York, the city I was born in, now has yet another tourist attraction – the Askham Bryan Wildlife and Conservation Park. Located on the edge of the city by the ring road, it’s on the site of Askham Bryan College, one of the largest agricultural colleges in the UK. It’s been open just over a week, and I visited with Christine and Lizzie yesterday.
Fish and reptiles
The visit starts inside the visitor centre, with a look at fish and reptiles. Sadly the fish tank had broken already, and so was empty. To make up for it, visitors were allowed behind the scenes to one of the back rooms. Here, there were many more small aquatic and amphibious animals that were not normally on show to the public. Plus, students from the college were on-hand to answer questions.
It’s worth noting here that the wildlife park isn’t just a tourist attraction, but is part of Askham Bryan College itself. Many of the keepers are also students of the college, who are doing courses in animal management. The courses range right from basic level 1 qualifications in land-based studies all the way through to degrees. The wildlife park therefore gives the students practical experience as an integrated part of their course, without the need to go elsewhere.
After the reptiles, there’s a nocturnal animals section with dimmed lights. The animals here included a civet, a sugar glider, an armadillo and several chinchillas. All apart from the chinchillas were active when we first arrived in the morning, but were nowhere to be seen in the afternoon. The chinchillas seemed to be asleep the whole time.
The visitor centre also includes an ‘Education Pod’, and we went to two handling sessions during the day. One focused on reptiles, with the opportunity to stroke a snake, a bearded dragon and a tortoise, and the other on bugs – stick insects and cockroaches.
Meerkats and farm animals
Outside, there’s a meerkat and mongoose enclosure, with two gangs of meerkats in separate areas. The Yorkshire Wildlife Park, a few miles south near Doncaster, also mixes its meerkats and mongooses (not ‘mongeese’) and this is because the two species often share burrows in the wild. There were a couple of talks about the meerkats during the day, and we stayed for the second talk in the afternoon.
Next is a farm enclosure, home to seven goats, spanning three species, and three alpacas. Again, there was a ‘Meet a goat’ talk, where kids got chance to pet a large goat called Steve.
The rest of the site is in what used to be Askham Bryan College’s arboretum. There’s a wide variety of trees and plants, with the same information boards as the animals. Some of the trees, like the animals, are endangered, and so it was interesting to read about them.
The next set of enclosures housed lemurs, raccoons and skunks. The lemurs were quite active but we didn’t get to see a raccoon until the afternoon, and even then it was asleep. American readers may wonder why an animal that is considered a pest is in a zoo in Britain, but they’re not native here. Interestingly though, it will shortly become illegal in the EU to breed raccoons, as they’re classed as an invasive species.
As for the skunks, we only got to see them at feeding time in the afternoon. They’re nocturnal, so this isn’t so surprising.
Wallabies and birds
There are six wallabies at Askham Bryan, one of which is a joey. The joey is a few months old, but it doesn’t yet have a name as it’s still in its mother’s pouch. Next to that were two monkey enclosures, home to some marmosets and tamarins – the latter had only been at the zoo for a few weeks.
Further on is an aviary with a variety of parrots. Unfortunately, issues with avian flu meant that the aviary was closed, although you could hear the birds. Finally, visitors can access York Falconry at the far end of the site, for a small additional fee – £2 for adults, cash only. York Falconry is home to several birds of prey – owls, hawks, and some ferrets. When we went, there was an opportunity to hold a Little Owl. Despite the small extra cost, this end of the zoo was very quiet and we saw several groups turn back when they realised there was an additional charge, which is a shame.
Work in progress
The wildlife park is, of course, brand new, and so there were some areas that weren’t ready. There’s a wetland area with a pond that was open, but with nothing to see. And an enclosure for some Scottish wildcats was being finished, ready to open soon.
Without attending the talks, we could have done the park in less than two hours, as it’s not very big and certainly on a much smaller scale than many other zoos in the UK. The talks were good, although some of the students delivering the talks seemed a bit unsure of what they were saying. The cafe in the visitor centre was rather underwhelming, and just offered drinks, pre-packed sandwiches and cakes. The sole member of staff was clearly overworked with patrons, and it wasn’t even lunchtime. So there’s room to improve.
I also think it would be good to see more of the behind the scenes areas. We were lucky to be able to see one of them, but this won’t normally be open, which is a shame – it was good to see how the park was run, and could be a good recruitment tool for the college’s courses.
Unlike most zoos, which are open almost every day of the year, Askham Bryan’s wildlife park is normally only open on weekends. Exceptions are school holidays, when it’s open throughout the week, and bank holidays. At £7 for adults and £5 for children, it is considerably cheaper than most other zoos. And, whilst there isn’t a lot to see right now, what they do have so far is good. It’s also worth mentioning that, at present, you have to pre-book your tickets online and print them out. You’ll also need to bring cash if you want to see the falconry. I hope that, in future, there’ll be an option to include the falconry in the entry tariff on the door, or at least a way of buying a voucher with a credit card.
Askham Bryan is very close to where my parents live, and I imagine that when Lizzie stays with them she’ll be a regular visitor. Certainly, had this existed 30 years ago, I think my parents would have taken me there regularly. And whilst York isn’t short of tourist attractions, it’s an interesting and unique addition.
As usual, photos of my visit are on Flickr.