Home for heavyweights - Noah's Ark prepares for elephant arrivals
David Clensy visits Noah's Ark Zoo Farm to take a look at Europe's largest elephant enclosure as it begins to take shape ahead of next summer's opening
AT first glance you could be looking at just another industrial estate, barn or warehouse being fitted together with prefabricated girders slotting into place like pieces in an enormous jigsaw puzzle.
But the construction site that is currently dominating a great swathe of the Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, near Wraxall, will soon become home to a herd of heavy-weights.
At 20 acres, the attraction's new £1.2m elephant enclosure – Elephant Eden – will be the largest of its kind in Europe, but the international reputation of the zoo is hanging on its ability to make this particular Eden blossom.
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Zoo owner Anthony Bush knows all too well that any new elephant enclosure would always be mired in controversy.
"Over the years the standard of elephant enclosures at zoos has been so poor, that the Government last year said unless conditions were improved zoos would simply be banned from keeping elephants," Anthony says, as he looks out from beneath his hard-hat at the engineers working in the thick winter mud of the site.
"Lots of zoos have stopped keeping elephants – they are challenging animals to keep, they are big creatures, and because they are so intelligent they need to be kept constantly engaged with enrichment activities as well as physical exercise in order to protect them from arthritis on other ailments to which they are prone.
"But far from being put off the idea, we were inspired by the challenge of creating an elephant enclosure that serves the elephants well, and offers a place where a breeding programme for Asian elephants can successfully take place – this project has conservation at its core, and we certainly hope we will be able to breed elephants here over the coming years."
With just 30,000 Asian elephants left in the wild, compared to 300,000 of their African cousins, they are considered to be an endangered species. But captive breeding programmes across Europe have been heavily criticised over recent years, with organisations such as the RSPCA and Born Free Foundation speaking out against European zoos keeping elephants at all. Anthony and his team are keen to prove that elephants can be nurtured in this country.
"I think the RSPCA and Born Free have lost the plot when they say we shouldn't be keeping these animals in Europe," he says. "We have been planning this project for the last five years precisely because we want to make it different from all the rest – we have travelled the world looking at elephant enclosures, taking the best features from the best sites.
"In the early stages of planning the RSPCA presented us with a document outlining their idea of best practice for keeping elephants in captivity. We said we would build an enclosure that ticked every single one of their boxes – something that no other elephant enclosure in Europe does."
Which explains why Anthony is watching progress so fixedly ahead of its planned opening this summer.
For 35 years, Anthony and his wife Christina worked Moat House Farm as tenant dairy farmers. In 1995 they purchased the farm, sold the Friesian herd, and converted the farm's 310 acres to arable land and sheep raising, while building up a collection of more exotic species at the growing attraction – from lions and tigers to giraffes and emu.
No stranger to controversy, Anthony has persistently targeted larger animals, against the general flow of evolution in UK zoos, which are moving away from keeping larger animals in captivity. He has also been attacked for running the zoo on a creationist ethos, reflecting his own religious beliefs.
But as a model for farm diversification the attraction has seen extraordinary success in its transformation – indeed, the Elephant Eden project is receiving 30 per cent of its funding in the form of a DEFRA managed farm diversification grant. Anthony says he is also able to bring an understanding of farming technology and practice to the zoo environment.
"All too often zoos overuse tranquilliser darts, for example," he says. "If we need to treat our animals, we use pens – we funnel them into fenced corrals of the sort we would have used in sheep or cattle farming, whether it's a zebra or a giraffe."
There will be similar chases built within the structure of the new elephant house, in order to allow for easy treatment of the animals. It's just one of the designs that has had to be taken into consideration by Barry Baker, building manager for the project.
"It may just look like an enormous barn and a series of fields, but it's all quite technically specific for the elephants," he says.
"Each element of the build, from the walls of the enclosure to the scratch posts in the field, all have to be able to safely take the weight of a seven-tonne bull elephant.
"Then we have also tried to incorporate elements into the design that will ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of the elephants – for example, the floor of the enclosure will be one-metre deep sand yards, which allows keepers to easily rotate the sand for sanitation, but it will also allow them to build a forest each night by planting trees in the sand – which the elephants can enjoy pulling up and eating the next day.
"Then there will be food lowered down from above at different points, so they are encouraged to reach up to graze, and outside in the fields, as well as having an enormous mud bath and area of growing crops for them to eat and a willow copse for them to walk through, there will also be a series of food pipes buried in the ground, with trunk-sized holes, so the elephants can go through the process of finding their own food each day."
The zoo has just advertised for a specialist elephant keeper with at least five years' experience of working directly with elephants, and will soon begin the process of trying to find a community of elephants to begin the herd in the summer.
"It may seem late in the day for us to not actually have the elephants yet," says Jon Woodward, communications manager for the attraction. "But that tends to be how the zoo industry works. Often animals are exchanged between zoos surprisingly quickly, as the need arises.
"Our animals certainly won't come from the wild. They will be targeted for being captive-bred animals who are in need of more living space, who aren't getting on well in their current zoo, or possibly rescue animals, for example, from circuses.
"We are planning to start with a herd of four – three females and one bull, but as breeding is hopefully successful over the coming years, we think there is scope for up to 10 elephants on the site."
For more information about Noah's Ark Zoo Farm, which is currently closed for winter, visit the website at www.noahsarkzoofarm.co.uk
For more information on the new attraction click here.