As Chapel-en-le-Frith’s Chestnut Centre celebrates its 30th birthday, we take a look behind the scenes at the High Peak otter, owl and wildlife park.
Co-owner Carol Heap told The Advertiser how it all began: “We’ve always had a passion for animals. My husband, Roger, got involved with the Otter Trust in Norfolk and kept going across to help.
“As we had a stream in our garden we thought how about getting a pair of Asian short-clawed otters. We called them Kizzie and Cruso.
“Basically it wasn’t long before our children’s friends at school and at cubs and brownies were saying: ‘Can we come and see the otters?’”
In 1981, the Heap family bought Chestnut Farm, on Castleton Road, and three years later they opened the Chestnut Centre.
“Our eldest son loved birds of prey and when he was about eight, someone bought him a pair of tawny owls. It’s a hobby which has got out of hand,” Carol laughed. “Roger’s an architect and I’m a physio. We started with six otters and 12 owls, now we have more than 150 animals!”
The 50-acre park is home to 22 otters, including Asian short-clawed otters; a family of three giant otters; Eurasian otters and two North American river otters Canuk and Scotia.
According to staff, Canuk is quite the comic and has been known to swim around with a crab on his head showing off to visitors!
Giant otter Meamu’s brother Katuma is currently on holiday in Trinidad, as part of an international breeding programme.
There are also house mice, four European polecats, two Scottish wildcats, two red foxes called Lichen and Spring, a European pine marten called Moray, two Manchurian Sika deer and 70 fallow deer living in the park.
In addition to the mammals, there are 40 owls at the centres including barn owls, boobook owls, great grey owls, snowy owls, Eurasian eagle owls, little owls, a North American great horned owl, tawny owls, spectacled owls, South American great horned owls, burrowing owls, brown wood owls, milky eagle owls, Aharoni’s owls, long eared owls and southern white-faced scops owls.
Carol confirmed the park is set to get badgers later this year.
The centre gets approximately 35,000 visitors a year, of which at least 10,000 are children, sometimes from as far as Oldham and Rochdale.
Children are given a tour of the park and learn about conservation in the on site classroom. The centre also offers placements to university students.
Looking after the animals is no mean feat, as a giant otter can eat up to five kilograms of fish a day. At the Chestnut centre the otters are fed roach and a mix of vitamins and fibre, while the owls are given rats and chicks.
Otters can live for as long as 25 years in captivity, while owls can live up until age 50. The centre’s oldest resident is Charlie, a 32-year-old owl.
But Carol’s favourite resident is an otter: “I have a special place in my heart for Pickwick. He’s very vocal. I hand raised him in 2002, as his mother was unable to care for him. He lived in our home for throughout the first winter but after he got into the fridge, it was time for a life outdoors!”
The Heaps have also opened the New Forest Wildlife Park in Hampshire and Battersea Park Children’s Zoo in London.
After growing up with otters in the bath and baby owls in the kitchen, the Heaps’ son Ed is now the general manager of all three centres and older son Charlie now owns and runs his own bird of prey centre in North Yorkshire.