Giant tortoises, large hairy armadillos and a cockroach or two – meet the Askham Bryan family

Bright eyed and bushy-tailed… a lemur at Askham Bryan Wildlife & Conservation Park. Photograph: Marc McGarraghy
23 Sep 2019 @ 6.04 pm
| Entertainment

“One of our most popular workshops with schools is quite rightly about habitat. If you don’t understand the animal’s habitat you’re never going to understand how to protect it.

“There’s no point trying to protect an animal unless you protect the place it lives in. This awareness is what interests children, their parents and all of our visitors in conservation going forward.”

So says Caroline Howard, park manager at Askham Bryan Wildlife & Conservation Park. Spend any time with Caroline or any other members of staff at the park, and their passion for its animals and its purpose soon shines through.

Caroline Howard and Marcus Bodle with one of the park’s giant tortoises
Two of the park’s armadillos

Many in York don’t realise that such an extraordinary educational and fun attraction is on their doorstep.

But if you’ve driven by the agricultural college on the A64 you’ve also passed a growing collection of animals from around the world that this burgeoning team of students and industry experts are keen to share with you.

Opened after the Second World War, Askham Bryan College grew up around existing farm buildings and a beautiful arboretum. It specialises in agriculture, conservation, arboriculture, animal, land and equine management.

It was Local Enterprise Partnership funding that allowed the college to create the wildlife park, which opened in 2017.

Hands on with the animals

Animals are chosen for their educational, conservational and research value as well as their public appeal
It provides an additional educational facility for students in areas such as ‘hands on’ animal management, zoo licensing and experience with external partners like specialist vets and other zoo collections.

Caroline was a keeper at Birmingham Wildlife Conservation Park before joining the Askham Bryan team in order “to create an educational attraction and build up the animal collection”.

“Factors in putting the collection together included the educational, conservational and research value of the species as well as, more obviously, species that have public appeal,” she says.

  • Wanting to promote conservation through education, we’re not ‘just’ a visitor attraction we’re a teaching facility.

    It’s about creating a conservation community within our student population but but also across all generations visiting and experiencing the wildlife park.

    If you talk to zoo keepers, everyone has had that moment where they were at a zoo and were inspired to work in conservation, it happened to me. So as a college training people into that career it makes perfect sense to provide that experience.

Bug talks

Here’s a slippery character from the reptile house. Photograph: Marc McGarraghy
Fish and amphibians keeper Marcus Bodle is a perfect example of this. “I came here straight from Joseph Rowntree school at sixteen, having heard about it on ‘taster days’ with Green Apples [an aspiration-raising project for pupils at local primary and secondary schools],” he says.

“I wanted to do something different and came back to the college to get involved.”

He took a diploma in animal management, followed by a foundation degree and then a BSc in Zoo Management. “The college had been talking about developing the wildlife park when I took my diploma, I’ve seen the facilities being built and it’s nice seeing what it was become now,” he says, adding:

  • I started working weekends for the park as we were opening to the public which brought a lot of new experiences for me.

    It’s given me a lot of confidence, you can understand the theory, you can have knowledge, but to actually get involved, do it and share it with others is special. I always feel good after sharing with the public.

He enjoys giving the bug talks most. “People don’t know what to expect and you can take them from that ‘fear’ of something they’ve never seen before to wanting to come back again at the end of their visit.”

Cockroaches are lovely

Who are you calling weird? A leech – one of Caroline’s favourites
The park today has a collection including amongst others wallabies, lemurs, racoons, meerkats, alpacas, chinchillas, large hairy armadillos and a wide range of fish, reptiles and birds. Do they have personal favourites?

For Caroline it’s… leeches! “Yes! They’re just weird.

“We have the European medicinal leech here. My dad was an entomologist so I always had an interest in invertebrates.

“I like that when you work with invertebrates and you’re talking to the public they’ll see things that they probably didn’t think they’d like or be interested in, it’s quite novel for them.

“Everybody knows they’re going to like a lemur but most people don’t realise that if you introduce them to them they’d probably quite like a cockroach as well!”

Cockroaches? Really?

  • Cockroaches are actually much more cuddly than lemurs. lemurs don’t really like interaction. Cockroaches are lovely.

    The thing is they’re very social and like cuddles. We do ‘meet the bug’ sessions where we try to dispel some of the dreadful myths about cockroaches.

    Of 4,000 species of cockroach only a handful that are pests, the rest are just tarred with the same brush

For Marcus, it’s something called a mine urchin. “It’s a little spiky ball. I’ve got two of them, they’re not the most exciting thing to look at but for a ball that has no legs they move quickly. ”

Dwayne and Johnny

One of the Askham Bryan goats. Photograph: Marc McGarraghy
What are their highlights of establishing the park so far?

“The arrival of the giant tortoises,” Marcus says. “It was one of those ‘this is what I do, this is my job’ special moments.

“They’re called Dwayne and Johnny and they’re massive – 40-plus kilos of tortoise each. It was a surreal experience with two people per tortoise lifting them out, putting them into their new area and watching them settle in.”

There have been many for Howard but partnerships but teamwork and partnerships feature highly, for example the Tansy Beetle Conservation Project.

An alpaca. Photograph: Marc McGarraghy

A beautiful shimming green beetle, the Ouse valley is home to one of only three populations in the UK and is the largest.

With the river prone to flooding this is an additional danger to the species and the team have created ‘arks’ on the college site away from flood prone areas to help this project, helping local groups protect this very important endangered species and educating students and visitors along the way.

“Establishing a park is a blank canvas to start with, there’s so much I’ve always wanted to do and this has given me the opportunity to put my experience in the industry into practice,” Caroline says.

The park is educational as well as entertaining

“When we did the ‘Finding Darwin’ project one of our eight-year-old season ticket holders made Charles Darwin a birthday card. She came in and had her photo taken with (the image of) him.

“That’s someone who is going to grow up and work in conservation, there’s no way she’s not. She was at home, talking to her family about Charles Darwin and that was as a direct result of being here, being involved, that was pretty special. It’s those kind of things.”

To find out more about the park, the collection, opening times and facilities visit the website.