From wildcat feeding sessions to spotting red deer and getting up close to a pine marten, the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey is great for groups, says Rachel Bailey, after a recent visit.
This understated animal attraction might not have the same calibre of exotic species common in some the UK’s biggest zoos but it’s impressive in its own right – and doing a great job with its conservation projects, too.
The centre is located in beautiful East Surrey countryside, a stone’s throw from the nearby Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The attraction’s environment is a big part of its charm. The style of the enclosures mirrors the natural habitats of the animal residents, and is far cry from the glass windows, cages and cramped enclosures you might come across at other animal attractions.
Each animal at the British Wildlife centre, be it big or small, furry or scaly, field-dwelling or water-residing, is native to the UK – which for me has big appeal. These are animals that live both among us and in the wild, which are rarely seen and when they are, often at a distance. The experience is both fun and educational.
Visitors get to explore areas of wetland, woodland, and grassland, plus head into a barn where the likes of stoats, rabbits, rats and mice are looked after. There are a number of different spaces to look around without the centre being too big to see all in one day. Board walks and footpaths through the woods make this an easily accessible attraction too, ideal if your group has limited mobility.
Highlights for me are the foxes, which are incredibly tame and not afraid to come right up to the side of their enclosure, seemingly curious of their audience – and the badgers, curled up asleep in their set. The appeal is being able to see these animals at close range; who would have thought just that you can come practically nose-to-nose with a barn owl, a weasel and a pine marten, just off the M25?
The conservation work the centre does is also very important; the Scottish wildcats, for example, number less than 70 in the wild in Scotland, and the centre has just bred three kittens which will eventually be released back into the wild in order to sustain the population.
The feeding session for the wildcats is one not to miss – it’s unlikely you’ll ever see one of these felines in the great outdoors because they’re so rare – and so solitary. So observing them being fed and rolling around in their grassy enclosures feels like something quite special.
Other creatures you’ll get to see include otters (incredibly playful and munching on fish); roe, fallow and red deer (which can be spied from a special viewing platform in the deer park); and red squirrels.
The squirrels in particular are a great part of a visit – the centre has what’s said to be the only walk-through red squirrel enclosure in the UK, where visitors are just inches away from the colony of furry creatures as they feed and climb. Just don’t jump too much when they use your rucksack as a platform to jump onto and leap off of – I speak from personal experience.
Perks of a group visit
I’m betting that animal enthusiasts will enjoy the British Wildlife Centre a lot; it’s got plenty to see, lots of different areas to walk around, and feeding talks every half an hour to ensure you come away having seen the majority of the animals out in the open and active.
Groups visiting can enjoy the benefits available, too. The centre serves as both a main visiting attraction during a day trip, or as a stop during a morning or afternoon – great for suit all manner of trip itineraries.
Parties of 15 or more receive a discounted entry rate, and the organiser and the coach driver get free admission. Larger groups should book in advance; GTOs can be invoiced ahead of a visit if preferred.
During term time, the centre is shut during the day, and provides groups (of up to 60 people) the chance to book out the centre for themselves. Exclusive two-hour long tours, typically running from 2.30pm to 4.45pm, cost £16 per person and includes tea, coffee and biscuits. There is also free parking at the British Wildlife Centre.