Zoos, farms & more: Wildlife-themed days out for your little animals
I love seeing the pure excitement in my girls’ eyes when they spot one of their favourite animals at a zoo, farm or aquarium. It’s often all my eldest will talk about for weeks afterwards. We’re lucky to have animal attractions of all shapes and sizes in the UK, allowing kids the opportunity to see exotic and native species whether they live in the countryside or a city. Here are some wild days out we recommend for families:
This is one of those places where you can’t help but be wowed. The National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth has the UK’s deepest tank, which holds two million litres of water. You can walk under it and alongside it at two different levels while being eyeballed by sharks and stingray. The aquarium has an important role in international marine conservation so there’s plenty of fascinating facts for tweens and teens to soak up. Younger visitors might find it a little overwhelming, but there is an education centre where they can take a break for some colouring and crafts.
Visiting Longleat is a day out I remember from my own childhood, mainly due to the monkeys leaping all over our car during the drive-though safari. They still do it today. As well as the cheeky monkeys, lions and cheetahs stroll casually past and deer will walk up to your window searching for a snack. You can easily spend half a day on your self-drive safari, then fill the other half going on a jungle cruise, exploring the stately home or running around the adventure park.
The highlight of this mini-attraction is the Tropical Butterfly House which is home to hundreds of exotic butterflies, parrots and reptiles, all flying and roaming freely. Outside in the walled garden there’s a maze and playground suitable for younger children. The butterfly house and gardens are ideal for families from pre-schoolers and tweens looking for a low-key day out. Visit on a warm, sunny day to see the maximum number of butterflies.
We love Jimmy’s Farm. It was set up by Jimmy Doherty, childhood friend of Jamie Oliver, and has featured in a number of TV shows. From meeting the rare-breeds animals in the farm park to stooping low to explore the hobbit house and building dens in the woodland area, there’s loads to keep kids under 10 amused in this beautiful rural setting. Don’t miss fishing at the pond with Dolly, a member of Jimmy’s Farm team familiar to anyone who has watched the show, or pass up the chance to try one of Jimmy’s sausage rolls in the Field Kitchen - they are epic.
The very best way to see wildlife is in its natural habitat. Sea safaris allow you to do just that and there’s a boat ride to boot. There are a couple of options for spotting the various species of birds and mammals living on and around Puffin Island in the Menai Straits. Depending on your family’s preferred level of adventure, you can either take an exhilarating RIB ride or a more sedate cruise from Beaumaris on Anglesey. Both trips give you the chance to spot seals, sea birds and, of course, puffins in the right season.
This is a real hands-on farm experience, perfect for children aged eight and under. You can groom the ponies, help bottle feed goats and lambs, and cuddle guinea pigs. The biggest hit with the kids is always the tractor ride but my personal favourite is cheering on the pig race. Away from the animals there’s play areas and a cafe serving home-cooked hot and cold food. The children’s picnic box - my daughter’s lunch of choice when we’re out - is great value.
If you’re looking for a day to appease both the animal lovers and thrill seekers in your family, Flamingo Land is the ideal solution. As well as being the UK’s most visited zoo, it has a theme park with junior and family rides designed to get your heart pumping. In the zoo don’t miss the giraffe keeper talk and a chance to see the two Rothschild Giraffe calves. In the afternoon you can handle some of the zoo’s smaller and creepier animals in the Education Centre. If you’re visiting during the holidays and have fidgety kids, spend a little more on the fast track tickets to jump the theme park queues.
8. Dolphin watching in Cardigan Bay, West Wales
The UK might not have the right climate for swimming with dolphins but you can still see pods of them playing off our shores. The ideal place for dolphin spotting is Cardigan Bay in West Wales, which is home to Europe’s largest population of bottlenose dolphins. Taking a fast boat out into the bay is an experience you will never forget. During the one to two hour trips it’s possible to see grey seals, porpoise, sea birds and, of course, dolphins. Teens will enjoy the thrill ride and younger kids will be absorbed in searching for the tell-tale signs of dolphins nearby. Make sure you wrap up warm!
Animal experiences aren't the first thing you expect to find when visiting a city, but these little oases do exist, even in the Capital. Vauxhall City Farm is a small urban farm where pre-schoolers will love meeting ponies, alpacas and rabbits against a backdrop of sky scrapers. This is a free attraction run by volunteers, so expect no thrills. But what it does offer is a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life within easy reach of all the big attractions.
Despite the name, there’s a lot more than deer to see at the Scottish Deer Centre. Wolves, bears and moose roam the enclosures, and there are also otters and birds of prey. Some of the best ways to see the 14 different species of deer at the Centre is on the trailer ride - always popular with younger family members. For a different perspective on the park you can take the treetop walk where it’s possible to catch a glimpse of native red squirrels. If you luck out with the weather, or if your smallest wildlife explorers need a break, there’s also an indoor soft play area.
Nestled among the mountains of North Cumbria you’ll find the Lake District Wildlife Park with more then 100 species of animals and birds. The most striking thing about this zoo is how natural and in tune it is with its national park surroundings. Aside from the zebra, red pandas and the mandrill monkeys, the birds of prey display is a must-see. The handlers put on an informative and entertaining show flying birds low over the audiences’ heads. Tweens and toddlers love this small zoo day out, but come prepared for a bit of walking.
When you arrive at Manor Farm after a winding drive through the country park, it’s like you’ve stepped back in time. The farm was the setting for the BBC’s Wartime Farm series, which looked at the 600-year-old farm’s roll in World War II. Children can explore the historic farmhouse, the Victorian schoolroom and the air raid shelter. Among the farm animals are free-range chickens, cows, horses and pigs. Visit at the right time of year and you’ll hear the sequels of tiny piglets coming from the sty. Each day there’s a chance to meet and hold some of the newest baby animals to arrive at the farm. A day out at Manor Farm will delight school-age children and tiny tots, and is best suited for fair weather days as indoor space is at a premium.