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A wild day out for all
Cotswold Wild life park (Burford)
Member Name: davidbuttery
Cotswold Wild life park (Burford)
Advantages: Huge range of animals, nice atmosphere, seems very well run, fairly priced
Disadvantages: Not easy to get to without a car
** Introduction **
Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens (which I'll mostly abbreviate here as "CWP") is a cross between a zoo and a foot-based safari park. Set in well over 100 acres of landscaped gardens, the park provides a home for a variety of animals (and birds) large and small, some of them not species you are likely to have seen anywhere else. Naturally, as with all such parks nowadays, the conservation angle is stressed, but that doesn't stop CWP being a most enjoyable day out if all you want is to look at interesting animals.
** Orientation **
Given that the park is so large, it's very much appreciated that there are nice clear map boards in quite a few places. It's refreshing to see this, as some parks tend to make it as hard as possible for visitors to get around unless they've shelled out on the guidebook. (CWP's own guidebook is very well produced, and at only £3 is worth getting anyway for the history and background information.) It's best not to try to see everything at once; indeed, seeing everything even in the course of a full day might be pushing it.
There is a small train which runs on a circuit of the park, allowing you to get your bearings early on, and this is recommended especially to families with young children who might otherwise get tired by all the walking. A trip costs £1.00 and although you don't really get to see anything you couldn't on foot, there is a little bit of a sense of a safari adventure, as well as letting parents store up knowledge for later in the day about where all the "exciting" animals are likely to be found!
Most of the larger animals are kept in large, open grassy enclosures, allowing excellent viewing. How much actual fencing there is depends on the animal: one of the most impressive sights is the rhino enclosure, where there are no fences at all, just a (wide!) ditch separating you from the animals; this allows you to get extremely close to the creatures. On the other hand, the leopards are simply too dangerous (and good at climbing!) for this to be safe, so they are in a rather more traditional enclosure.
** Primates **
One of CWP's major attractions is its collection of primates. There are no "higher apes" (gorillas, orang-utans and so on) here; the guidebook explains that the park does not feel it has sufficient resources to be able to give them a suitable environment. However, you're unlikely to miss them, as there are plenty of smaller primates: these include gibbons, monkeys and the most unusual siamangs, a type of gibbon I'd never seen before. These last are unfortunately among the very few animals still housed in rather old-fashioned cages, though I suspect a revamp is on the way.
However, what probably draws the crowds most are the lemurs. There are quite a lot of these, and the real draw is the "Madagascar" area, a walk-through lemur enclosure - something I've never come across before. Given the inquisitive nature of these animals some precautions are necessary: you must leave all food and drink outside (I even had to leave my packet of Polos!) and pushchairs are not permitted inside either. On top of this, Madagascar closes at 3.30 pm as the lemurs need a lot of time to calm down before bed. Despite the element of planning needed, I highly recommend a visit to this area.
** Large carnivores **
"That means lions, yes?" Well, not only them, but yes, there are lions. These are housed in a reasonably-sized glass-walled enclosure, which maintains safety while allowing very good access. Lions being the rather lazy beasts they are, and also not being inclined to hide, it's usually possible to get an excellent view of at least one or two of the residents; there's always a little shiver of uncertainty among visitors who realise that a lion is gazing thoughtfully at their young son or daughter! The Amur leopards, however, are more comfortable stalking and skulking, so it can be very hard to discern them in their own (rather smaller) home.
Also very popular with visitors are the wolves, who can be viewed from a raised wooden walkway the wolves can walk right underneath! If you want to see them active, it's best to go fairly early, and preferably when the weather's not too hot. (I'm sure they'd be spectacular in the snow, but I've never visited in winter.) An animal I'd never seen anywhere before was the wolverine - despite their relatively small size, these are fearsome hunters and have been known to bring down adult moose. Unfortunately the only one I could see stayed resolutely fast asleep throughout!
** Ungulates **
There's a pretty good selection of hoofed mammals at CWP - though you won't find any elephants or hippos here. The biggest draw must be the two giraffes, whose brand new house is now open and who are another of the animals separated from the public only by a ditch (and a discreet fence!) When I was there the giraffes seemed very amenable to giving the punters their photographs, though they preferred reaching down to munch the grass rather than eating the high-up hay bale as they were presumably expected to do!
