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Highland Wildlife Blog: Small but perfectly formed

09/02/2016 in Highland Wildlife Park

By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

Readers of this column could be forgiven for thinking that all our new developments at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park are large and high profile, like the snow leopard area opened last summer. As with every zoo, development and renewal is a constant process and much of it is low key and often invisible. Although ever so important, refurbished toilet blocks or an enhanced dishwashing area in the café’s kitchen seldom helps to attract new visitors. Similarly, many of our improvements to animal areas are quite low key, but help to improve the quality of life for the animals concerned and probably enhance the visitor experience, but on a subliminal level.

We have recently finished a couple of smaller projects that we are very pleased with, but will almost definitely go unnoticed. Between our two red panda enclosures there has been a small solid building that was the indoor viewing area for the badger exhibit many years ago. We have wanted to reopen it as a sheltered viewing area into one of the panda enclosures and to remove the cul-de-sac for visitors walking up to the panda area and give them an open circular route. The refurbished shed now has a bench and a couple of windows looking into the main panda enclosure, and like our fencing around the snow leopard exhibit, all the wood used has come from wind-fallen trees from within the park and milled ourselves.

Going through the panda shed takes the visitor to our rebuilt European crane aviary; a species that used to live and breed on nearby Insh Marshes. Some time ago, a heavy fall of very wet snow severely damaged the aviary, snapping one of the major vertical supports and, had it not been for the flexible roof net, we could have had cranes on the Marshes again.

The main aviary has been completely rebuilt in such a way that we will not get a repetition of the previous collapse, due to better supports and a larger gauge roof net that will still contain the cranes but avoids a build-up of snow. As well as the repair, we took the opportunity to enhance the area for the cranes and incorporated two large areas to the rear of the main aviary which can give the birds more privacy, should they desire it, and give the keepers more flexibility in managing the birds. It is our intention to breed this virtually extinct Scottish resident – some migrating cranes do land in the Strath on their way to their summer breeding grounds in other countries – with a view to attracting the species back to the area. Rather than reintroducing birds we hatch and rear in the Park, an event that is still to happen, we want to use the offspring as magnets for wild cranes passing overhead to attract them once again to the area in the hope that they will re-establish themselves naturally.

Unfortunately, the sex of a crane is impossible to visually distinguish and we currently have two males and not a pair, so we have a bit more organising to do, although the new aviary complex is a good start.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald


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