Nestled in the Cotswolds, just a short distance from the picturesque, chocolate-box village of Burford, is the Cotswold Wildlife Park.
The Costswold Wildlife Park is a wonderful place. It is a more open and natural environment than a zoo, but small enough to walk around easily – although there is a small train that runs around the park if you prefer to take a more leisurely approach.
Started in 1970, the park is now one of the UK’s largest zoological collections, so to see everything properly you may still need more than one visit.
The Cotswold Wildlife Park is therefore an ideal place to take the children – children of all ages: my wife loves it, so for her birthday last weekend we went for a visit.
The day was beautiful, but very cold and frosty: the temperature didn’t rise above five degrees all day, and frost continued to lie in those spots where the winter sun couldn’t reach.
Being so cold and so close to Christmas we figured that the park would be quiet. Despite being big kids ourselves, we are not keen on actual children, so we try to avoid the busy times. We feared, however, that being so cold we may not see very much of the animals, but we need not have feared.
We arrived late morning and decided to start off heading toward the giraffes, my wife’s favourites. Our route took us past the emus, being kept company by some wallabies, and the magnificent giant tortoises. I love the tortoises, they are weird and magnificent creatures – like many people I had a small tortoise as a child, but never really appreciated it. These days they are far too expensive to buy.
Next to the tortoises are the white rhino, who were all loitering on the far edge of the field. As I was breaking out my long camera lens to try to grab a few shots there was some kind of altercation between two of the huge creatures, which resulted in all but one of them obligingly heading in our direction, their huge grey flanks and menacing looking horns beautifully lit by the low winter sun.
Beyond the rhinos are the porcupines, but they were staying warm within their enclosure. Next to them, however, not shown on the guide book map, were the meerkats, who had found a nice sunny spot from which to keep their vigil. Their heads eagerly darting to explore every sound and movement, they seemed somewhat perplexed by a passing aeroplane, but I guess they have become used to that by now.
We paused briefly at the rather pungent enclosure of the Bactrian camels (the two-humped type), and then came to the lions. Peering through the glass of the enclosure we could see a lioness sprawling on her back just beneath the window. Then suddenly the large head of the male lion appeared from under a bench to the side, causing my wife to squeal with surprise. The lion then had a brief canoodle with the lioness before treating us to a close up view of his impressive head at the window. He then stretched luxuriously and wandered off for a patrol of his enclosure. This was, I think, the best view we have ever had of the lions, being luck enough to be in just the right place at the right time.
Finally we came to the giraffes. Three of these magnificent, graceful creatures were wandering around the enclosure but, only moments after we arrived, they headed for their enclosure because, as luck would have it, we had arrived at feeding time.
Their enclosure has a large wooden ramp that runs up into it, so you can see them at their eye level, and it is only when you get up close that you really appreciate how big these animals are. They can grow to over 6 meters in height and as they walked past their keeper he barely came to the top of their legs. Sharon crouched down to watch one feed, just inches away from her, and his head was almost as big as her torso.
We had a wonderful few minutes watching the animals feed, just us and a couple of other people quietly enjoying the spectacle and taking photographs, before two children showed up excitedly running around and shrieking their enthusiasm in loud, high pitched tones, upon which the giraffes decided they’d had enough to eat and once more headed for the relative peace and quiet of their paddock.
By now we were properly cold, so headed back toward the restaurant for some warmth and sustenance, just pausing briefly to photograph the zebra as we wandered past.
Just outside the restaurant is the red panda enclosure. These are usually amongst the most elusive of the parks animals, normally only glimpsed through the branches as they hide out in the top most reaches of the trees. Today, however, they were uncharacteristically active and visible. When we came out of the restaurant they were wandering around happily allowing us to take pictures as they comically scrambled about the trees and patrolled the perimeter of their enclosure. It was difficult to drag ourselves away.
Next stop was the wolves, another species who we have normally only glimpsed from a distance but were today obligingly active. They wandered around their wooded enclosure, sometimes play fighting, sometimes seemingly fighting for real. One particularly vicious sounding attack was ended when the protagonist reared up onto his hind legs and stood on the aggressors head: effective and comical.
This part of the park carries on past the warty pigs, cranes, wallabies, flamingo, capybaras Like big guinea pigs), tapirs, mara (big rabbits) and giant anteaters (which were in hiding). We missed out the children’s farmyard and ventured back to the restaurant for tea and cake to thaw out again.
Time was now getting on, and we were keen to get to the walled garden before the ‘Lemurs of Madagascar’ walk-through enclosure closed. This is one of the best bits of the park: you walk throught he enclosure as the lumurs run around you looking cute (and sometimes a little sinister).
As we arrived we were disappointed that there were no lemurs in evidence. Oh well, we thought, it must be too cold for them. We came upon a few red bellied lemur gathered into a large fluffy ball to keep warm and glimpsed a few others here and there, but all seemed quiet. Then, as we got to the exit door, a couple of ring-tailed lemur appeared on the side of the enclosure before crashing off through the undergrowth. And then, before you knew it, there were lemurs everywhere!
The ring tailed lemur are the most active and the most comical. I particularly liked it when a whole row of them were sat on a branch, huddled in a line, when another rushed across and stood before them, arms outstretched, as if to say ‘no photos please!’.
It is very difficult to drag yourself away from all of this, but feeding time was approaching for the penguins, in the opposite corner of the walled garden, and penguins are another of my wife’s favourites.
The walled garden, being enclosed, was particularly cold, with frost still lying deeply on the ground. Most of the inhabitants, such as the otters and prairie dogs were keeping to their nice warm burrows and out of sight. Even the meerkats had just a lone sentinel on duty as there was less sun to enjoy than in the enclosure we’d encountered earlier.
The penguins didn’t seem to mind the cold, however, and were easily able to manage the ice-rink like surface of their enclosure. They knew that feeding time was coming and were already gathering around the door where the keeper appeared from, wielding a broom to keep their sharp, eager beaks away from his legs.
Once feeding time was over we retreated to the relative warmth of the reptile house, first taking a slight detour to see the Pallas Cats, who were keeping their distance in the corner of their separate cages.
The reptile house is one of my favourite parts of the park – for reasons I can’t explain I have always been fascinated by snakes and lizards. My wife is less keen, especially of the larger snakes which she fears are eyeing her up for their next snack.
Finally we briefly passed through the Siamangs and past the gibbons before calling it a day and heading home.
There was still much that we didn’t see, so we made a New Year’s resolution to return again before too long.