01 May 2018

The UK’s best accessible wildlife attractions

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There is no reason why living with limited mobility should be any barrier to exploring the best of what the world has to offer. In recent years, great strides have been made by tourist attractions and other leisure facilities throughout the country to improve provisions for wheelchair users and others with disabilities, and this has even been the case at mainly outdoor-based sites such as wildlife centres.

Below, we take you through some of the very best options available to people with reduced mobility who are keen to enjoy the tranquillity of nature and discover fascinating animal species without having to negotiate any difficult terrain – you may be surprised at how many options there are!

Drusillas Park – Alfriston, East Sussex

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It is important to remember that physical disabilities are not just limited to the older population. People of all ages – including children – can face difficulties standing and walking, which means that the work done by family-friendly attractions to improve access for such visitors is vital.

One of the most exciting and popular of these locations is Drusillas Park in East Sussex. The team at this much-loved destination were on hand to tell us more about what they have done to open up access to as many people as possible, regardless of their physical abilities:

‘The award-winning Drusillas Park in East Sussex offers a fun finding-out day out for all the family and is widely regarded as the best small zoo in Europe.

‘With over one hundred different animal species in naturalistic environments, there is plenty to enthral everyone from the youngest to the oldest visitor. Animals include the popular meerkats, sloths, penguins, camels, red pandas, otters, beavers, gibbons, and a range of monkeys to name but a few.

‘Drusillas is completely wheelchair accessible, with flat surfaces and ramps where necessary. The zoo route is approximately one mile in length and there are ample resting places along the way. Drusillas’ information signage is all in contrasting colours, well maintained and plentiful.

‘All of Drusillas’ walk-through enclosures such as Lemurland, Lory Landing, and the Bat Cave are wide enough to allow wheelchairs to easily fit through. Drusillas has also designed all of their enclosures to have low-level viewing, which ensures that wheelchair users are able to have the same experience of the zoo and the animals as everyone else.

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‘Wheelchair users will also be pleased to know that Drusillas’ brand new “Safari Express” train features a large wheelchair bay at the front of the train, enabling disabled visitors to take part in a fun journey around the zoo.

‘Drusillas is pleased to offer free entrance for disabled carers upon production of written DLA or PIP payments dated within the last two years, and will happily allow guide dogs to enter the Park. Additionally, Drusillas has hearing induction loops fitted to all four of their zoo admission gates.

‘Drusillas’ has a number of excellent catering outlets which are specially designed to be wheelchair accessible. There is ample space for wheelchair users to manoeuvre in both Explorers Restaurant and Oasis Café, with fixed accessible seating available in the latter. Drusillas also offers a large picnic area with several wheelchair accessible benches.

‘Disabled visitors can find numerous dedicated disabled toilets around the Park and all of these are identified in the park map provided on entry.

‘There are plenty of disabled parking bays adjacent to the zoo entrance, on flat tarmac ground close to the main entrance. Wheelchairs are available for visitors and can be booked in advance by calling 01323 874100.

‘It is of paramount importance to Drusillas that all of their staff are aware of the needs of visitors with disabilities. As such, key staff members have attended “Welcome All” training and make sure that all of their disabled visitor requirements are met.

‘Located just off the A27 at Alfriston, Drusillas Park is open from 10 am until 6 pm daily. For further details, please telephone 01323 874100, email info@drusillas.co.uk or visit www.drusillas.co.uk.’

Birdworld – Farnham, Surrey

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Image Credit:Colin McKenzie

With a focus on (but not limited to!) introducing guests to our feathered friends, Birdworld – found near the Surrey-Hampshire border – has undertaken a concerted effort to make the experience of exploring their site in a wheelchair as smooth and easy as possible. Birdworld sent us some more details about the various steps they have taken to improve access:

‘Birdworld is fully accessible to visitors with disabilities. The site has flat and level paths throughout with plenty of resting places.

Wheelchairs: ‘Birdworld has wheelchairs available for use. These are provided free of charge with just a £10 returnable deposit. To guarantee use, it is advisable to book a wheelchair in advance on (01420) 22992.

Car parking: ‘On arrival, you will find designated spaces for disabled badge holders.

Toilets: ‘There are disabled toilet facilities throughout Birdworld, all of which are clearly marked on our easy-to-follow map, which you receive upon arrival.

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Assistance Dogs: ‘Assistance dogs are welcome at Birdworld.

The Grounds: ‘Flat level paths ensure easy access around the entire site. Due to the extensive amount of gardens, there is plenty of accessible seating and picnic areas for all of our visitors. Take some time to sit and enjoy the surroundings!

Forest Lodge Garden Centre: ‘Easy access to the adjoining garden centre is available via “The Link” footpath. As with the bird park, all areas are level and there are further disabled facility toilets and parking.

Ticket Prices: ‘Disabled visitors providing evidence of disability will be entitled to a concessionary rate which, during peak season, is £13.95. Visitors providing evidence of disability will also be entitled to bring a registered carer free of charge, per individual.’

British Wildlife Centre – Lingfield, Surrey

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Image Credit:Matt Binstead / British Wildlife Centre, Surrey

The British Wildlife Centre in Surrey offers disabled visitors a unique opportunity to get up close to a wide range of animals indigenous to the UK – something which would usually be very difficult to do in the wild habitats they normally call home. The staff at the centre were on hand to tell us more about what guests can look forward to seeing on a visit, and how being a wheelchair user in no way limits these opportunities:

‘The British Wildlife Centre in the heart of the East Surrey countryside is a great day out and a real natural history experience. It’s home to the finest collection of native species in the country, where you will see and learn about Britain’s own wonderful wildlife, with over forty different species on display, from tiny harvest mice to magnificent red deer and everything in between!

