• Reading time:11 mins read

The first rule of writing on the internet is to write ludicrous titles for your posts. I really wanted to write a post called “The biggest zoos in the UK” but this sounded far too pedestrian. I thought about using football fields for my comparison but they ended up being too small. I thought about using UK counties but they were too big. Then I wondered, how big is the world’s smallest country? It turns out that Vatican City is just right. At only 130 acres in size, it compares nicely to the largest zoos in the UK.

So just how big is 130 acres? Well you can walk all the way around Vatican City in about 45 mins or from one side to the other in about 10 mins. This fits fairly well with some of the timings for the below zoos… if you got a call that your wife was going into labour you’d probably be able to get back to your car within 10 minutes (though you’d have to ask yourself was today really a good day to be zooing?).

Some of the zoos in this list I found a little surprising. I had also expected some zoos to be on here which aren’t. Scotland’s most popular zoo, Edinburgh Zoo, only clocks in at 82 acres – way smaller than Vatican City. It just goes to show that size doesn’t always matter when it comes to popularity.

I’m going to save safari parks for their own post. I’m making a fairly arbitrary split and defining zoos as places where you could theoretically see all the animals on foot. If you can see all the animals by foot but have the option to take the car around (like Whipsnade) then it’s still a zoo. If you can walk around but the zoo needs to take you on a zoo safari tour to see some stuff (like Port Lympne) then then it’s a safari park. Got it?

Oh, and I’m excluding theme parks that also have animal collections. Drayton Manor, Flamingo Land and Chessington World of Adventures would all fit into this category but a lot of their space is given up to rollercoasters and I’m not sure if they count as zoos anyway. A topic for another blog post perhaps.

Back to the task in hand: the UK’s largest zoos in reverse order…

5th Place. Chester Zoo. 130 acres

Chester Zoo is the UK’s most popular zoo but only its fifth biggest. It had an annual visitor count in 2019 of over 2 million people, this zoo just shows you don’t have to be the biggest to be the best. However, 5th place on a UK biggest zoos list still means that it is pretty big so you need to give it a full day when you go. If you want to get a quick view of the wildlife whilst resting your feet you could go on the famous Chester Zoo monorail which runs round the whole park.

Chester Zoo actually owns about 400 acres of land so they have plenty of space to expand. In 2015 they opened the UKs largest exhibit called “Islands” which cost £40m for a 16 acre expansion. This new area isn’t one single enclosure but a lot of new enclosures themed around six different Islands where Chester Zoo is involved in conservation projects. At £40m for 16 acres I think it might be a while until they fill up their full 400 acre site.

‘Islands’ at Chester zoo – a 16 acre £40m expansion

What can you expect to see at Chester Zoo? Well, pretty much everything. Chester Zoo is widely renowned for having one of the best animal collections in Europe. From Jaguars to Orangutans, Tigers to Elephants, walk-through bats to Komodo dragons, it seems Chester Zoo has it all. The bit that stays with me the most from my own visit is seeing the weaver birds building nests above a pond in the Tsavo Bird Safari walk-through aviary.

You can see Jaguars at Chester Zoo

4th Place Marwell Zoo. 140 acres

Clocking in at 4th place Marwell Zoo (just outside Winchester) is a large, spacious, calm piece of parkland with a limited number of animals is some very large enclosures. There is so much room because the zoo is set in the grounds of Marwell Hall, a beautiful stately home. And while it has a small collection, I don’t know many other stately homes where you can find snow leopards, tigers and giraffes.

Marwell Hall in all its peaceful glory

If you visit you should take advantage of the zoo train as it is a lot of walking for one day, though great for tiring out small children!

3rd Place Cotswold Wildlife Park. 160 acres

The only UK zoo which allows dogs! That’s right, DOGS! When I go on holiday with my family, either we organise a day’s dog care wherever we are or I go zooing solo. Not at Cotswold Wildlife Park! We’ve got a Cotswold holiday coming up in November and I’m excited for that moment my little pooch sees her first giraffe. She doesn’t really like horses so who knows what she’ll make of it.

At 160 acres we’re now talking pretty big. This allows the Cotswold Wildlife Park to have quite a wide range of species on show including cloud leopards, lions, Europe’s first pair of breeding wolverines and a breeding herd of White Rhinos. As with most zoos of this size there is a train which runs round the park allowing you to see the animals at the same time as resting those sore feet.

The white rhinos at Cotswold Wildlife Park

I will call out a bit of a cheat on this one. I’ve gone by the size which is on the website but I’m pretty sure that includes a bit of garden & parkland. I’ve attempted to measure the zoo area using google maps and I’m missing about 30 acres. Due to this I’ve relegated them to 3rd place rather than tying for 2nd.  

2nd Place Highland Wildlife Park. 160 acres

This was a difficult one because technically you could call it a safari park since you can’t see the Elk without going in a car. However, I think you could see pretty much everything else at Highland Wildlife Park on foot so I thought I’d let it slide. I haven’t been but the images I can find online certainly look more ‘zooish’ than ‘safarish’. Maybe I’ll rethink it when I visit or if anyone reading has a strong opinion feel free to comment below.

Snow Monkeys at Highland Wildlife Park

Highland Wildlife Park is built on a hill, just like its sister zoo Edinburgh, so be prepared for a good amount of exercise. It will be worth it though, with a fantastic collection of predominantly cold-area animals. Polar bears, snow leopards and artic foxes all look very at home in this kind of environment.

1st Place Whipsnade Zoo. 600 acres

And finally to the largest zoo in the UK, Whipsnade Zoo. This is a zoo so large you can take the car in providing you don’t mind paying a little extra. If you have a full day free then you can do it all by foot and park outside for free. The zoo is based around different geographic regions, each with its own car park, so you could almost think of this as four mini zoos all rolled into one.

Whipsnade Zoo is the sister zoo of London Zoo, both managed by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Someone once described it to me as “the place where they put the big animals that won’t fit in the middle of London”. That seems very apt for a zoo that has a herd of elephants, cheetahs, bears, two types of rhino and even bison.

The Cheetah’s at Whipsnade Zoo

To make it all a bit more manageable you could stay at Lookout Lodge (once it’s back open following the lockdown). This would mean splitting the experience over two days PLUS you’d get dinner, a sunset tour, a night time tour and a sunrise tour as part of the package.

I think Whipsnade Zoo is a very worthy holder of the largest zoo in the UK title. ZSL do a huge amount of conservation work as well as being leaders in the zoological sciences. When you think of Whipsnade Zoo and London Zoo together you can’t be anything but impressed at the variety and quality of the exhibits that ZSL manage.

All big zoos should have a train of some description – here is the Whipsnade one

Leave a Reply