A visit to the British Wildlife Centre

This weekend I went to the British Wildlife Centre down in Surrey. My aim was to do some filming, mainly of roe deer – they have one female in an enclosure there and as far as I can tell that is one of the only places in the UK where they have these native species in captivity. I had been there once before, last year, so I thought this would be a nice time to post an article (slightly modified) I wrote about the centre last year.

As I had bought my train tickets a few weeks ago I was at the mercy of whatever the weather decided to do. I was still counting pennies as a result of my recent trip to the US and other unexpected expenses this previous month. So after reading up on their website on ways to get there by public transport I decided to buy an OS map (NB/ I was very pleasantly surprised by their mobile app and the way you can buy sections of a map for a small cost) and walk from Lingfield station.

For anyone attempting to do this: don’t. Or if you do, make sure you have thick layers and big wellies on. Anyone who knows me can vouch for my persistence, and the website does state that “it is a lovely walk”. The safest way to get there (as the road up to the centre is very busy and has no pavement) is to trample your way through fields. The first section through Lingfield is fine, after which you have to find the public footpath hidden away on someone’s private property (behind electric gates) to the right of a barn – and to find I embarrassingly had to disturb someone at home. This path is not really used at all and is only about a metre wide with nettles and thorny holly waist high on one side, and spiky fencing the other. The only consolation was that inside the fence were some beautiful highland cattle! After about 10 minutes of this you then get to trample through open fields, sometimes scaring off some sheep here and there, and then at the end you have to wade through water. Lovely walk? Sure! If you’re a sucker for self-punishment.

The British Wildlife Centre strives to emulate the animals' natural environment

The British Wildlife Centre strives to emulate the animals’ natural environment

Located in Surrey, the British Wildlife Centre houses over 40 of Britain’s most-loved wildlife, from harvest mice to badgers and beyond, housed in enclosures that have been designed by experts to mimic their natural environment. Started in 1997 by David Mills, it opened to the public in 2000. David Mills has since then spent a lot of effort on breeding programmes, habitat conservation and educational facilities. When open to the public (every saturday, sunday and bank holidays), there are keeper talks every hour at different animal enclosures. During the week they accommodate a variety of school groups as well as birthday party groups for children from as young as 5 years old. You can also help out by adopting your favourite British species through their dedicated adoption scheme.

Talks are held at different enclosures throughout the day

Talks are held at different enclosures throughout the day

But what distinguishes the British Wildlife Centre from any other nature reserve is the opportunity it provides photographers with. On photographic days, when the reserve is closed to the public, photographers are allowed to get up close and personal with the animals: many of the smaller animals have low enclosures (polecats, adders, badgers), some animals they will bring out for you (hedgehogs, barn owls, kestrels) and for the bigger animals you are allowed to enter the enclosures for cage-less photography (otters, red foxes, Scottish wildcats). They organise around 20 photographic days a year, of which there are two types: those where you visit the whole collection of animals, and owl photographic days, where you take the whole day to photograph the 7 species of British owl in natural settings as well as in flight.

You can get really close to the animals on photographic days

You can get really close to the animals on photographic days

On top of these days organised by the British Wildlife Centre, there are many workshops organised by bodies such as Wild Arena or by professional photographers such as Andy Rouse and Heather Angel. “It is far and away the best place to guarantee close access to a wide range of British wildlife, and that is what makes it such a good location for teaching,” said Heather Angel. “The keepers are immensely helpful and everyone who has been on my workshops loves it there. It is obviously not as challenging as stalking mammals in the wild, but most amateurs are delighted to have the opportunity of seeing a fox and a badger, quite apart from photographing them.” Besides just photographers, film-makers are also noticing just how useful a resource the British Wildlife Centre is. Windfall films, who produced the recent Channel 4 production “Foxes live: wild in the city”, did a lot of their equipment testing and filming practice at the British Wildlife Centre.

Fox at the British WIldlife Centre, taken from inside the enclosure

Fox at the British WIldlife Centre, taken from inside the enclosure

When I spoke to Heather Angel last year, a former judge for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) awards she commented that not many winning shots in the competition are taken in the UK – they are more likely to come from Europe and further abroad. This may be because our standards of what is an extraordinary photograph of nature or wildlife has become so high that only those that venture off the beaten track can capture something special that not many before them have. But it certainly isn’t the result of a lack of interest in British wildlife in general. It seems that Britons’ appreciation of the nature in their own gardens is constantly on the increase. “Programmes like Springwatch and Autumnwatch are bringing more attention to British wildlife. Before, when school kids came here, they would know about lions and tigers, but wouldn’t have a clue about stoats and weasels. And this focus on British wildlife streams down to other channels as well, such as photography,” said head keeper at the British Wildlife Centre Matt Binstead when I interviewed him last year.

Scottish Wildcat at the BWC

Scottish Wildcat at the BWC

He has himself recently been captivated by photography of the animals he works with at the centre. “Working with people like Andy Rouse, Chris Packham, Danny Green (all pros at who do workshops at the centre): you see how they work, and you listen to what they’re saying. And then you try that and realise of course that it really does make your photograph so much better. And as you’re getting better you’re enjoying it more.” Matt was given recognition for his photo of a red fox taken at the British Wildlife Centre in the 2011 British Wildlife Photography Awards. “I felt really pleased. I entered it for the sake of entering it, really. I certainly wasn’t expecting to win the competition. They used that photograph in most of the advertising, as well, which made me even happier.”

“I think the British Wildlife Photography Awards have had a huge affect because it focuses purely on British wildlife,” Matt continues. “In the first year it was good, but it didn’t really take off until the second year.” The competition has rounded off its fourth year now, with many professionals entering alongside amateurs, and offers a whopping £20,000 prize money – twice that of the WPY! Also in its fourth year is the competition organised by the British Wildlife Centre itself, which is extremely popular with visitors. “The first year it was just to test the water to see how much interest it would generate. We did three short competitions over the year and we got inundated with photographs. We thought ‘oh this could be a big thing’. So last year we made it bigger, and made it as one competition with different categories, with prizes for each category and an overall winner. It turned into a huge success and we managed to get Andy Rouse involved. David Mills, Matt Binstead and Andy Rouse are some of the judges of the competition and the prize for the overall winner is a 1:1 photographic day with Andy Rouse at the British Wildlife Centre.

Here were some of his top tips on wildlife photography, at the British Wildlife Centre or outside in the wild.

Headkeeper Matt Binstead's photography tips

Headkeeper Matt Binstead’s photography tips

My only trouble with the Centre used to be that it had rather difficult opening hours – every weekend between March and October and then on school holidays. But this year Matt informed me that as of next year they’ll be opening every weekend to make their own advertising easier. Win win on both sides then!

Otters will surely make you love their antics when you see them this close

Otters will surely make you love their antics when you see them this close

Red Squirrels are very mischievous at the centre!

Red Squirrels are very mischievous at the centre!

Red deer rut away at this time of year

Red deer rut away at this time of year

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