I have had the pleasure of visiting and having a tour of the gardens with Tim Miles twice now, yes I am that greedy, but with so much to see its worthwhile to make repeat visits to this wonderful venue.
The most recent visit was to cover the book launch ‘A Celebration of the Gardens’ written in collaboration by Harriet Rycroft and Tim Miles. Now most of you will have heard of Harriet who’s expertise in arranging seasonal floral displays is legendary to say the least. This book is utterly enchanting.
Cotswold Wildlife Park is very different to every other wild animal park ive ever visited, set in the grounds of the Heyworth family home, John Heyworths vision for the estates future in the 1970’s was amazingly forward thinking. Revolutionary for its time one may say. He saw a future for both the gardens and for breeding programmes that would help ensure the survival of species that hadn’t been considered at a time when most zoos still had cramped cages.
Here massive areas were put in place, gone were the bars and bare concrete cages normally associated with zoos, instead grasslands with huge ancient trees became the animals homes. Most unusual for the time was the team of gardeners put together to not only tend the formal areas but to work hand in hand with the animals carers to provide spaces and plants within the enclosures, to mimic as closely as possible the environments they would experience in the wild. Habitats which then and now were coming under increasing pressure from our actions with deforestation and pollution. John’s vision was to provide an ark for these animals to save them from extinction, educate us the public, until such time as the world caught up with the significance of habitat loss and hopefully animals could be returned to areas they had once called home. His son Reggie, continues to carry this passion, not only for the gardens with their huge arboretum of unusual trees, the formal areas surrounding the house, the tropical plants within the animals homes and the expansive seasonal displays but for the process of conservation and reintroduction in which they play an enormous role.
The book itself is more than just a coffee table book filled with incredible, inspiring pictures, it has real information which you or I as a gardener can take real insight from. Due to the parks incredible size and diversity in forming habitats for its residents there is literally something for everyone. The gardeners realise the balance that is needed to create engaging habitats for the animals and that the survival and happiness of the animals isn’t divorced from their environment and vice versa. A brilliant example of this can be seen in the Tropical house, home to Sloths, Fruit Bats, Potoroos and the myriads of birds that flit around your head as you enter this miniature Eden.
As you step through the door the warm, humid atmosphere envelops you, the sound of water and birdsong conspire to convince you, you have entered another country. This truly is the domain of the residents, us humans are confined to a single track which skirts their home as they come to peer at us! We are the curiosity to be stared at!
Our intrusions aside, the birds, eat the bugs on the plants, the sloths and fruit bats feast on the plants fruits. Their scat and guano fertilises the forest floor, feeding both the plants and the insects that live there, it has a beautiful carefully balanced symmetry. The plants provide the nesting materials for the birds to breed and raise their chicks and its so very easy to overlook this amazing feat of plant/animal husbandry when it appears so effortless on a summers day but imagine when its -5 outside what a little miracle this whole environment is.
Having visited the Eden project several times it becomes obvious that to try and divorce flora from fauna in these situations can be a horticultural nightmare. The inclusion of habitat specific fauna means that the whole system is working in balance. Im not sure what Edens current policy is on biocontrols and including birds, animals in their bi-omes, I know when they first opened they were very keen to encourage a fair amount into the environment to curtail any problems that might occur. However it became apparent very quickly the balance wasn’t right and so a programme of chemical intervention was put in place, this of course had a knock on effect to the beneficial insects and not being a sealed environment it was unfeasible to introduce non native species to combat their nasties. The fact the balance in the Cotswolds tropical area is perfect speaks volumes about the need for achieving that perfect balance and the skills of their horts and animal experts.
Meanwhile in Madagasgar, a short hop from the tropical house, the horticulturists skills are put to a different challenge! The resident Lemurs which roam free are constantly foraging and leaping around amongst the vegetation! This has been a steep but successful learning curve for all involved balancing the need for Lemur resistant vegetation and creating a space they can enjoy. The Cherry trees were absolutely decimated in the first few years and none survived the attentions of these entertaining guys, however over the years a process of trial and error has succeeded in finding plants they can not only feast upon but will also give them privacy from our prying eyes when they want it and a place to hang out and relax… that said these born comics of the animal world do seem to enjoy their time in the limelight, courting our cameras!
In the book, Harriet and Tim document the various plant failures and successes which now decorate their home.
Its not just about the animals entertainment though! The gardens department provide colourful displays year round for the visitors, often with rare and unusual plants.
When you take a quiet moment to sit down there are several little oasis of colour, scent and form for us to enjoy. The plant theatre, conservatory, Mediterranean and top courtyards provide a quiet area for contemplation and relaxation. All beautifully detailed in the book.
The park is such a wonderful environment for a day (or easily more) out, its well worth planning your visit in advance. Whether a family or as a couple or group there is so much to see and do. Having now been twice and reading the book I’ve realised I’ve missed huge great areas! A return visit to amend these omissions is on the cards. Because of the sheer scale of the place and the careful planting around it, it never feels crowded, borders lining paths curve sinuously both shielding views and drawing you on.
Large areas of grass allow families to spread out picnicking with children running madly around. Happy, well behaved dogs are even allowed on a lead, imagine what fido thinks coming face to face with the worlds biggest pussy cat!
I will be spending some time going through the book and planning my visit, possibly in the spring this time having now seen it in autumn and early summer. If you’d like to grab yourself a copy prior to visiting, which i’d highly recommend, its available here
Or you can of course pick one up in the shop as a memento of what I promise will be a very special day!