The Chestnut Centre, Chapel-en-le-Frith, High Peak, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 20:43 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:27 20 February 2013

Rebecca Wood with Apricot

Rebecca Wood with Apricot

Mike Smith visits the Chestnut Centre in the wooded estate of Ford Hall, Chapel-en-le-Frith - the refuge for scores of otters, owls and other wildlife.

Ford Hall, the ancestral home of the Bagshawe family, is situated in a deep, wooded hollow in the high gritstone hills of the Dark Peak. Given its secluded location, it is not surprising to find that the hall has a history as a place of sanctuary.

In the 17th century, The Rev. William Bagshawe, who came to be known as the Apostle of the Peak, held secret services in the house after he had been expelled from his ministry for refusing to conform to the Book of Common Prayer. When the last of the Bagshawes of Ford died without an heir, Roger Heap acquired the hall and later converted the 50-acre estate into a sanctuary of a very different sort, by making it a safe haven for scores of otters and owls.

With its long body, short limbs, webbed feet, strong tail and insulating coat, the otter is superbly equipped to live on land and water in a variety of climatic conditions. Unfortunately, it is not nearly as capable of surviving the effects of reckless human behaviour. During the Sixties and Seventies, the draining of many wetlands and the widespread use of fertilizers and pesticides had a catastrophic effect on the UK's otter population.

Roger, who kept a couple of otters in the grounds of the Hall at the time, was one of a number of people who lobbied parliament for urgent action. These efforts resulted in the outlawing of otter hunting in 1978 and the inclusion in the Countryside and Wildlife Act of 1981 of a clause that banned the unlicensed killing, keeping and selling of otters. Coupled with a huge improvement in water quality, the new measures have succeeded in halting the fall in the UK's otter numbers, but this has not been the case in some other countries. In fact, four species of otter are now on the list of the world's endangered species.

Representatives of these species are held for safe keeping at Roger's sanctuary, which is known as the Chestnut Centre and was established in 1984. The centre is also a refuge for injured and orphaned animals before they are returned to the wild and is the location of a rehabilitation programme for European otters. The inclusion of owls in the centre owes much to the enthusiasm of Roger's elder son Charles, who adopted a pair of tawny owls when he was ten years old.

As well as accommodating four types of otter and 17 species of owl, the wooded estate of Ford Hall is home to polecats, pine martens, foxes, wildcats and deer, making it a full-blown wildlife park that attracts in the region of 35,000 visitors annually. Roger's younger son, Edward, who even learnt to swim in the company of otters, is now the general manager of this highly successful family business, which has expanded to include a wildlife conservation park in the New Forest and a renovated Children's Zoo in Battersea Park.

Children are equally well catered for at the Chestnut Centre, which runs otter and owl clubs and has two classrooms in a former barn. On the day of my visit, all the pupils of Combs Infants' School were spending a discovery day in the grounds, where guide Tina Critchlow and trainee guide Emma Killip were on hand to lead them around the woodland trails. Their visit had been carefully fashioned to tie in with the National Curriculum theme of 'growth and change'.

The guide for my own visit was Rebecca Wood, who took on the job of animal manager last year, immediately after obtaining her degree in Zoology and Conservation from Bangor University. In a short space of time, she has become very knowledgeable about the behaviour and needs of the animals on the estate and she already knows every one of them by name.

Rebecca demonstrated this skill when we came across a herd of fallow deer. As soon as she called out 'Apricot', one of the deer detached herself from her companions and came bounding over to greet Rebecca. She had less success when trying to coax a couple of Asian otters from their hiding place under a waterfall. Apparently, the male-female bond is very strong in this breed of otter, but pairs have to be matched up very carefully according to personality. It seems that these two had been matched for their shyness.

The Asian otters are the smallest of the otters and the most popular with young visitors, because they are cute in appearance and become very chatty and mischievous at feeding times - even the shy ones. According to Rebecca, they are less keen on swimming than other species because they originate from paddy fields, where the water is shallow.

Rebecca's magic worked again at the first owl enclosure, where a military-looking snowy owl called Sergeant Major responded immediately when she called him by name. Snowy owls, which are native to the Arctic, have feathery feet for insulation and superb camouflage, particularly the females, who require protection when incubating eggs on the ground.

The next discoveries on my magical mystery tour were some orphaned red foxes, which had been hand-reared by the keepers, and a rescued buzzard called Gilly who was unable to fly because her wings had been clipped when she was used as a show bird. She was now being well looked after by her attentive mate Warren, whom Rebecca described as a 'good husband'.

My guide introduced me to lots of owls, including a 'Spectacled Owl', with its trademark ringed eyes, and a Great Horned Owl, which had grabbed Rebecca so hard on one occasion that she still has bruises on her arm six months after the event. The birds were being closely observed by Paul and Dina Lecker, a London couple who were enjoying a holiday in the Peak District. Paul, a former sound engineer in the film industry, explained that he is currently making a sculpture of an owl and that his visit to the Chestnut Centre was giving him fresh inspiration.

After watching lively polecats and exchanging stares with Scottish wild cats, which have big green eyes, we turned our attention to a group of Eurasian otters. Eurasian otters are quite reserved and inclined to keep their distance, but they do have their moments of mischievousness.

We then came to the enclosure of the Chestnut Centre's most important resident. Manoki is the only giant otter in captivity in Britain and his presence is significant because he is a surviving member of one of the most endangered of all otter species. In recent years, the combined effects of hunting, gold mining, deforestation and pollution in the Amazon Basin have almost wiped out this fine animal.

Although the giant otter has the power to rip off a limb and take on the caiman that threaten its cubs, this example of the species was immensely friendly and talkative when we approached his large enclosure. Rebecca, who is clearly fond of Manoki, is keenly awaiting the day later this year when he will be given a mate, who is transferring to the Chestnut Centre from the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg.

One of Rebecca's colleagues, shop manager Carol Bennetto, has had the thrill of flying out to the remote Karanambu Ranch in Guyana, where Diane McTurk rehabilitates orphaned giant otter cubs before returning them to the wild. The Chestnut Centre is continually raising money to send equipment and help to Diane, who only steps into civilisation once per month when she goes into Georgetown for supplies. Thanks to dedicated people like Diane McTurk and Roger Heap, the giant otter is being given a chance of surviving the ravages that human beings have inflicted on its habitat.

The Chestnut Centre Otter, Owl and Wildlife Park (01298 814099) is situated on the A625 between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Castleton. It is open every day from 10.30am to 5.30pm, but at weekends only in January.

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