I've already mentioned the white rhino, but they share their expansive enclosure with a small herd of zebra, which are of course unmistakable. However, there are also a couple of less common species: Brazilian tapir (this too refused to wake up for me!) and, missed by many visitors as they graze next to the entrance road to the car park, a herd of oryx. Finally, the Visayan Warty Pig from the Philippines is hardly beautiful, but it is unfortunately endangered in its homeland.
** Birds and bats **
A tropical house is always a big attraction at an animal park, and so it is at CWP. The house here isn't the most impressive in terms of size, but it does boast a nice selection of tropical birds, including a particular favourite of mine, the bleeding-heart pigeon. In theory there are also sloths in the house, but I saw absolutely nothing of them when I went. Perhaps that was just as well, given the warning in the guidebook to stay well away from them for fear of a nasty bite!
Outside there are plenty more birds, including the wonderfully colourful weaver birds, which will challenge your photographic skills no end as they absolutely refuse to stay still for more than a second or two at a time! More aviaries elsewhere contain birds of prey (including another personal fave, the burrowing owl) and it can be quite intimidating when a turkey vulture locks its gaze onto you! There are also some pheasants round the back, including yet another species I like, the gorgeous orange-breasted Temminck's tragopan.
The nocturnal house at CWP is not particularly large, so don't expect miracles: you won't find here the likes of bush-babies or aye-ayes. However, one nice area is where the fruit bats live: you stand on one side of a full-height glass window and they fly about on the other. This, along with some judiciously-placed bananas, allows you to watch the bats right close up without the slightest worry that they're going to brush your hair. (Bat people will tell you that their sonar means they don't actually skim people's heads, but the ones in my local lane occasionally do just that!)
** Crawlies and slitheries **
It's perhaps a bit unfair to lump insects, reptiles and amphibians in together, but there have to be some limits to the length of a review! These mostly small exhibitions are perhaps a little more run-of-the-mill than some of the outdoor enclosures, but nevertheless they seemed quite well laid out - although they do have an unfortunate tendency to attract bouncy small children, whose shouts of excitement and/or fright are piercingly loud inside the small buildings. Let's face it, the word tarantula does tend to attract kids of that age and disposition...
Amphibians hold their own thanks in part to the startlingly bright blue poison dart frog, while the leaf-cutter ants are clearly the star of the insect show. On the reptilian front, there is the usual selection of snakes, chameleons and crocodiles, the latter represented by the very rare Morelet's crocodile. In the reptile house is a sobering exhibition of snakeskin products confiscated by Customs. The reptile I was most pleased to see, though, was outside: the giant tortoise. I used to love watching these animals at Bristol Zoo when I was small, and I still have a real soft spot for them.
** Domesticated animals **
Those bringing small children will probably want to visit the farmyard area in one corner of the park, though this is a bit of a misnomer: if you're expecting a bucolic scene of the sort you get in traditional storybooks then you're going to be disappointed, as many of the animals are kept in pens in a large, airy shed. These include rabbits, guinea pigs and - slightly bizarrely - an American striped skunk. Perhaps in view of the last you can see why feeding is not permitted!
There are more domesticated animals immediately outside, however, and certain of those will allow themselves to be stroked. The selection of creatures on show does tend to vary, but you can probably count on finding Shetland ponies, pygmy goats and pigs in this section. Naturally it is very important to clean your hands thoroughly if you've touched any of the animals, especially if you are going to be eating afterwards. Handwash dispensers are provided, although they weren't the easiest to get to work.
** The grounds **
CWP's full name is "Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens", so you'd have a right to expect there to be a reasonable amount of landscaping. You won't be disappointed on that score: my enjoyment of my visit was enhanced slightly but appreciably by the clear effort that had gone into making the park an attractive and pleasant place to walk through. Although some of the more adventurous planting experiments have fallen victim to the recent run of cold winters, there's still plenty to keep the botanists happy, notably the huge Wellingtonia tree on the main lawn, which is more than 40 metres tall.
** Practicalities **
The car parking area at CWP is pretty large, and seems well maintained, which is a good job as the surfaced part of it isn't huge and so you're quite likely to have to park on the grass. I noted a couple of stewards in yellow tabards directing people where to go, and there didn't seem any problems with queues at the admission kiosks. (You pay on entry, before you've parked the car.) There are some disabled spaces near the entrance itself, and almost all the animals are accessible as the grounds are flat. (The children's adventure playground doesn't have much if your child can't climb, though.)
