A Return To The British Wildlife Centre
I have recently been invited to write a regular column for an airlines in-flight magazine. One of the articles they required was to highlight some of the very best places to visit when staying near London Gatwick Airport. Now alongside such wonderful attractions as the Bluebell Railway and Wakehurst Place House & Botanical Gardens, I recalled a visit some years ago to the British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield on the border of Sussex and Surrey.
The centre was actually a dairy farm, until in 1994, David Mills MBE took the decision to devote the rest of his life to wildlife conservation. His ambition was to find a way to share his personal wildlife experiences with everyone so that we can learn and enjoy our nature.
As I recalled the memories from my previous visit, I thought that it was high time that I returned to find out what was new at this home for some of our most precious, rare and endearing native animal species.
Till next time…
There was rain in the air on this chilly spring day, so I was not expecting the centre to be too busy. Easily accessible by car and located on the Surrey/Sussex border on the A22 South just 10 minutes off junction 6 (Godstone) of the M25 and 10 minutes north of East Grinstead, I parked up and was soon greeted with a friendly welcome smile from a young lady who was eager to offer an insight into how to get the best from the day.
At the time of visiting, the cost on the door was £14 for an adult, £8 for a child, and then £12 for senior citizens however you can get a slightly more favorable rate by booking in advance and online.
Upon arrival, you are provided with a small leaflet which includes a map and most importantly the times that the keeper talks take place throughout the day.
Planning Your Day
Now on my previous visit, I did not attend the talks whereas this time I made a conscious effort to attend each one and I have to say they were all fantastic. They are not too long – perhaps 10-15 minutes, with each offering an insight into each of the animals, their current plight in the wild, the successes the centre has had with breeding, and a few amusing stories to boot.
A useful piece of literature to consider buying at the start of the day is the glossy souvenir guide. At £3.50 it highlights the history of the centre and also provides more detail on the wildlife that you are about to encounter.
As you leave the main building there are toilets including disabled and baby changing facilities. Incidentally during the day, I met with one gentleman in a wheelchair and a couple of ladies using mobile walking frames. A couple of them were regular visitors and aside from the boardwalk area, they had no issues in getting around.
With half an hour before the first talk, I decided to do a whistle stop tour of the grounds just to reacquaint myself with the layout. I was soon spotted by a resident fox who thought I was arriving to deliver some tasty snacks. There is something strange about seeing a well-fed fox as those in the wild are so often scraggy and thin. Well, not this young lady who clearly was leading a happy life however more on those portly foxes a little later!
Muntjac Deer & Red Squirrels
The first presentation of the day was in the Red Squirrel enclosure known as the Copse. As about two dozen people many of them excitable children congregated on the wooden walkway set amongst fir trees and overlooking a central viewing area I sat on one of the wooden benches awaiting the start of the talk.
Across the way I spotted a gentleman who I later came to know as Graham, furiously waving at me. At first, as you do, I ignored him however on about the fourth wave I realised it was me that was the focus of his attention and that he was trying to tell me that there was a red squirrel over my shoulder. Sure enough, this tufty eared, mischievous rodent was eyeing up the contents of my rucksack.
This little chap, the squirrel not Graham, posed for a few photos however what he really wanted was some snacks and he did not have long to wait. I was now ready to learn all things red squirrel only for a random Reeves Muntjac deer to meander into the shot. At that moment the talk began – not on red squirrels but on this and the other six Muntjacs who had suddenly stolen the limelight.
These small deer are an odd-looking animal – short legs and a big bum and a stooping front half. I remember having one that came to visit my garden some years back – they are certainly not a gardener’s best friend and as I say a little lopsided as if the creator gave up halfway through the design. For that reason alone I like Muntjacs as deer can’t all be as majestic as some of the other deer inhabitants that I was soon to encounter. I was however delighted to see this small colony of Muntjac who in this instance, originate from Asia and thrive and enjoy life here with their red squirrel partners in crime!
Now the red squirrels are my kind of animal – incredibly naughty and getting themselves into all kinds of mischief and places they know they are not allowed. Our ironically ginger-haired presenter told us that there are 12 on-site with the centre known as one of the top breeders in the country. Many are released to islands off Scotland where they continue to flourish without the threats of grey squirrels, pesticide pollution, and squirrel pox which is a major issue for the reds! Home for the squirrels is normally a squirrel made drey up high in their enclosure however the site also provides squirrel boxes in the event they fancy a penthouse style upgrade one evening.
