Shy mammals take a walk on the wild side

British animals get a bad press, says Tom Pullar-Strecker, but a new zoo may change that
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The Independent Online
If you go down to the woods today you do have more of a chance of spotting a water vole, black rat or pine marten than of chancing across a teddy bears' picnic; but your best bet might be a zoo in the New Forest displaying Britain's native mammalian species.

On show at the Nature Quest zoo in Longdown in the New Forest are wild boar, foxes, badgers, wallabies and a wide range of assorted rodents. Wallabies, while not native, are naturalised: they have, apparently, been happily hopping about in Derbyshire since the turn of the century.

Visiting the New Forest to watch British animals in captivity may seem anathema to some, and downright boring to others. But while British wildlife may seem mundane compared with its more exotic counterparts in mainstream zoos, it certainly isn't a case of familiarity breeding contempt. The British wild cat, for instance, has been reduced to just a few thousand specimens in Scotland as a result of cross-breeding with domestic cats and exposure to domestic cat diseases.

Derek Gow, the curator of the zoo, insists poor presentation is entirely to blame for the bad press that domestic animals get. "In the main when you consider British mammals you're looking at a ubiquitously shy, retiring group of mainly nocturnal species, not large showy, gaudy African-plains- type animals. But people can go all over the country and see lions, tigers and elephants and there is virtually nowhere in the British Isles you can go to see a water vole."

The company that runs Nature Quest, Vardon plc, has done what it can to simulate the experience of a chance encounter with nature in the wild by displaying animals in miniature re-creations of both man-made and natural habitats. Brown rats scuttle around a fake garage complete with a rusty car, while ferrets loll about in a simulated paddock.

Viewing of the animals - often through video links and one-way glass screens - is relatively non-intrusive and the stress of captivity is reduced by rotating groups of animals between public displays and private off-display enclosures. Nature Quest hopes to secure planning permission for a board-walk over spacious fenced enclosures in the woodlands surrounding the zoo, which will house low-density populations of wild boar, deer, red squirrels and wild cats.

Derek Gow explains, "People should stretch, stoop and strain. If the animal is just sitting like a blob in a concrete box then we have failed with the concept."

Initial reaction from Nature Quest visitors seems to bear out the hypothesis. Steve Chilcraft, a visitor from Milton Keynes who admits his usual encounters with nature are limited to "an occasional glimpse of a fox at the top of the garden" says: "It is much more adventurously done than most wildlife displays. They have made British animals interesting."

Although it is a commercial venture, Nature Quest is forging links with conservation groups and universities with the aim of providing both the stock and the know-how to help re-introduce some species into the wild. Derek Gow cautions: "The New Forest is an interesting woodland and there is a whole range of vertebrate life that is connected with the forest because of its age, and if you go back 500 years you would have found wild cats, wild boar and pole cats. But the heavy grazing regime that it is subjected to obviously influences fairly radically the variety of wildlife habitats. I doubt you'll ever see wild boar again in this country because we don't have large enough forest areas to maintain self-sustaining populations." Wild cats? "Maybe not in the New Forest, but in England ultimately, yes."

It is in gaining expertise in animal husbandry while breeding animals destined for elsewhere that Mr Gow believes the future lies: "Lots of people jump up and down shouting for the re-introduction of a whole variety of species but the reality is that it has to be a calm, precise, scientifically methodical project to have any reasonable chance of success.

"If you want to re-introduce water voles, you want to introduce hundreds of them and really blitz a site, and when we have an animal with a problem we have to know something about it," he argues. "Otherwise you end up with a situation like the Mauritius kestrel in Jersey which got down in number to five pairs. What do you do? Bring them into captivity for breeding? But what if they die? You've blown it."