Going Wild in Wiltshire
PUBLISHED: 12:47 19 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:44 20 February 2013
Kate Wood meets some of the stars of Longleat <br/><br/>Safari Park - and is shown around by one, too!
Those of you who have followed the BBC TV series Animal Park will already know Ian Turner, Deputy Head Warden at Longleat Safari Park, as something of a screen personality. But today he is my personal chauffeur and companion as I"take a tour with him of the Park where he has worked for the past 34 years.
I"feel truly privileged to be getting this private tour, and although I"dont know it yet, I am about to have one of the best days ever!
Were in Africa!
The first section of the Park is the Viewing Area, and the only place where you can get out of your car, which is important for visitors who probably need to stretch their legs after long journeys to get here with young families in tow, Ian explains.
There are tapirs, tiny South"American mara, dromedary camels, wallabies, pygmy goats, the striking Bongo (above), a large antelope, and happily grazing together are the Rothschild Giraffes and Grants Zebras. Is that a baby zebra lying in the grass?
One week old today, she is! Mum wont let anyone near.
Kichaa, which means crazy in Swahili, is the first female baby Zebra to be born at Longleat for nine years.
We had some initial concerns about how the other animals might react to a new baby in their enclosure but the giraffe, along with the camels, llama and rest of the zebra family, seem to have really embraced Kichaa as another member of their extended Longleat family! She has been seen galloping around and generally bugging mum and dad with her playful behaviour, as well as chasing the odd rabbit which she spots in the reserve!
As we progress, there are flamingos, ducks, ibis, spoonbills in a large netted enclosure around water, partly to stop some of them flying off, but also, as Ian adds, to stop Bongos and other animals going in and wrecking the place!
Unlike the zebra, who gave birth naturally and unaided, some of the other inmates need special attention, as Ian explains.
The flamingos are just laying. We take their egg away and put a dummy one underneath. When that is just pipping out, just about to hatch, well swap it, put the chick underneath mum and take the dummy egg away, and then theyll bring them up.
Why do you have to do all this for them, I ask. Theyd just kick the eggs about."And we cant rely on British weather. At least I should say we can rely on British weather not to be nice continuously for a whole month, and incubation is 33 days.
The White Back Vultures remain motionless on their perches in the trees, hunched, just looking, but theydo have a menacing presence.
As soon as one is brave, comes down and says its all clear, the others will come down. Vultures are carrion, all they feed off is dead bodies. They are the dustbinmen of the world. Theyll clear up after anything, any dead bodies.
Notice they dont have much fur on their heads. Thats because its the head that goes down into all the bodies, gets into the guts, so you dont want your fur clogged up with blood and stuff all the time. Its just down, so it can be kept clean.
Theyre low in the pecking order, so if anything comes up, theyll go off, though if theres enough of them they might try and chase jackals away. They might be the first on scene because they see something is dying, but if a lion spots vultures coming down, hell rush over. Hyenas are the worst; theyll chase the vultures off until theyre done, so they just have to come back when everyones finished.
I am remembering those scenes in Westerns where the parched and dying baddie wanders the desert in blinding heat, with vultures circling overhead
Yeah, says Ian. They will follow and follow and follow until someone drops.
Massacre of the vegetarians
Following the road through these large open areas of the Park, it can be difficult to spot exactly where the animals are, but look out for the zebra-striped patrol vehicles because they will always be parked close by.
They are watching for cars with open windows, anybody being stupid, and in case anyone breaks down. If they see steam coming out of a bonnet, theyve got a radio to call up on. Rescue or admonishment will be swift, which I find reassuring because I find myself feeling I"am in a completely different world here. I"know I am only a mile or so from the gates and the Wiltshire countryside I"am used to, but I feel as though I really am in"Africa on safari, and absolutely loving it.
Sure enough it is near the patrol vehicle that we find the three Southern White Rhinos grazing peacefully one male, two female. Looking at them, I"recall watching on webcam the successful birth at Paignton Zoo (in Devon) a couple of years ago of a baby rhino, whose heart-rending and exhausting efforts to raise itself from the now slippery pen floor where it had just been born captured the attention and concern of hundreds of viewers. Ian nods. He too had watched that dramatic footage of the birth, which had ultimately required human intervention to assist the newborn to its feet.
Yeah, you have to deep-litter the house so the floor is really thick, cos you can guarantee once mum has started to give birth, and has scooted around all the floor, you can guarantee that will be the place the baby will be born. Guaranteed! And then the baby just cant get up.
He has been mating one on a regular basis. We have just got to keep our fingers crossed.
