‘Why we have to move’ - Bristol Zoo on it leaving the city after 185 years

The pandemic has seen many forced to grapple with the issue of hungry, snapping mouths to feed- not in the least Bristol Zoo, home to more than 300 species of creatures great and small.

<p>Ring-tailed lemur Kohlrabi smells a flower at Bristol Zoo Gardens</p>

Ring-tailed lemur Kohlrabi smells a flower at Bristol Zoo Gardens

But while zoos up and down the country have faced similar challenges in caring for resident animals while maintaining vital conservation work with little to no help from the Government, Bristol Zoo has had a whole lot more on its plate.

The big announcement came in November 2020. In order to safeguard its future, the zoo was to relocate to the outskirts of the city after standing proudly in Clifton for more than 185 years.

Former BBC and Ministry of Defence Boss Francesca Fryer was flown in to manage the hefty plans in her new role as director of transformation with the Bristol Zoological Society.

She told us that the controversial move was ‘not a decision that had been taken lightly’ and the result of ‘persistent challenges that have been running over decades, well before the pandemic.”

“There has been the ever-increasing challenge of managing animal welfare on a relatively small site, as well as a shift in what visitors expect in terms of attraction facilities,” Francesca said.

Francesca Fryer, director of transformation at Bristol Zoological Society.

“Visitors are also increasingly arriving at the site by car, which has caused some concern among Clifton residents.

“So, the opportunity to move to a bigger site where we can manage things better and provide an improved environment for the animals feels like a good approach to move forward.”

The zoo may have been treading water before Covid reared its head, but the pandemic ushered it even further towards the brink.

“As you can imagine, the zoo is very much driven financially by its role as a visitor attraction, with people paying to see the animals and sharing the experience of the gardens,” Francesca added.

“That tap was suddenly turned off. But what couldn’t be turned off or even reduced was the day-to-day business of the Society in caring for the animals.

The Society’s proposals for the West Car Park site include a scheme for 65 new homes, a mix of one, two and three-bed apartments and three to four bed mews houses.

“We also desperately wanted to continue our higher education offer, as we have over 2,000 students doing degree courses with us as part of our partnerships with the University of Bristol and the University of West England.

“On top of this, we needed to sustain our conservation programmes both here in the UK and in 10 countries around the world.

“That severe reduction in income at a time when we still had those ongoing costs was profound for the Society. There were some roles within the zoo that could be furloughed and there were a limited number of redundancies. But we couldn’t afford to let go of the vast majority of staff.

“We have survived by using our reserves and through the kind generosity of our supporters, to whom we are so thankful for helping us through this difficult period.

Hasani the infant gorilla celebrated his first birthday at the zoo in August.

“We’ve also worked with our bank to recognise the extra losses we’ve faced in order to agree a plan for how we can emerge from this using the strategic decisions we have taken.”

Here’s exactly what these strategic decisions will entail - the site in Clifton will be sold, and the zoo will relocate to its Wild Place Project site, near junction 17 of the M5 in South Gloucestershire.

According to bosses, the Clifton site will stay open until late 2022 with the ‘modern, forward-looking zoo’ set to open in early 2024.

The zoo also applied to Bristol City Council to create 62 homes on its West car park, which was granted in late September.

The proposals have been criticised by Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society who are instead backing an alternative plan led by OurWorld Bristol to create an augmented-reality zoo at the site.

Chris Jefferies, joint planning co-ordinator of the Society, said: “In principle, we’re not opposed to the redevelopment of the West Car Park site for housing, but it has to be housing that is suitable for the conservation of the area.

“As far as we’re concerned, the planned development at the West car park is far too intensive.

“It is architecturally undistinguished and not in keeping with the character of Clifton, damaging the setting of various listed buildings.

“To have a virtual zoo at the site would preserve the educational and conservation work which, historically, is what Bristol Zoo has always been concerned with. It is a much more interesting and imaginative proposal.

“It's one the reasons we successfully applied for the site to attain Asset of Community Value status, which means that at whatever point the zoo decides to sell, it first has to offer the site back to the local community.

“We obviously have no objection to Bristol Zoo moving to Wild Place, it’s the rational thing for them to do as the environment is far more suitable for the animals.

“The zoo has promised that it will protect the existing gardens as ‘far as possible’ but we don’t want to see any housing on there, as it is likely the gardens will diminish in value even if public access is still possible.”

When asked what the reaction to the move had predominately been from locals, Francesca said people had been ‘understanding’.

“The housing development plan is is very much a key part of our strategy that provides us with the potential to raise capital which will sustain out activities for the near-term, as well as providing seed funding for the continued development of the new zoo along with the development of Bristol Zoo Gardens,” she said.

“We took the very conscious decision to lead both planning applications as we were keen to leave behind a legacy that is right for Bristol and respects our values as a conservation charity.

“We want to see responsible, environmentally sustainable development on both sites that helps us to play a part in Bristol’s response to the housing and ecological crises we all face, while recognising our role as one of the founding members of the Clifton community.”

Founded by local physician Henry Riley in 1836, the zoo was designed to facilitate ‘the observation of habits, form, and structure of the animal kingdom, as well as affording rational amusement and recreation to the visitors of the neighbourhood’.

Bristol Zoo’s 150 shareholders are all direct descendants of the original group of investors who help launch the zoo all those years ago, so the new plans were ‘very much something they had to sign off on, not just our trustees,” added Francesca.

A photo of visitors to Bristol Zoo in days gone by.

“There's a real inter-generational commitment and tie to the site,” she said.

“I think people have understood quite quickly the reasons why we have had to make this change, and there is a political support in terms of creating a new Bristol Zoo that is a paradigm for the 21st Century.

“We all know that zoos attract a variety of coverage and press, but Bristol Zoo has always been at the forefront of animal welfare and for the past three to four decades had already been focusing on its conservation work. The new zoo is very much going to be defined by that work.

“In fact, our intent is that we will have a direct role in the conservation of 90 per cent of the species we care for at the zoo. That is a really significant amount. We don’t think that anyone else is at 50 per cent or even near to 50 per cent at the moment in relation to that commitment.”

But now the real work begins as bosses draft up a plan on how to transport 300 species of animal from the Clifton site to South Gloucestershire.

“It’s true that we have a huge logistical task ahead of us,” said Francesca. “That’s why we’ve given ourselves a year once we close to visitors to move the animals in the least stressful way possible.

An endangered Hornbill chick hatched at the site in August.

“It’s also true that not all animals will be joining us at the new zoo - there will be a huge planning exercise in advance of the move to determine which animals will be going where under certain breeding programmes in order to deliver on our conservation objective.

“Shortly after I joined the Society in the spring, our Pygmy Hippo was being transferred to Florida.

“It was all worth it in the end but just listening to what went into the process - crating and transporting her to the airport, all the paperwork and getting her through customs - that is no mean feat.

“If you imagine that for hundreds of animals, there’s a lot to be done.”

In the meantime, life goes on at Bristol Zoo.

In August, surrogate-raised infant gorilla Hasani celebrated his first birthday there.

An endangered Hornbill chick also hatched at the Gardens - the tenth chick to have hatched at Bristol Zoo was a huge feat for the species thought to number fewer than 2,000 in the wild.

Keepers and conservationists are currently fighting to save one of the largest and rarest frogs in the world, the mountain chicken frog, via an international breeding programme.