Falconry gloves down, maintenance gloves on!

What happens when the park is closed every year? We close for around four weeks at the start of each year to undertake vital maintenance and development projects. We’ve caught up with Gary Benton, our Head of Living Collection, to find out more about what the team actually get up to in this time:

“I really love a busy day in the middle of the summer when the seats are full of smiling visitors and we are flying birds and raising awareness of the importance of conserving birds of prey. For the majority of our year, that is what we do. However, during the start of each year we have a closed period. This can sound a little misleading as I have spoken to lots of people over the last 20 years who will say to me ‘oh, that’s nice. You all get a bit of time off then?’. Well, it’s quite the opposite in reality.

This ‘closed period’ is our key moment to undertake some essential maintenance work around the grounds which can be almost impossible to do in a live environment full of people. Big re-development jobs like our recent revamp of the restaurant patio and entrance area is a major works and, to be completely honest, we only just got that usable for when we opened by the skin of our teeth! Every year, we also have to undertake work caring for our trees. We sit in about 20 acres of varied woodland, so tree management is key for biodiversity and also visitor and bird safety. This can be very disruptive so the majority is left until the closed season. We generally have a touch up of tarmac to our path system during this period too. Lots of jobs are planned for the closed period and as soon as we shut the doors, the machinery comes out and we swap from nice presentable Trust uniform to wet weather work clothes designed for a full on working month!

We also have a planned Members’ Working Day every January which follows on from the first one held in December. Leaf clearing is the name of the game in December and then we have the January day so that we can address any final areas of leaves, brushing paths, scrubbing gates and generally tidy the grounds in preparation for opening again. This year we also had a couple of aviary projects around the grounds so the 40+ helpful members who pitch up to help are distributed around the grounds with our team to help with all of these different tasks. We had a great turn out this year with one of our busiest to date. Everybody turned up dressed for the weather and with tools in hand for a really full day. We have a mid-morning hot drink stop and then soup and a sandwich in Feathers Restaurant for lunch. The hard bit is getting back out their again after a bit of food and a warm up! It’s a really good day and we always get lots done with so many helping hands. We’re so grateful to all involved as it really makes a big difference. Thank you!

January is also a great time to get different departments at the Trust together for training and future planning. There are generally a mix of different meetings, training, planning that happens in this period.

One of the nicest parts of our closed period is the Behind-the-scenes VIP Winter Experience run by Cedric, our Collection Manager and Hospital Manager. Guests (up to two per day) can pre-book a day with Cedric where they will be the guests on site. Not only do these guests get the opportunity to feed off Cedric’s passion for birds and his job, we are also able to introduce them to birds who don’t usually take part in our experiences; a really special experience. Occasionally they may see some scruffy looking members of staff and volunteers getting their hands dirty around the grounds or even get a sneak peek at some of the work we are doing in preparation for the new season, which is always quite nice, I think. We (the bird team) basically just lose Cedric for a month while he dedicates his time to his roles of Hospital Manager whilst running his experience sessions at the same time. He does occasionally enlist the help of Ria when working with a few of the birds on his team (I think that Cedric secretly likes the break from us to be honest!).

The general maintenance around the grounds is an ongoing job, as you can probably appreciate. We plan a full list of jobs, which is never fully ticked off by the end of the period but we have a really good go at it! A mix of aviary development, grounds maintenance and aviary refurbishments (such as re-modelling, re-perching and repairing) all get thrown into the mix during this frantic period.

Of course, the birds are still here too! We have the normal task of caring for them and this can be a tricky time of year with weather conditions so attention to detail is paramount. Whilst the majority of the birds get a well-earned rest from the displays at this time, we still have a busy program of looking after them all.

The ‘closed period’ has always been an important part of our year as not only does it enable us to do all of those essential jobs I have mentioned, but I think it also gives a really important change of direction for the team of staff and volunteers who work so hard throughout the year. It takes a lot of organisation and a lot of dedicated people to make it successful, but I do find that when we close in January although we’re not resting physically, it does allow us to rest mentally. It allows time to think about the season just past and then prepare for the new season ahead, with a refreshed mind when we open again in February.

February comes around quickly, visitors start to enter the grounds again and we also get to see Cedric again! One of my favourite things to do is to walk the grounds, just before dark right at the end of the day on the eve of re-opening, to take a look at what the whole team has achieved over the last month; it feels like we are ready for the new season!”

Gary Benton

Head of Living Collection

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