Leisure review: Grunt and squeak and squawk with the animals at Whipsnade Zoo
- Credit: Archant
It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are to live in an area blessed with some of the country’s finest tourist attractions, and just outside the splendour of St Albans are 600 acres of beautiful countryside featuring a microcosm of animals from around the world.
Run by the Zoological Society of London, Whipsnade Zoo dates back to the 1920s, when a derelict farm on the Dunstable Downs was transformed into a conservation centre under the guidance of ZSL secretary Sir Peter Chalmers Mitchell, who had a vision of creating a “country zoo”.
Today, what started off as a modest collection made up of a handful of pheasants, wombats and llama has expanded to become one of the UK’s biggest collections of wild animals, living in specially designed environments which aim to reflect their home territories.
In fact, there are 2,705 animals living in the zoo, and a staggering 226 different species, many of which are endangered in the wild and part of Europe-wide breeding programmes designed to manage their conservation.
Easily accessible from the A5 near Markyate, Whipsnade is ideally best visited when the weather is fine, so the sunny Sunday my wife and I took our three-year-old daughter Anwen was perfect for enjoying a leisurely walk around the site, even if she insisted on travelling the longer distances between animals from a comfortable position on my shoulders.
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If you’re not feeling so energetic, you can always drive between key points, and also enjoy a train ride on the Whipsnade Steam Railway to see the zoo from a different perspective, something worth investigating even if you decided to explore on foot.
Free-roaming wallabies and mara (large relatives of guinea pigs) can be seen wandering across the zoo, and whether you’re visiting the lemurs and giraffes or lions and tigers the breathtaking view across the Downs from some of the animal enclosures is worth the admission price alone.
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Unlike many zoos which don’t have the space for larger animals, Whipsnade boasts a herd of 10 Asian elephants (the largest collection in the UK) and several rhinos and hippos, including Bali, a baby greater one-horned rhino born just a few weeks ago.
There are plenty of interactive demonstrations scheduled throughout the day, including shows featuring birds of prey, crocodiles. penguins and sea lions, and for a small fee you can even meet some animals close-up and come face-to-face with a lion, elephant, giraffe or sloth bear. Watching the giraffes being fed by hand was a particular highlight for Anwen, who seemed bemused that the animals in her picture books are actually so large in real life.
As you might expect, it’s not always possible to see some of the animals close-up on first attempt, although the big cats were making the most of the warm weather to stretch out in the sun, but the design of the park’s enclosures mean you can generally get a decent view with a little bit of patience.
One of the newest attractions at the zoo is the Butterfly House, a tropical environment filled with hundreds of butterflies and moths (and even some dwarf crocodiles).
One of the butterflies happily landed on my leg and refused to fly away, much to my daughter’s amusement, and she was also fascinated by the chance to see a real-life Hungry Little Caterpillar in its cocoon at the Puparium.
The educational aspects at Whipsnade should not, of course, be overlooked, and there’s plenty of information to hand if you’re interested (the reference to the X-Men comic hero adjacent to the wolverines’ cage was a particularly nice touch).
Unfortunately admission isn’t cheap, although there are reductions available for advanced family bookings. As a charity, all money raised from admission fees and events at the zoo goes towards ZSL’s educational and conservational work not just at Whipsnade, but also elsewhere in the world.
But once you realise quite what an amazing resource is there on your doorstep then it becomes the sort of place you want to pop into for an afternoon without worrying about the cost, so the best option for local residents is probably ZSL membership, offering a substantial discount and unlimited admission all year round. Click here for details.