was a solitary red squirrel that inspired the young David’s childhood dream to own a zoo. Seventy years after spotting one in his south east London garden, his wildlife centre offers Britain’s first walk-though red squirrel enclosure. It was opened by Dame Judi Dench who has since become David’s partner and who accompanied him to Buckingham Palace in 2016 when he was honoured with an MBE for services to wildlife conservation. It was awarded by his friend Prince Charles, a great advocate for wildlife and someone with whom David works on conservation projects.

The British Wildlife Centre is the largest breeder of red squirrels in the UK and David has been instrumental in implementing release programmes onto suitable privately-owned and grey squirrel-free islands, which all now boast thriving colonies. Next year, at the request of the Prince of Wales, the centre will install more walk-through enclosures at Dumfries House in Ayrshire and the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. A third will be buiilt this winter at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, a project supported by its head of arboretum Tony Kirkham, with whom Judi filmed the acclaimed BBC programme A Passion for Trees. The British Wildlife Centre will populate and manage Kew’s red squirrels and the BBC plans to film and broadcast the process.

Going wild

Those who visit the British Wildlife Centre watch and learn about wildcats, otters, pine martens, foxes, snakes and much more. Not only can they walk among the red squirrels, they can view otters and badgers from special observation points, relish an owl flying display and enjoy a 26-acre wild nature reserve created from David’s former farmland, now home to herons, water voles and harvest mice plus multiple species of wildfowl and wetland-loving birds. Within the reserve a wildflower meadow offers a haven for butterflies and bees.

“Sir Peter Scott said, ‘If you create the habitat, the wildlife will follow,’” quotes David. “And yes, it really works.”

In three years David will celebrate 50 years at the Newchapel site. The expertise he has gained over his remarkable career allows him to knowledgably converse on all aspects of dairy farming, the varied challenges faced by the agricultural industry and the evolution of conservation and animal management practice. These subjects and more, he agrees, would lend themselves well to a memoir. If only he could find the time. Perhaps when he retreats to his on site home each evening? There he is greeted by two dogs, a jackdaw, chickens, three Highland steers, two old ponies and three horses. Chapter one could be a while just yet.