Throughout the excellent talk, our guide placed goodies on the trunk of a tree in order to coax them in for us to view however one, in particular, could not wait and just plonked himself in the middle of the food bucket. Like I said troublesome opportunists who make you smile.
One of the fun aspects of the centre is the names that are given to the residents. The five foxes living here are Flo, Ted, Dobby, Morty, and Basil. Now, these five are not the most highly tuned foxes you will ever see and I doubt if there was a fox 100 metre sprint they would make it to the winner’s enclosure as they clearly lead a very good life.
Once again the presentation was superb with keeper Lilly telling us in particular about Flo who 13 years ago was reared by a lady at her house and when she tried to release her she kept coming back as she had simply become domesticated.
Cue the support of the British Wildlife centre and 13 years later Flo is the Queen of the Manor overseeing all visitors who pass her enclosure. A disturbing fact I learned was that our urban foxes generally have a lifespan of just 1-2 years largely due to them having a poor diet and digesting things like pizza boxes, plastics, and the contents of your waste bin. In the countryside, foxes tend to live for 3-5 years however our country’s roads sadly take many lives. Then in captivity foxes live for between 13-15 years so our dear Flo is certainly in the twilight of her years but without wanting to embarrass her, she is looking well… pretty foxy.
Now if there was an award for the most unfriendly inhabitant of the Centre then it would have to be these moody felines who happen to be the last native cat species that is wild in the British Isles – the previous last was the Lynx! Whilst taking the appearance of a tabby cat they have some distinguishable differences – a larger head, a bushy tail with black rings, a muscular body, and an aggressive nature that cannot be tamed even by one of the keepers armed with tasty snacks.
Sadly it is estimated just 35 pure wildcats remain in the wild. As an example this is even rarer than some species of Rhino or Elephant. Over the years these beautiful creatures have been targeted by farmers, hunted for fur, their habitats have been destroyed for house and road building and their insides have even been used for ancient medicines. Whilst not affecting their numbers there has even been a belief that a Scottish Wildcats poo makes for an excellent hair restorer! Each to their own I guess!
Despite all the challenges, there is hope for the Scottish Wildcat. Habitats are being recreated, trees are being replanted and kittens born here at the British Wildlife Centre are planned for release into secret locations in Wales and even England. While the future is uncertain for this species the work done here is a beacon of light and hope that one day these beautiful cats will one day roam our woodlands again.
One of the many highlights of my visit was seeing the Otters. For years I have visited places in the countryside in the hope of seeing them only for my hopes to be dashed as I sat on a riverbank, bitten by insects and staring mundanely at a gently flowing stream.
Matt the head keeper here at the centre rocked up with a platter of fish that would be more suited to a Rick Stein restaurant in Padstow. Within seconds one of the three Otters that are on display (there are others kept elsewhere) appeared from the soggy water’s edge and immediately made a beeline for Matts’s leg as if to nudge him and request him to toss a piece of fish his way. These semi-aquatic mammals are designed perfectly for both land and water and rather surprising to me, they can also live in saltwater as long as they are near a fresh water source to clean the salt off at the end of the day.
Alongside the water, there is an Otter holt where if you are lucky, as I was, you can view an otter snoozing in a bed of hay.
Back to the presentation and Matt took great delight in acknowledging the success stories of these beautiful animals. The good news is that in the UK our rivers are as clean as they have been in over 30 years due to the many projects that are happening to aid their recovery. The otter’s habitat is thriving and given they are at the top of their food chain it means fish are plentiful, the waters are clean and the number of otters are increasing across all counties in the UK.
A short walk across from the otters will take you to a viewing area for the Deer Park. Once again Matt introduced us to the four species of deer that reside here at the centre. We had already met the awkward looking Reeves Muntjac in the Copse. So now we were shown the Fallow and Red deer who enjoy life in the large deer park and then the Roe deer who live in a wooded enclosure across from the main park.
The Roe deer population here is a particular success story as they are known in captivity to attract a parasitical infection. However thankfully and long may it continue they are thriving here at the centre.
As Matt tossed slices of Hovis’s finest multigrain loaf into the field like frisbee’s on Blackpool beach, the fallow deer were soon joined by their larger and more majestic red deer. The dominant male with horns resplendent took charge and promptly hoovered up many of the slices – hardly looking out for his ladies but that’s modern-day men for you – no manners or chivalry.
