When I arrived at the car park of New Forest Wildlife Park I was not much impressed by the appearance of this zoo. But, it is not the outside that counts and first impressions can deceive. As the name suggests the zoo is situated on a stretch of the New Forest National Park, which is a great environment for a zoo with mainly native UK wildlife species on display (many of them without a protected status by the way).
There’s a gift shop annex tearoom, either to start or end your tour around the premises with a tea or coffee and a sandwich. Simple, but efficient.
Formerly known as the New Forest Otter, Owl and Wildlife Park the zoo still embraces its former dedication to otters and owls. Four otter species and twelve owl species are kept on the grounds. The first outdoor enclosure, still not very impressive, is occupied by the North-American river otter (Lontra canadensis) and contains trees, shrubs, grass and a small shelter, but lacks a pool, unfortunately. It’s a fenced off area with lots of exposure to the public, though the otters can hide in faraway corners if they want to. The pool that is missing outside is provided in the indoor enclosure, to be reached via a tube. To my opinion both the indoors and outdoors are not very challenging for these curious creatures.
The building which houses the North-American river otter also provides indoor enclosures for the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra), the Asian small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinerea), European polecats (Mustela putorius), the ferret (Mustela putorius furo), and European badger (Meles meles). The ‘Glass House’ as it is called, was the original butterfly farm back in the 1980s. And they still have butterflies on display here from Easter to the end of September.
Of the three otter species that have their indoor facilities in the ‘Glass House’ only the small-clawed otters have got a bit of variety in the small enclosure. Some greenery and a small waterfall in an otherwise rather bare environment. But this is compensated by the large outdoor enclosures for both the small-clawed and Eurasian otters. The small-clawed otters are kept in two groups in different enclosures. All otter enclosures are provided with lots of enrichment, such as logs, pools and platforms, although the Eurasian otters have to settle for a tub as a pool. In addition, you might argue that the otters cannot express their natural hunting and foraging behaviour, because the pool areas are very small. All of the otters I have seen during the visit — unfortunately the giant otters did not show themselves — are doing very well. In other words they are all quite fat. This does not interfere with reproduction as three Eurasian otter cubs were born in April 2011.
The other mustelidae in the ‘Glass House’ are kept in peculiar enclosures. First of all, the ferret, polecat, as well as the badger do not have outdoor facilities, though they are all native to this area. But even more strange is the way their indoor facilities have been designed. The ferret has to settle for an enclosure with garden-like features such as a bench, table and wheelbarrow. The polecats are on display in a fake barn, which is turning the world upside down, because hiding out in barns was the reason they were hunted for in the first place. So, why not show them in their native natural environment, which is around the corner so to speak. The badgers were nursing offspring at that time, to be released when they can take care of themselves. By the way, the Zoo has got its own wild badger release site.
As soon as you leave the ‘Glass House’ you see the premises in its full glory, that is to say: the beautiful woodland of the New Forest National Park. Following the footpath along the otter enclosures you arrive at the large cage-like constructions which house Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia). Though old-fashioned, the wire mesh enclosures have ample facilities to express normal behaviour, including high level viewing platforms and scratching poles. Unfortunately, the only place to hide from the public in these exposed cages are the small shelters. The same counts for the pine marten cages. Considering the marten’s natural habitat it’s unfortunate that, although the cages contain many tree trunks, the maximum height is about 2.5 metres.
A little further along the path the owls are housed in their obviously too small aviaries, as most of them are around the world in my opinion. These aviaries are erected with wooden poles and wire mesh fences, and not attractively positioned around a courtyard where sika deer have their territory. The European bison and a group of red deer have a large paddock at their disposal. These red deer, by the way, are not endangered because they are protected by law — dating back to when deer hunting was a royal sport.
Returning to the otter enclosures there is a nice forest path with a boardwalk over a swampy area. It leads to the large and interesting Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) enclosure. Set in this natural forest it is so large that, although the fences are all wire mesh, the animals can hide from the public by simply walking to the other end of the enclosure. Some of the trees have observation platforms, and in the undulating landscape several shelters have been erected. The male lynx, which was in a nice condition, was showing himself loud and clear when I visited his enclosure. But this was probably due to the fact that it was his weekly fasting day, and every human being on the other side of the fence could have been a zookeeper with food, of course.
Interestingly, adjacent to the lynx enclosure the red-necked wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus) roam around freely. So the lynx can see these Australian species, a potential prey species. The mere fact that these animals originate from totally different continents and habitats makes this a very strange combination.
Since January 2011 a pack of five European grey wolves, coming from Colchester Zoo, have taken up residence in a beautiful part of the park. One of the females is dominating the group, while the others are still hiding all the time, including the black male wolf who they expect to become pack leader. As with the lynx enclosure the size of the grounds allows the animals to hide from the public although it is a wire mesh fence all around which does not block the view.