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Park criticised for overcrowding in lions' den

A safari park has come under criticism by Government vets for keeping lions in a "very crowded" overnight pen for 18 hours a day over the winter.

Officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) were called to Woburn Safari Park in Bedfordshire in January following complaints. The park is currently building a new lion house, due to open this summer. A report said the "inadequate" building was "structurally unsound".

The inspection was carried out by Defra and officers from Central Bedfordshire Council, the zoo's licensing authority, following concerns from a former worker. It was followed up by a second visit in February and a further inspection earlier this month.

The report on lions, which was compiled in January, said: "There were clear signs of fighting between the animals; the overnight house was inadequate in space provision and facilities for the animals, structurally unsound and unsafe to operate."

It found that staff going near the enclosure were armed with a shotgun in case the building deteriorated and the animals escaped.

"The lions were confined in the winter season for unreasonable lengths of time," it added. "However, it was clear that the Woburn management were acting to improve the situation."

.The park was also issued with a prohibition notice by the council in April to improve fences enclosing its bull elephant, Raja, because of a "real and present likelihood of escape".

The notice was withdrawn the following day, when the council acknowledged its conditions were being met, the park said.

An internal report in May last year discovered the chlorinated water in its sea lion enclosure was causing eye discomfort. It has now moved them to a facility with sea water.