Animal magic

What to get the girl who has no idea what she wants for her tenth birthday?

Not Quite As Big girl was SO excited about reaching double figures. But SO undecided how she wanted to celebrate her big day.

Which is how we ended up at Hoo Farm Animal Kingdom, near Telford in Shropshire, after I spotted what looked like an offer to good to miss on Groupon.

Hoo Farm is an award-winning animal attraction which has been run by the Dorrell family since 1988.

It’s also home to Wills Wild Animal Encounters, launched in 2010 by son, Will Dorrell, which allows visitors close up access to some rather more exotic creatures than you would usually expect to find on a farm!

There is a whole range of encounters available but we signed up for the Half Day Keeper Experience, which is suitable for children from the age of six upwards. Of course, there’s no reason why animal encounters should just be for children, so Mr B and I signed up too, and we went along as a family of four.

Thankfully we picked a dry Sunday morning for our experience, which began bright and early as the farm opened for the day at 10am.

Quite a few other people had signed up for the same encounter, but after a safety briefing we were split into groups of eight so we would all get plenty of chance to feed and handle the animals without our fellow keepers getting in the way!

Our first encounter also turned out to be one of the best, as we were invited to hand-feed the ring-tailed lemurs. Endemic to the island of Madagascar, these are the most easily recognized lemurs due to their distinctive black and white ringed tails.

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The lemurs were clearly well used to getting up close and personal with humans and were not nervous of us at all. They knew exactly what they wanted to eat – grapes and banana were a particular favourite – and were more than willing to take the food out of our hands.

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From here, we visited the meerkats for the experience which Not Quite As Big Girl had been looking forward to most of all. I know meerkats aren’t cuddly little animals but you can’t deny they look cute!

Wills Wild Animal Encounters has two meerkats,  Kovu and Uuka, who have had to be hand-reared away from their ‘clan’ after being rejected by their mother. As a result, they are used to be handled and really are up for a stroke and a cuddle!

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Although we were a little nervous at first about the idea of putting the meerkats on our knees (I have seen meerkats tearing a strip out of each other in the name of ‘play fighting’!) – we soon relaxed as these little fellows are happy to snuggle down and be stroked, and will even disappear inside your coat or jumper in search of a warm, dark place to hide!

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We sat inside a small barn for our next series of encounters, which included a desert hedgehog and snakes both FAT and thin.

Our experience had promised us the chance to meet and stroke Duma, the serval, a medium-sized African wildcat, although this was probably the least successful part of our morning as he was asleep (and who wants to wake a wild cat?!). We did give him a very quick stroke but we didn’t actually see him move until we returned to the enclosure and watched him from a distance later in the day.

The girls did, however, enjoy handling some of the farm’s extensive collection of owls, before meeting a hugely – literally – impressive giant tortoise (who Not Quite As Bit Girl took an instant liking to although I’m not sure you could keep him in a box).

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Our half day experience did last the whole morning until 1pm, after which we were able to stay and look round Hoo Farm as long as we wanted. Our visit included a free drink during the morning and we took our own picnic lunch.

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our Half Day Keeper Experience. The friendly staff who spent the morning with us were very knowledgeable and more than happy to answer all our questions (and we had plenty!).

Although we met a rather eclectic group of creatures, there was no way we would have had the chance to get anywhere near as close, and even to feed and stroke the animals, during a normal visit to a farm or zoo.

And Not Quite As Big Girl’s verdict: Awesome! And I don’t think we could have found a better way to celebrate a milestone birthday than that.

For more information visit https://www.hoofarm.com/experience/

It is well worth looking out for Groupon offers though, as these are posted regularly by Wills Wild Animal Encounters and made our visit a lot more affordable.

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