What sort of parents are rhinos?
The White rhino mum, shell follow. If the baby goes, shell go after it. Whereas the Black Rhino mum, she goes off and the baby follows her, its the other way round.
They love being stroked in the house. Giraffes dont like being stroked, but rhinos love to be stroked, especially behind the ears. They come over for a tickle! They love it, Ian enthuses, his familiarity
Oh yes. We sent some back to the wild and they had wardens with them 24/7, watching them all the time, but even they got massacred. Weve even chopped the horns off them so they havent got any horns, so its not worth going for them. But the trackers still track them, and when they find its a rhino without a horn they kill it anyhow so they dont go tracking the same one again. So, were onto a losing battle.
The big cats!
We leave the large open meadows and a double set of iron security gates looms. The gates work on a lock system:"one opens and you enter. Once that one is closed behind you, the one in front opens.
Youve got to be a little bit more alert on this side of the Park, watching out for the public. If somebody gets out in the deer park, it doesnt matter. If someone gets out in the wallaby section, its not life or death. If somebody gets out in here, its a bit more his voice trails off. Which, Im afraid to say, does happen. We had people out last year!
I am incredulous. He stops his Jeep a few yards from the gates to show me what happened.
Their car broke down just here and they walked back to the gate! They were very, very lucky. If it had been feed-up day that day, theyd have met three tigers! Luckily they were fast asleep in the top corner.
We drive on and get close to the three Amur tigers, all sisters, who came from France three years ago. Magnificent, imperious... huge paws!
The first couple of photographs I take are very shaky indeed. I"have never been so close to such an incredible animal and I"am very, very anxious. But Ian is calm and confident. Through a sliver of open window, he makes a clucking noise and asks one of them why shes not swimming today! There is a pond here, long grass to hide up in, and shelters from the wind. She does not answer. She does not even look our way. She has her eyes fixed on something in the distance... perhaps it is dinner.
We feed them three times a week, exactly as they would in the wild. They chase the truck through a long section in the middle. We dont advertise the feeding times because of the traffic it attracts, and then we cant get round!
We enter the first of the two African lion enclosures.
Weve just sent our male away for breeding and we are waiting for a new male to arrive, We cant find a male in this country not related to ours that anyone else is ready to lose. So, weve got a couple of others pencilled in from abroad, but they will have to do quarantine. You have to put all the cats in quarantine together for six months so the new male gets used to the females, and we dont want to do that in the height of summer, so we will probably do it in October.
Heres the five girls. They are all unrelated and quite mature, 13 or 14, oldish. They live to 23. Their boyfriend has just gone to Newquay Zoo, and the male from the next section has gone to Stirling.
The females do all the work, all the hunting and killing, and looking after the babies. But today they are sunbathing together. There is shelter if they want it, logs to crawl into, and all the snow last winter didnt bother them at all. In fact, they loved it.
In the heat of todays blistering sun, I"am struck by how similar their behaviour is to that of my little Jack Russell. When his fur starts to burn from sunbathing too long in the garden, he gets up, pants, wanders a couple of feet and then flops heavily straight back down again on his side. The lions do exactly the same.
What happens in the wild is that a nomadic male will turn up out of the blue... which is just what is going to happen here. Only hes going to arrive by plane fly in from Germany or somewhere!
Mail order... internet dating... I laugh at how preposterous it seems that whether we are humans or lions, the internet might be the way to find a mate.
We drive on through more security gates to the second pride of lions, who are a lot younger than the first. Why are the two prides kept apart?
They would fight to the death! And if you were to bring a new male in, and there were cubs here, he would just kill them.
Ian is responsible for much of the amazing photography that is reproduced in the Parks literature and on the website.
I was out here taking pictures of the lions early one morning when there was nobody about, and a parrot swooped down out of nowhere. It was somebodys lost pet parrot! So we had to lock the lions in to rescue the bloomin parrot!
It was a very lucky parrot. It swooped down the first time and the lions went berserk, chasing it. And Wild and wonderful
One of the most amazing things about spending a day at Longleat is that within moments of leaving the Park, with the images of these magnificent animals still fresh in your mind, you fnd yourself driving through the sweet little villages of Wiltshire. It is marvellously incongruous.
My message is twofold: if Safari Parks like this did not exist and there are five of them in the UK" the future of some species would be severely at risk. They are important sanctuaries of care and conservation in a world where their natural habitats are either diminishing or threatening.
And the other message is, if you know a child that has not yet been to Longleat, take them as soon as you can!
Longleat Safari Park, Warminster, BA12 7NW.