‘Here you will have the opportunity to see rarely seen species such as otters, Scottish wildcats, pine martens and red squirrels in a walk-through wooded enclosure, as well as foxes, badgers and beautiful free-flying British owls.

‘The Centre is fully accessible with designated parking bays, ramped entrances, and a unisex accessible toilet equipped with handrails. The vast majority of outdoor areas are step-free. Smooth tarmac paths run around the animal enclosures and wooden boardwalks provide access to the red squirrels and views over the wetland nature reserve and deer park. The two picnic areas are on grass. Essential carers assisting wheelchair users are admitted free of charge.

‘The British Wildlife Centre opens every weekend and public holiday of the year and daily during state school holidays (excluding 24/25/26 Dec).

‘Visit www.britishwildlifecentre.co.uk for dates and details.

‘The Centre is located on the A22, 10 minutes south of the M25, junction 6.’

Cotswold Wildlife Park & Gardens – Burford, Oxfordshire

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It is no exaggeration to say that Cotswold Wildlife Park & Gardens is one of the UK’s favourite animal attractions, and it can also lay claim to being the largest privately-owned zoological collection in the country. Those who have not visited before may be forgiven for assuming that the park, which was built within the grounds of an historic manor house, would struggle to be fully accessible to people with disabilities; however, as Managing Director Reggie Heyworth explains, improving access for all at the site is not just a priority – it’s a passion:

‘Although we are a large rural site of Cotswold parkland and gardens, we are relatively flat, and very push-chair/mobility friendly. Over the years we have managed to eliminate every step hazard, introduced disabled access on to our train, refurbished our disabled toilet facilities throughout the Park and in 2017 opened a “Changing Places” hoist facility. In addition, we have free wheelchairs for use by our disabled visitors and mobility scooters for hire.

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Above: Changing Places facility at  Cotswold Wildlife Park & Gardens (Image Credit: Closomat)

‘Doing everything we can to ensure that the disabled can enjoy the Park as much as everyone else has always been an absolute priority here. The Founder of the Park, John Heyworth (1925-2012), was himself severely disabled for his last years but still loved his daily visits to the Park.’

A representative from the park also explained how the site is happy to welcome any four-legged friends that visitors may wish to bring with them for the day: ‘We won the Kennel Club's “Be Dog Friendly” award for two years running and are proud to be the only large zoological collection in the UK to welcome dogs (Cotswold Wildlife Park has been a dog-friendly attraction since it first opened in 1970). So, if any of your families have dogs, they are more than welcome to bring them.’

World of Country Life – Exmouth, Devon

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The next attraction on our list is a great example of how wildlife sites up and down the UK are giving serious thought to the issue of accessibility and interacting with the disabled community in order to improve this aspect of their offering to visitors. Below, Debbie Butler – Marketing Manager at World of Country Life in Exmouth, Devon – explains how she took a proactive approach to opening up and clearly signposting disabled access throughout the site:

‘I wanted to produce an accessibility map for the park and invited a local care home to send somebody who is wheelchair-bound to spend the morning with me going around the park, enlightening me of the requirements needed. The time was well spent and we now have a very informative accessibility map on A3 paper in large text. The map shows, amongst other things, the gradients and where our two sets of wheelchair accessible toilets are.

‘We also have wheelchairs available, along with one mobility scooter, all of which can be booked in advance and are free of charge for the day.

‘We also offer any carer free admission.’

Bystock Pools - Exmouth, Devon

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Image Credit:Simon Williams

Wildlife and nature lovers near Exmouth are clearly spoilt for choice, as our next selection is also in this part of the world. Paying a visit to Bystock Pools nature reserve – managed by the Devon Wildlife Trust – is the perfect choice for any wheelchair users or others with disabilities who want to go a little off the beaten track and truly feel at one with the great outdoors. A representative from the trust told us a little more about the location’s suitability for disabled visitors, as well as what they can look forward to seeing upon arrival:

‘A boardwalk of 50m leads visitors beneath trees around the reserve’s attractive main pool. Viewing positions along the way allow people to see birds including kingfishers, tufted ducks, and moorhens. The boardwalk also provides an excellent spot to see a range of damselflies and dragonflies. Parking is limited to a roadside pull in.’

Blashford Lakes – Ringwood, Hampshire

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Image Credit:Jason Thompson

Another member of the Wildlife Trusts (the Hampshire & Isle of Wight branch of the organisation) is responsible for managing our final choice: Blashford Lakes, near the Hampshire town of Ringwood.

This reserve, which has given a new and beautiful lease of life to a series of former gravel pits, is well-known in the local area as a rewarding and relaxing place for people with limited mobility to spend time at. Blashford Lakes - which has become a haven for wildfowl, woodland birds, kingfishers, dragonflies and many other fascinating species – can be explored easily by wheelchair and mobility scooter users, with Radar keys opening various access points throughout the site.

All of the main paths throughout the reserve have shallow gradients and are laid with rolled gravel, meaning that disabled visitors should not have any problems reaching the many wonderful vantage points around the area.

Accessible toilets and the option to hire one of two robust, off-road ‘Tramper’ mobility scooters are just a couple of other examples of how the team at Blashford Lakes has shown a real commitment to allowing as many people as possible to enjoy its stunning surroundings.

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Image Credit:Andy Morffew

The attractions listed above merely scratch the surface of the many accessible wildlife attractions which can be found throughout the UK. As you will have seen, a number of these sites and other leisure facilities also offer excellent concessions for those with disabilities, meaning that funds can be saved and potentially put towards the cost of a stairlift and other vital mobility aids.