The main place to buy food is the Oak Tree Restaurant, which is located round the back of the mansion building. The food is not bad at all, and certainly my bangers and mash were more than acceptable, albeit not at a Michelin star level! A hot main dish costs around £7.00, but you can buy sandwiches, baked potatoes and the like for less. There's a reasonable amount of seating, but if it's raining and nobody's using the outside tables it can be rather crowded. Service is not the fastest, but not unbearable. There are also a couple of refreshment kiosks which sell drinks, ice creams, crisps and so on, as well as two (rather small) covered picnic shelters.
I was fairly impressed by the toilets at CWP, all of which seemed very clean and well maintained. As well as a block close to the main entrance and (airy but expensive) gift shop, there are three others dotted around, including (naturally) one in the restaurant. There is a first aid post at the mansion, but in truth they're unlikely to be able to do much: one of the more perverse results of health and safety regulations is that a dedicated first aider can't give you a painkiller, but a completely untrained assistant in the shop can sell you a packet which you can then take without any supervision at all!
Slightly to my surprise, you are allowed to take your dogs into the park. They must be kept on leads at all times, and are not permitted around the lake or inside any buildings. On the other hand, you cannot feed the animals; the CWP guidebook says this is because of the need to maintain their balanced diets, but it's undeniable that plenty of other animal parks do allow at least some feeding of the more domesticated species. I really can't see that a goat is likely to be made ill by... well, anything much, given the omnivorous nature of those creatures!
** Times and prices **
CWP is open every day of the year except for Christmas Day, something which sets it apart from the majority of animal parks. The park opens at 10.00 am each day, and last admissions are at 4.30 pm in summer and 3.30 pm in winter, with visitors expected to have left by 6.00 pm or 5.00 pm respectively (or dusk if earlier). Bear in mind that the "Madagascar" section closes considerably earlier than this to allow the lemurs to settle down early for the night.
The following prices are for the 2011 season. They seem quite reasonable to me, when you consider that many zoos and safari parks charge considerably higher rates; the full adult rate at Whipsnade, for example, is £18.50. The one catch with CWP's prices is that the senior citizens' rate only applies to the over-65s, not the over-60s as is common elsewhere.
Senior citizen: £7.50
Child (3-16): £7.50
Child (under 3): free
Registered blind: free
If you plan on visiting the park more than five times in the course of a year, you can purchase a season ticket: the adult version is £62.50 while children pay £42.50. If you've bought an ordinary ticket and kept the receipt, you can put its price towards that of a season ticket provided you buy it within seven days from your visit.
** Getting there **
The park is only a couple of miles off the A40, so getting there by car is not at all difficult. The M5 is a few miles to the west; the M40 a few miles to the east; but coming from Worcestershire it's also worth considering the route from the north via Evesham and the A424. The only slightly tricky aspect comes on the very last leg: going south on the A381 it can be quite easy to miss the right turn to the park approach, as there is only one brown sign and this is a little difficult to see from some angles.
CWP is decidedly not an easy place to get to by public transport, rather a shame given that it is basically a safari park you don't need a car to explore! The nearest railway station with more than a very limited service is Charlbury, ten miles to the north-east on the "Cotswold Line"; there are trains roughly every hour between Worcester and Oxford. By bus your best bet is a service from Oxford to Burford, but it remains to be seen how the current public spending cuts will bite.
** Verdict **
I was very impressed with Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens, and am now surprised that it isn't a little bit better known; perhaps a little more advertising wouldn't go amiss. The experience of four decades (the park first opened in 1970) has clearly stood the management in good stead as far as actually running the place goes though, and it was very noticeable that everyone I saw seemed to be having a good time, despite the indifferent weather. I'm no expert on animal behaviour, but the animals too looked as though they were contented and well cared for.
CWP is a very large park to get around on foot - there are any number of interesting creatures here that I haven't even mentioned - and if you tried to see it all in a single day you'd be there for many hours and still be rushed off your feet. Luckily the combination of reasonable admission charges and twelve-month season tickets makes repeat visits a practical proposition if you live within a sensible distance. I would certainly very much like to go back, and can highly recommend the park for all ages.
Summary: An excellent park, not nearly as well known as it deserves to be