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The Ark Open Farm (County Down)

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Address: 296 Bangor Road, Newtownards, County Down, BT23 7PH

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      17.08.2012 18:25
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      A nice way to spend a few hours.

      Living in northern Ireland has it perks. When it comes to natural scenery we have some real beauty spots with The Giants Causeway, Glenarariff Forest Park and so many other beautiful locations it would take me all day to list them. But we do not have as many museums, zoos or other attractions for children, and what we have tends to be small. My sons loved the Heads Of Ayr Farm Park in Scotland, but Northern Ireland does not have anything on this scale. This is more basic, and for the most part, it is just a farm. There are not a lot of other attractions. If you are going just to see the animals, you may well enjoy this farm more than some of the larger parks. If, however, you are looking for rides, slides and other attractions, you may find this very disappointing.

      We have visited the Ark Open Farm three times. On all three occasions we went mid week, when the schools were on. This means we were not able to try the pony rides or pedal go- carts, as these are only open during the peak operating days. It also means we could have a very quiet and leisurely experience, with the place almost to ourselves. On one occasion there was a very large nursery group, but the Lorraine, one of the owners who also seems to do the majority of the work made a real effort to make sure we were not lost in the crowd. She offered a separate petting and feeding session with the animals and we actually saw very little of the group as they were taken to a separate area for lunch and crafts I believe as well. Most of the time when we go there are very few other guests.

      Admission costs £5 for adults, £4.20 for children over 3, disabled or pensioners. Special needs children are £4.00 and children under 3 are not charged. Families are offered a special deal of £18.30 for 2 adults and up to 4 children, which would be a very good deal if you have a large family. Animal feed is extra, and I can not remember the exact price, but I'm sure the fee was nominal - I believe 50 pence a bag. I believe pony and go cart rides are extra as well, but these have not been open on our visits so I am not certain. Considering the amount of activities available, and the fact that you will be hard pressed to spend more than a few hours here, I do find this a bit expensive, but I always moan about prices and I very rarely pay full price for anything. Two for one vouchers are available online at Heritage Ireland, you just print them up, bringing this down to less than £10 for a family of 4. We have also visited this park using Tesco vouchers, but of course you can not combine the two.

      So - what can you do here? The main attraction here is the animals. There are a couple of barns with a variety of animals - most of which you can stroke and feed. These include the goats, horses, donkeys, sheep, pigs, rabbits, chickens, ducks, reindeer and chipmunks. The woman who runs the place brings different animals out for feeding, and there are always lambs and kids to be bottle fed and rabbits to cuddle. The rabbits are very docile and apparently quite used to this, and the woman does watch carefully and make sure animals are handled properly, but once she realises the child is gentle she gives you some space. The lambs and kids that are used for this are meant to have been abandoned by their mothers, but I do have some concerns about this. I did work and hang out on farms for awhile as teen, and while it does happen, it is rare for mothers to abandon their young. One can't help but worry that the animals are deliberately taken from the parents to provide the star attraction to visitors, but this is my opinion only and I may be completely wrong. The owner does honestly seem to have genuine concern for her animals, and I found her lovely person. I do know they work with other local farmers as well, so it is possible that the young animals come from a very large pool of farms. They did have puppies on our last visit, which they were finding homes for at the request of another farmer who owned the mother dog.

      There is a large statue of a cow in the barn, which has a working rubber udder filled with water. This lets the children try their hand at milking, and while it doesn't look quite as interesting as trying teh real think - it also saves you kicked in the head when you get it wrong, or pooped on, so I suppose this is more insurance friendly not to mention being more fair to the animals. Speaking of poop - the owner here is constantly reminding guests to wash their hands. I expect this may because a different farm park in Northern Ireland had a serious e coli outbreak years ago. E coli is a fairly natural companion of poop. I can't imagine how we didn't get it as children. I can remember spending entire days at a farm without hand washing, eating my lunch on horseback and even a few manure fights. I can only assume we developed resistance, but today's children are not accustomed to farm animals and have grown up with anti bacterial everything. E coli can be deadly - and there is nothing a farm owner can do to eliminate it. So if you visit this or any other farm park - hand washing is your responsibility. This place is covered with alcohol gel dispensers, sinks with soap and towels and of course the loos, but they really can not force anyone to use them.

      In addition to the animals, there is a lovely outdoor play park which my boys always enjoy. I expect this might get over crowded when the schools are out though. There are a number of picnic tables here, which look like they are scrubbed on a regular basis. I'm funny about laying food directly on anything in a public place. But as children do jump up and climb over tables, and these children might very well have been in the barn before this, I would very strongly recommend that you bring something to lay your food on. There is also a play barn, but this is sadly a very empty, dusty barn with a small playhouse and a number of broken up ride on toys that could actually present a safety hazard. The only thing worth visiting this for is the number of nests in the rafters with baby birds and parents flying back and forth.

      Further down there is a duck pond, which looks lovely from a distance and my husband and sons visit each time, but it I simply to far for me to walk and involves a hill as well. Most of this park is disabled friendly, but they really can not avoid things like hills. There are also aviaries with a number of different types of domestic farm fowl, and a barn with an owl.

      The farm park is kept very clean, and the toilets are kept spotless, even with large crowds. The woman who runs the place always seems to be cleaning when she isn't showing guests around. The animals are all kept very clean as well, and this honestly is as clean as you can get for a farm.

      We did not visit the cafe - in fact it was closed on our last visit, and I believe it only opens for the more busy days. We did peek in the windows and looks very pleasant and clean. I understand the food is basically home cooking type meals, soups , chips, and of course an Ulster Fry. I asked about vegetarian and vegan options, and the fellow really was sure - I do not think they have any specialist vegetarian options, but he did mention that everything is home cooked and they are more than happy to make something that isn't on the menu - assuming they have the ingredients. I still suspect it may be slim pickings for vegans but if you can ring in advance they seem quite accommodating and may be able to arrange something. The fact that they are willing to try speaks volumes in custom service. I would really suggest ringing before a visit if you plan to eat at the cafe anyway - to make sure it is open. I prefer picnics anyway though.

      There is also a small farm shop which I know sells fresh eggs and may have some other farm produce, but seems mostly to consist of the typical souvenirs like plastic farm animals and colouring books. There is usually a large collie type or two laying about as well, and I remember on one occasion we were greeted with a friendly bark. The dogs are not aggressive but this could be a problem if someone has a fear of dogs.

      Overall, this place isn't perfect, but it is nice. The play barn is a bit of a disgrace and I planned to knock a star off for this, but in all honesty, everything else is very well kept and these people seem to be working so hard to make this work. I do have concerns over the lambs, but I really have no evidene that these are not abandoned animals. I do feel the general standard of care here is better than most for the animals. We do keep going back, and my children enjoy it. They both feel the place should get 5 stars, and I really don't want to give this place anything lower.

      The Ark Open Farm is located just outside Newtownards on the Bangor Rd. This is directly across the road from The Somme Heritage Centre, and if you happen to be up there anyway - I really do recommend dropping in. There is a charge for the tour, but the museum section is free, and there is a lovely new cafe with very reasonable prices if you are looking for a quick meal.

      I would strongly suggest checking their website before visiting and making sure you have up to date opening hours, but currently they are:

      Monday to Saturday 10am - 6pm, Sunday 1pm - 6pm (October - March 5pm).

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