How Hampshire's animal parks reopened against the odds – but still need support
Every year, after a long winter, outdoor attractions prepare to welcome families through their gates for a fun, learning experience during the spring and summer months.
But this year, just as they geared up for the new season, Covid-19 had other plans and brought everything to an abrupt halt.
In line with government guidance, Marwell Zoo, Butser Ancient Farm and Birdworld closed their sites. But, of course, their work could not stop – animals still had to be fed, landscapes maintained and staff had to be paid.
‘We are all really excited to reopen. The last four months have felt empty without our visitors,’ explains Gwen Woodruffe, the customer liaison officer at Butser Ancient Farm, near Waterlooville, with a bucket in hand to feed the farm’s newborn goats.
While the world for many seemed to have stopped spinning during the pandemic, staff at these three sites – and like many across the country – have had to keep running despite little or even no income.
Sean Mannie, the commercial director of Marwell Zoo, says: ‘Marwell has experienced closure before with the foot and mouth outbreak. But three months worth of closure is very extreme for any business.
‘Our main season is the Easter holidays and summer when children break up from school. Our income over those periods sustains us throughout the year when it is quieter.’
‘We’re very grateful to be open. The biggest impact of lockdown has been obviously the loss of income. We won’t know how bad the situation is until the winter,’ adds Mark Anderson, general manager of Birdworld, near Farnham.
But now they’re ready and raring to go while doing everything they can to keep their customers safe.
In normal times, Butser Ancient Farm welcomes thousands to the site each year to learn about ancient history through hands-on fun activities. It also usually hosts a range of ancient skills workshops and unique fundraising events from stargazing evenings to Celtic festivals and re-enactments.
Gwen adds: ‘In the time we have been closed we have had several lambs born and now they’ve transformed into crazy teenagers.
‘Excitingly, we have also just welcomed the birth of our first English goat kid of 2020. English goats are a very rare breed. Their numbers are small, averaging an estimate of 100 registered breeding goats across the UK.
‘The birth of the Butser kids is a great boost to the critically endangered breed and from July 4 visitors will be able to give them a warm welcome to the farm.’
At Marwell, their SUPERSIZED exhibition is finally on display. Sean, from Lovedean, says: ‘We were initially going to phase it in through April and May.
‘But now we have installed the whole attraction which are giant models of bugs and critters made out of toy bricks. There’s a three-metre tarantula, four-metre red spitting cobra which actually spits and I have never seen a kingfisher so big in my life. They all have a bit of a story and we wanted to show that.’
But for these sites to show off their newest attractions, they have had to put special measures in place to keep their staff safe, as well as themselves. Gwen, from Horndean, explains: ‘We now have a one way system in place so we can have 50 people at the farm at once. However, we used to have about 400 schoolchildren at once.’
‘Guests will get used to the new park,’ says Sean. ‘There are a lot of hand sanitising stations everywhere. Narrow pathways are now one way and our wider paths have signs for people to keep left at all times.
‘We have also worked hard to reopen our animal houses and ensure people are sanitising. It has also had an impact on our staffing, because we’re having to have staff monitor the toilets and queues.’
Mark adds: ‘We can only allow half of the visitors on to the site we normally would on a busy day, but we’re making it work. The toilets have changed – our biggest concern – and the site entrance is a one-way system.’
All sites have hugely benefited from community support and GoFundMe pages, which Sean describes as ‘heartwarming’.
‘I know a lot of our regulars have an emotional connection with the animals and not being able to see them has been hard,’ he explains.
‘But our social media team and zookeepers have been great in creating social media content to show everyone what and how we’re doing.
‘Lots of our annual pass holders have been donating too. Some people have also signed up for a pass or adopted an animal, even when they couldn’t go to the zoo, and that was lovely to see. If everybody could add Gift Aid to their ticket or even add a donation, it would help us so much.’
‘It’s been lovely to see customer support and someone set up a GoFundMe page for us during lockdown,’ adds Mark. ‘Birdworld has been here for 52 years and a lot of people have grown up with it, they want to keep it here for future generations.’
Now you can get out and about, it’s important for us all to use it wisely and appreciate the places we have missed during lockdown. Gwen adds: ‘It’s great to see the look on people’s faces when they come to the farm. Nature does wonders for cultural awareness and mental health.
‘We’re encouraging people to come and use the zoo as a break from routine and a change of scenery – it’s a fantastic place to explore,’ adds Sean.