The story of the common garden hedgehog in the UK is shocking and I am not sure that there is enough awareness of their predicament. If I was to say that it is anticipated we may lose hedgehogs from the British Isles in 10-15 years unless we can reverse the many challenges that they face that might and no pun intended, “prick” up your ears.
Sadly in recent years, the decline of this species has been brought on by the clearances of habitats for new roads and houses. In addition to that the way these new builds are designed leave no access for the hedgehogs to roam. Then there is the increased use of pesticides such as poisonous slug pellets not to mention roadkill and the fact young hedgehogs are targeted by cats, dogs, and foxes. Add to this badgers are occasionally known to kill adult hedgehogs then you will quickly understand that this species is up against it. Thankfully the British Wildlife Centre and many other amazing charities and centres around the country are doing their best to breed and reintroduce pockets of animals to the wild.
The amusingly named “Quill I Am”, Snoop Hoggy Hog, and David Hasslehog are just three of the hedgehogs here. The keeper kindly showcased one of these spiky cuties who bolted for the nearest pile of leaves. Things that you can do to help these wonderful animals is to ensure your fence at home has a hole in it so they can roam. Grow plenty of wildflowers giving them protection, avoid the use of strimmers and even construct hedgehog houses for those cold winter months.
One oddity was that our keeper advised against those wicker basket hedgehog homes as their spines get caught in them yet later in the centres gift shop they were selling these very houses.
The centre is doing an amazing job but as a country and individuals we all need to be doing so much more else these iconic animals may be gone from the British Isles forever.
Very cleverly whoever has put together these presentations recognised that you need to eat if spending the whole day here as I was. That meant that the next three presentations were duplicates of those that have gone before – the Foxes, Wildcats, and Otters – thus enabling me to head to the canteen for some sustenance before the last three presentations of the day.
With plenty of tables to choose from, you need to decide where you plan to sit and note the table number on the milk bottle on each table before going up and ordering your food from the kiosk. Service here could have been a little more smiley however I was not expecting five-star service so it is what it is. I ordered a Steak and Ale Pasty with salad, a coffee, and a packet of crisps which cost me £6.60 so not at all unreasonable.
Given that it was towards the end of the main rush, tables were a little bit grubby and needed clearing and with the cutlery located bizarrely on the other side of the canteen and with forks having run out there was a little toing and froing before I was able to relax and contemplate the day’s events so far.
Food swiftly turned up and it was good. Aside from my choice, you could also choose from other pasties, a wide variety of soft drinks, coffee and tea, biscuits, crisps, and a limited selection of cakes. Cream teas were also available. Vegetarian options were on offer too although, like the jacket potatoes, the gluten-free offering was not available due to the supplier… well not supplying. These days I always check the packaging of the drinks to see if its in keeping with the centres eco stance and sure enough the water bottles were recyclable however I always wonder why tap water is simply not available thus eradicating the need for the bottles at all?
As I finished I noticed a lady and her delightful two children sitting at the table opposite so I took the opportunity to ask them what they thought of their visit. This was, like mine, their second visit to the centre and they had paid £30 for the three of them to access. They planned to stay about 3 hours and take in a few of the presentations which, again like me, they enjoyed. The reason they love the British Wildlife Centre is that its a little bit rough around the edges and raw – there are no theme park rides or ghost trains – quite simply its not trying to be something it’s not and its sole purpose is to save, protect and increase the numbers of these wonderful species.
It was also so refreshing to see the kids enthused about their visit and loving the wildlife and the outdoors. The young boy loved the big red deer and the young girl, the foxes. Both Mum and kids would come back perhaps at another time of year so they get to see the animals in different seasons. They considered their visit to be worth the money.
Other lovely people I spoke to included Heather who was a carer for Linda and was visiting for the umpteenth time. Then there was also Graham who had been signaling to me in the Copse re the Red Squirrels. All three of them loved this centre – they knew both the keepers by name and the many animals. You could tell they had a real passion for the place and to be honest, I feel the same!
The first stop after lunch was this solitary, tree-loving member of the Weasel family who can be found in different pens around the Dell. Just 4,000 are estimated to be left in the UK with most of these being in Scotland. Breeding programs such as the one here are aimed at reintroducing them initially to parts of Wales and northern England where it is hoped they will connect through corridors with those in Scotland.
Only when it is time for them to mate during the summer months will the centre lift the drawbridge so to speak as well as the tunnels that connect the pens. Once they are free to mix they get down to business and after a delayed gestation period they will bear their young in April.
