Askham Bryan Wildlife and Conservation Park is a great zoo for families with young children looking for a really fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Since opening in 2017, Askham Bryan Wildlife and Conservation Park has been serving as a place to educate the next generation of zoo managers and animal keepers alongside their existing (and very successful) land-based college. In fact, they’ve managed to squeeze a full zoo, complete with wallabies, lemurs and meerkats, into the same site as the old arboretum. Being a small zoo has its perks, especially if you are the kind of person who doesn’t want to spend hours walking round endless paths to see all the exhibits.
Being a small zoo also means that it is pretty cheap at £7 for an adult ticket and £22 for the whole family. There is an extra cost if you want to visit York falconry located at the back of the zoo but this is hardly going to break the bank at £2 a person. The ticket desk is at the front of the modern-looking, newish building which greets you when you pull up at the car park. It also serves as the till for the small shop they have as well as the information desk giving details of the days talks. One of the pros of a small zoo is that it is usually the same very friendly member of staff that greets you on the way in and on the way out.
Whilst the front half of the building is fairly unassuming, the back half is where the “wildlife of the world” exhibit can be found. I’d recommend you start here rather than go out to the zoo as a few of these animals can be quite secretive in their enclosures and you might want to come back at the end to have a chance to see any that you’ve missed. For me, this meant I actually saw the Chinchilla which must have been sleeping when I first arrived.
On entering the exhibit you first go past a selection of interesting fish tanks including a coral reef, a UK rock pool tank (I’ve never seen one of these before) and a huge terrapin habitat with mixed land and water. On my visit these were well due a clean but as everything was spotless, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. Moving past the tanks, you come across an interesting mix of lizards, snakes, frogs, spiders… the usual reptile house inhabitants kept in good enclosures with natural theming and great signage. In fact, throughout the whole zoo the signs were really interesting and informative. With the exception of a few birds in the aviary, pretty much every species seen was clearly listed next to the enclosure in a really simple and effective layout. I’ve been to a number of larger and more expensive zoos which have had barely any information and it makes a big difference to the experience.
Moving past the assorted creepy crawlies you come to a nocturnal section where you can spot sugar gliders, chinchillas, armadillos and a palm civet. Because these are dark enclosures, with fairly shy nocturnal animals, it can be difficult to spot them. I’d at least recommend a little time trying to spot the Sugar Gliders because they are very cute and very characterful little creatures – think crossing a badger with a squirrel and making it small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
Straight out the back of the reptile house you move onto the meerkats and porcupines in the same exhibit. On my visit all the animals were in the indoor house which was only waist high so I had to get down on my hands and knees. Whilst a bit low down for me, it would be just right for a little kid who would be able to get face to face with the meerkats.
I skipped over the goats and alpacas (just for the record – not zoo animals) because they were a bit out of the way and moved into the main part of the wildlife park. I decided to play it safe and take the main path down to the “cheeky critters” which led me down to my favourite enclosure of the day – the Skunks! I’d never really seen skunks up close so I had no idea just how charming they could be. The fence was glass all the way to the base so you could get down to eye level and they would come right up to your nose to get a good look at you. The exhibit had some American desert theming going on and the animals were very actively exploring the whole time I was watching.
Right across from the skunk’s pad were enclosures for lemurs and racoons. The racoons were fast asleep so I can’t say anything about them but the lemurs were very much awake. As it was raining by this point the lemurs clearly didn’t want to go outside and so were queuing up to take turns sitting on the ledge between the outdoor and indoor parts of their enclosure. There was a little boy also watching this with me and seeing how excited he got watching such recognisably human behaviour in these monkeys reminded me what this whole place is about.
If you want to see some of the specimen trees you can go down the main path but otherwise, you should take a right and head up to the racoon dogs. I hadn’t even heard of racoon dogs before this visit and I was quite excited to see them. Sadly, like their racoon namesake, they were all fast asleep so I’ll have to go back in the summer to get a proper viewing.
Around this area was a metal cage stood out of the way and not on the map. With my mystery-solving hat on I went to investigate and found three Swinhoe’s squirrels. These were full of energy, bounding around the cage like miniature acrobats giving the performance of their lives. Make sure you don’t miss this as I almost did.
From here you should head down to the primate zone. On the way, you’ll pass some interesting signs about past conservationists, which I thought were a nice touch, and then you’ll also pass by the wallabies. On my visit, these marsupials were stood at the other side of the enclosure not really doing anything interesting. The primate zone itself consisted of two enclosures, one with marmosets and one with tamarins. Visually I don’t think there is much difference between these two species and, from some quick googling, I’ve surmised that the biggest difference is the size of the teeth. These miniature monkeys were active in the enclosure but, again, I didn’t see them venture outside, again probably due to the cold and wet. Although creatures are easier to see when they are asleep behind glass just in front of you, it isn’t quite as fun as seeing then jumping around outdoors.
I finished my tour of Askham Bryan Wildlife and Conservation Park with a visit to York falconry (cost for one adult is £2). While they share the same style of signage, this has a different feel to the main park. The staff here were great; as I walked in they offered to get some of the smaller birds out for me to hold and they clearly had a stage are for flight shows. For people trying to decide whether to go in, the extra birds are Kookaburra, Eagle Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Harris Hawk, Red-Tailed Hawk, Barn Owl, Snowy Owl, Bengal Eagle Owl (and probably one or two I’ve missed out).
Once I’d finished I went back past the skunks (which were still up at the glass) and did a little trip round the reptile house to try and see a few things I’d missed first time round. I didn’t visit the café, which is in a small building at the other side of the carpark but it was certainly open and doing a roaring trade from what I could see through the window.
Askham Bryan Wildlife and Conservation Park is a really fun way to spend an hour or two. It’s great for kids, it’s great value and I think it is a great addition to the city of York.