HAMPSHIRE: Marwell Zoo

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By Tim Saunders
Birds have four types of feathers. I never realised this until I visited Marwell Zoo in Hampshire. Wing feathers help the bird fly, tail feathers help to balance and steer, body feathers give protection as well as streamlining while down feathers keep the bird warm.
For me the sign of a good day out is walking away with a few interesting, useful facts like this. A nice sunny weekend is an ideal opportunity to visit this attraction, set in 140 acres of Hampshire countryside near Winchester. It’s home to 1,200 animals and there is an emphasis on African wildlife ranging from giraffes and zebras to rhinoceroses, pygmy hippopotamuses and meerkats as well as some colourful birds. Founded by John Knowles, who opened it in 1972, Marwell soon became a leading zoo in Europe to carry out important animal conservation work.
When we arrive there is a healthy queue forming at the entrance, proof of this attraction’s popularity. While there are some locals with annual passes there are many tourists, not just from Britain but further afield, including America and Canada.
One of the first exhibits to catch our attention is the penguin enclosure and we discover that it is possible to go inside and watch them swim past a glass screen. Henry (2) is mesmerised by this. We all watch as they cut through the water with seemingly little effort. We are able to spend a few minutes here without any complaints. When they do arrive we make our way to the giraffes that hold the children’s attention for a good 10 minutes. We all watch as they chew the hay and walk about. It is astonishing how tall these creatures are. To think that at birth they are the height of a reasonably tall person at 5” 11 inches and can reach almost 20ft. Another interesting fact is that they can run at 30mph.
Back outside, my wife says: “The Dorcas gazelle can live its entire life without drinking.” They get the moisture they need from the plants they eat. Isn’t nature incredible?
We are fortunate that the weather behaves itself for the day, which allows us to stroll about with our three children. It is a big site for little feet to walk around and so there are numerous stops; for snacks, lunch, the toilet and the playground. It is at the playground that little Henry finds a climbing frame and slide that he particularly enjoys and proves unwilling to leave behind. As do, it seems, many other small people. Tantrums are par for the course and the animals seem unfazed by this. We gradually leave to watch a tiger on walkabout. This temporarily stops Heidi (5) and Henry from thinking about their stomachs. Then Henry’s pushchair, that Heidi insists on pushing, falls over backwards in the mud. But a little boy runs to Heidi’s aid.   
We move on and Harriett (7) says: “My favourite animals are the meerkats.” When Henry first spies a meerkat he calls it a hedgehog but very soon masters its correct name.
Harriett’s best friend Chloe has been a regular visitor to Marwell since birth. Passionate about wildlife, perhaps as a result of these regular visits, Chloe wants to become a zookeeper. 
For those of us who haven’t got the time or simply can’t afford to visit Africa, Marwell has to be the next best thing. Yet it is surprising that these creatures can survive our often cold climate. Introducing children to such amazing wildlife is priceless. And the adults thoroughly enjoy it, too.
 
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