British Wildlife Centre, near Lingfield - a wild day out in Surrey
Home to some 50 species of native wildlife, from foxes and hedgehogs to otters, the British Wildlife Centre, near Lingfield, has just opened a new enclosure for red squirrels where you can meet them up close. ALEC KINGHAM goes on the prowl
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine April 2010
Spring has sprung and at the British Wildlife Centre in Newchapel, near Lingfield, a medley of creatures are stirring and stretching as they make tentative tracks outside to greet the warmer weather.
Many of the residents have been tucked up in their nests or dens for most of the winter, either hibernating or conserving energy, but now with wide yawns and a shake of the head, they are emerging again – just in time for the spring reopening.
First opened to the public in 2000, on the site of a former dairy farm, the British Wildlife Centre plays host to a multitude of native wildlife, and features attractions ranging from a wetland boardwalk to a deer park, and barns to hedgerows.
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"We have more than 50 individual species here," says head keeper Matt Binstead. "There are over 30 mammals plus a few birds of prey, amphibians, reptiles and fish."
The wilds of Surrey Living in semi-rural Surrey, we tend to take it for granted that native animals are part of our daily existence. From timid deer darting through woodland to birds of prey hovering over hedgerows, from hedgehogs shuffling in the undergrowth to owls hooting on nocturnal hunting sprees, and of course the all-too-familiar sound of surreptitious foxes raiding our rubbish bins, wildlife interacts with us on an almost daily basis.
However, for many Britons unfamiliar with the countryside, wild animals are more likely to be thought of as exotic predators from far-off shores, despite the fascinating diversity of native fauna indigenous to the British Isles.
With that in mind, the British Wildlife Centre was established to enable people to see and learn about Britain’s own animals and birds in environments that resemble their natural habitat. Founder David Mills, who originally set up the centre in 1997, stresses that it’s neither a zoo nor a theme park. “The emphasis is on education,” he says. There is a museum, a regular newsletter and a programme for schools tailored to correlate with curriculum subjects.
Keeper talks take place at different locations around the centre, ranging from red squirrels in the morning to badgers at dusk, and special photographic sessions are organised for those who are keen on documenting wildlife at close quarters. Visitors can also adopt an animal themselves, and there is a membership scheme, too.
“Members get free admission throughout the year at the times we’re open, so they can come as often as they like, which is good value if you’re a regular visitor,” says information officer Liza Lipscombe. “They get the newsletter and we have special members-only evenings in summer where you get to see things that perhaps the general public doesn’t normally get to see.”
Meeting red squirrels The latest addition to the centre, and the first place I see on my visit, is the huge open-air red squirrel enclosure. Opened just recently by local resident Dame Judi Dench, here you can encounter these inquisitive and sadly endangered creatures at close quarters. The new enclosure, thought to be the first of its kind in England, has been attracting national media attention (though the centre is no stranger to film crews; in the last year alone, they have appeared on Countryfile, Springwatch and the BBC South East Today, to name but a few).
“This is the only walk-through red squirrel enclosure that we know of,” says Matt. “So, yes, this is a particularly exciting development for the centre.
“We are big breeders of red squirrels here, but we can’t release them into the wild because of the problems they have with grey squirrels. So we’re now looking at setting up breeding groups of red squirrels around southern England.”
Smaller than the introduced American grey squirrel, which supplanted it from its arboreal habitat, the red squirrel grows characteristic feathered ear tufts in the wintertime.
During my saunter through their new home, one of the more inquisitive of these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed creatures abandons its pool of hazelnuts and runs along a railing right up to my fingertips to investigate whether I have something tastier to offer.
As we move on, Liza tells me that the centre is divided into different habitats, each with a selection of species that have evolved to that environment: grasslands for the fallow and red deer; forested areas for the muntjac and roe deer; ponds for the otters; pools for the water voles; and hedgerow for the mice, moles and stoats.
In the converted barn, meanwhile, there are overhead conduits for perambulating rodents – plastic tubes with rambling rats and wire-mesh walkways for hyperactive polecats. There are also pens with reptiles and other predators, such as badgers, pine martens and Scottish wild cats. The latter resemble large tabby cats, and although they look cute and contented reclining on tree branches, their cool cat behaviour belies their temperament, as these fierce felines are impossible to domesticate.
Head keeper Matt explains that the British Wildlife Centre has a captive breeding programme with the wild cats, along with several other species here, with the aim of working with conservation groups to bolster the native population and reintroduce the young into the wild.
“We used to breed them regularly, but our female cat is now too old,” he reveals. “So we’ve received two female kittens from another wildlife centre, paired them up with two males and they should breed this year. They normally have about one litter a year of about two or three kittens – much less than domestic cats. Thereafter, we’ll release the kittens back into the wild in Scotland.
“Most of the animals here we let breed if they want to. Polecats are another species we breed that are on a release scheme – in Scotland again. Then there’s the red squirrels, of course. We’re also trying to get the pine martens breeding – it’s the only mammal we haven’t successfully bred yet, but we have high hopes.”
A foxy lady As we stroll past the large natural enclosures, we come across a fox family occupying a grassy knoll, which also has a tunnel connected to a clear-fronted viewing room in the barn, where you can watch them playing. One of them, Flo, is extraordinarily friendly; an endearing creature, she wags her tail like a dog in the company of people and ‘smiles’ a broad toothy grin that reminds me of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.
Another highlight for many are the otters, who splash in and out of their lake with staggering speed and grace. The centre is home to a single female and two breeding pairs, and one of the latter produced a litter of three pups at the start of last year. They have now reached maturity, and because otters prefer solitary lives, the youngsters will be transferred to new homes, where they will hopefully contribute to a gene pool whose offspring are reintroduced to the wild.
In one corner of the centre, we come across the birds of prey, including several species of owl. At 4pm every day, an owl display takes place in The Dell, where you are introduced to the likes of Hedwig a beautiful snowy owl with piercing gold eyes, and Cleo, a sleepy barn owl.
As we walk on, a kestrel darts about its large aviary like an arrow shot from a bow, pausing to alight on the mesh fencing, which it grasps with powerful talons. The second fastest of British birds behind the peregrine falcon, its own existence is precarious with unwarranted persecution by gamekeepers and the reduction of hedgerows diminishing its food source. Watching this top British predator, their zigzag flight a fascinating spectacle, I’m reminded of the need to protect and preserve our wildlife and their habitat – awed by kestrel manoeuvres in the park.
Need to know:
British Wildlife Centre, A22 Eastbourne Road, Newchapel, Lingfield, Surrey RH7 6LF 01342 834658 / www.britishwildlifecentre.co.uk Open 10am to 5pm every Saturday, Sunday and public holiday until October (last admission 4pm) and weekdays during school holidays. Admission: Adults �10, children �7.50, family �32.