A look back on the iconic Chestnut Centre in the Peak District

Carol and Roger Heap with some of the Chestnut Centre's deer herd

Carol and Roger Heap with some of the Chestnut Centre's deer herd - Credit: Archant

After 33 years as one of the most popular attractions on the Peak District visitor route, the Chestnut Centre is to close. Mike Smith talks to Carol Heap

Eurasian otter Buffy chilling out at the Chestnut Centre

Eurasian otter Buffy chilling out at the Chestnut Centre - Credit: Archant

The surprise announcement that the Chestnut Centre would be closing permanently from 31st December 2017 was greeted with great sadness by the thousands of people who have enjoyed visits to this otter and owl wildlife park set in a thickly wooded hollow in the hills of the High Peak. When the shock news appeared on Facebook it prompted over 1,000 responses within the first 15 hours. Typifying the reaction of so many others, one person wrote: ‘I really loved my visits when I was a child and now I’m so sorry that I won’t be able to take my own children to enjoy the Chestnut Centre in the future.’

Explaining the decision to close the centre, Carol Heap, who has managed the wildlife sanctuary with her husband Roger since 1984, said, ‘Regretfully, Roger and I decided that it was time for us to semi-retire and take a back seat. With the exception of two species of owls which will be relocated to the National Centre for Birds of Prey at Helmsley, run by our son Charlie and his wife Vicky, all the other animals and birds of prey housed in the High Peak will be relocated to the New Forest Wildlife Park, run by our other son Ed and his wife Clare, a qualified veterinary surgeon. We can assure everyone, including ourselves, that all the birds and animals will have a safe and secure future.’

Having considered the option of moving the family’s wildlife park in Hampshire to the High Peak, Carol said, ‘Unfortunately, we had to conclude that this would not be possible because the 40 acres that we have available in the grounds of Ford Hall could not be extended any further, whereas there is room for expansion at our site in the New Forest.’

Roger, an architect, and Carol, a physiotherapist, first acquired Ford Hall in 1968, when the last of the Bagshawes of Ford died without an heir. The hall is known as the place where Revd William Bagshawe, who came to be called the Apostle of the Peak, held secret services after being expelled in 1690 from his ministry in Glossop for his refusal to conform to the Book of Common Prayer. When Chestnut Farm, adjacent to the hall, became available in 1981, Roger and Carol acquired the additional acres that would be used three years later to accommodate the Chestnut Centre.

The family’s love of animals and their concern for the protection of endangered species grew from the experiences they had in their High Peak estate. Roger kept a couple of otters in the grounds, the couple’s younger son Ed even learned to swim in the company of otters and their elder son Charlie adopted a pair of tawny owls when he was ten years old. Roger became involved in the Otter Trust, of which he later became a council member, and in the lobbying of parliament for the protection of otters, which was finally granted in an Act passed in 1981 that prevented the illegal killing, keeping and selling of otters in this country.

The idea for a wildlife park in the grounds of their home grew out of informal visits by young friends of Charlie and Ed who came to see the family’s owls and otters and also from approaches by local people seeking a place of refuge for injured or orphaned animals that they had rescued. Before setting up the centre, Roger sought help and advice from Philip Wayre, the well-known naturalist and conservationist, and Carol was taught about the care of animals and birds of prey by Derek Pout, a local veterinary surgeon. Carol said, ‘When I was given free lessons by Derek, I came to realise that my experience as a physiotherapist would be helpful in enabling me to care for the animals.’

Describing Roger and Carol’s aims in establishing the centre, Carol said: ‘In addition to helping injured and orphaned animals, we wanted our visitors to share our passion for wildlife and our commitment to the conservation of otters and other endangered species, both locally and globally. Eventually, the Chestnut Centre became home to 17 species of owl, four types of otter, as well as European polecats, pine martens, foxes, wildcats and deer. Many of our animals, such as the giant otter, are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s ‘Red List’ of endangered species and we have done our best to assist in efforts to breed and conserve them for the future.’

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The Chestnut Centre was the very first wildlife park in the UK to successfully breed a pair of giant otters in captivity. Together with the snowy owl, they became the big stars of the centre in the eyes of children. Manoki, who was the only giant otter in captivity in Britain at the time, acquired Panambi as his mate, who had two litters, one pup from which, Katuma, is now enjoying the warm climate of Trinidad as part of an international breeding programme for giant otters.

Carol with a fawn

Carol with a fawn - Credit: Archant

The High Peak centre has taken part in captive breeding programmes for Scottish wildcats, European polecats and Eurasian otters, who were all under threat from the effects of modern farming techniques and the poor water quality of polluted rivers. Carol said, ‘The Eurasian otter is now making a comeback after being on the point of extinction, and our son Ed is currently helping in research that could ensure the future of the Scottish wildcat, now reduced to very few in number.’

Over the years, Carol and Roger have worked closely with the RSPCA, veterinary surgeons, the police and other organisations in helping to rescue injured and abandoned wild animals and bring them back to good health. Carol said, ‘Together with our son Ed and his wife Clare, we have built up extensive expertise in working with Eurasian otters and much of our rescue work has involved orphaned otter cubs that have been separated from their parents due to swollen rivers, accidents or other events. We look after rescued cubs until they are 15 to 18 months old and keep them away from human contact as much as possible so they can hopefully be returned to the wild.’

In 2004 the family also came to the rescue of Battersea Park Children’s Zoo, which was due to close until Bob Geldof and Elle McPherson petitioned Wandsworth Borough Council to keep it open. Ed and Clare agreed to take on the management of the zoo, even though they also had the responsibility of running their wildlife park in the New Forest.

In her ‘semi-retirement’, Carol will still do the marketing for these two centres and she will continue to manage a tropical butterfly house in the south of England. She also plans to write guides on husbandry for people who care for giant otters. Roger, a former Deputy Lieutenant of Derbyshire, will maintain his support of international conservation efforts and, of course, Charlie will continue to make the most of his lifelong passion for owls at his centre for birds of prey in Yorkshire.

Great grey owls

Great grey owls - Credit: Archant

It is very clear that the members of this remarkable animal-loving family will continue to make a vital contribution to animal welfare and conservation. Carol and Roger’s legacy in the High Peak includes the rescue of many animals and birds in the locality, the boosting of tourism in the area and, perhaps above all, the giving of pleasure to the thousands of children who have visited the Chestnut Centre and have acquired valuable knowledge from the education packs handed out to them about wild animals and the need to conserve them.

Looking back on the 33 years that she and Roger have spent managing the Chestnut Centre, Carol said: ‘I want to thank all our visitors, particularly the young visitors who have brought us such joy, and our wonderfully committed staff and all the people, including Roger’s brother Stuart and his son David, as well as the organisations who have helped us over the years. Without them, all this would not have been possible. Above all, I am grateful to the animals for the wonderful life they have brought us.’

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