The keeper introduced us to Dani, a female pine martin who was constantly on the move climbing through trees and walking on the ground. In the wild Pine Martins are carnivorous and enjoy mice and rabbits but will also eat fruit and fungi when times are hard.
One of the true characters and close to being my favourite occupant of the British Wildlife Centre was Paula, a fun-loving Pole Cat. I must have walked past her enclosure four or five times and every time she was putting on a performance for visitors poking her head above the parapet then disappearing through tunnels and popping up elsewhere.
Pole Cats produce up to 7 kittens per year and these are soft released into secret locations around the country to increase the numbers of this terrific species that feed on rabbits and mice.
The keeper’s presentation demonstrated not only how mischievous Polecats are as she climbed her trouser leg but also their incredibly strong jaws as she offered Paula a piece of meat which she refused to release.
The boardwalk is a lovely feature that during this early part of the year was so tranquil and enabled you to switch off for a few moments amongst well-managed wetlands and fields of grassland complete with some moody looking long-horned cattle. In the water were huge carp while in the distance herons did what herons do and stood transfixed on the water until it was time to strike.
A viewing platform provides a place to sit and take note of the blackboard for those birds and species that have been spotted in recent days. Bring a camera, bring a lens and see what comes your way.
The Nocturnal House & The Badgers Sett
The nocturnal house comprised a few cages which were labeled as containing edible mice and bats – better than the other way round I guess! However, as is so often the way with nocturnal animals, they were nowhere to be seen!
Entering the Badgers Sett you needed to let your eyes adjust before arriving at the end of the corridor to find a badgers home complete with the whole badger family fast asleep. I could not make out exactly how many of the amazing animals were there but it was pretty special seeing them sleeping off what must have been a pretty exhausting night’s work!
Whilst I took this photo its worth remembering to ensure you switch off the flash on your camera and keep quiet so as not to disturb their sleep.
Voles, Weasels, Mink & Adders
Before heading to my last presentation of the day I passed the Water Voles which had been pretty inconspicuous until I caught one in this image emerging from a drain hole.
The Weasels were party central with nonstop leaping and running around, I tried to get them on camera but they were just too quick.
Their is also an area for our native adders who were basking in what little midday sun was available.
An unusual yet beautiful resident of the centre was the American Mink. As the name suggests he is not from these shores and despite his dashing looks they are a pretty vicious and mischievous member of the Mustelid family. He was a very popular animal with visitors as just like Paula the Polecat, he wanted to put on a show.
The final presentation was back in the Dell where a team of keepers showcased four of the amazing Owls under their care.
As each was introduced they flew from point to point so that those of us watching around the Dell had the chance to see these stunning birds up close and personal.
We had Yoda the Tawny Owl, Kevin the Barn Owl, Ethel the huge Eagle Owl, and Fagen the naughty Little Owl whose expression just makes you smile.
The Owls are a treat and very much worth staying to the end of the day. Such beautiful animals and some of the most visually stunning that we are lucky enough to have here in the British Isles.
Before heading for the exit one final attraction you cannot miss is the gift shop that offers you the chance to purchase everything from jams and chutneys to tea towels and from animal prints and notebooks to T-shirts and cuddly toys.
Of course, proceeds are used to maintain and support the centre including the very high running costs. Like so many places of this type, they took a hit during those dark Covid days and today they need every means of support you can muster.
I hope if you are nearby and looking for a lovely day out for you and the family then you may pay them a visit.
As I headed out of the Centre with so many great close-up experiences of our British Wildlife I reflected on the care that every animal here receives. They are truly looked after by a team of dedicated keepers who love not only the animals but also their jobs. The passion they showed in each of the presentations was a delight. To see young kids hanging off every word and asking questions like “how long can an otter hold its breath” made me feel positive that there are some of us who are raising that next generation to appreciate our amazing countryside and nature.
If you get hooked then there is also information on membership of the British Wildlife Centre which offers an annual membership for both access to the centre and various promotional offers, events and discounts.
Keep the British Wildlife Centre in mind when you are down in the South East of the UK. They carry out such tremendous work with the sole aim of ensuring that our precious wildlife will one day thrive again and be enjoyed by future generations. Like so many visiting today, it certainly won’t be my last visit.
For further information visit the British Wildlife Centre at:
Surrey RH7 6LF
Tel: 01342 834658
The centre is open every weekend and on public holidays excl 24,25,26 December. During the weekdays the centre hosts school trips and amongst other group events photography courses.
Mar to Oct 10 am to 5 pm
Nov to Feb 10am to 4pm
Last admission 1 hour before closing