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Peephole on a polecat

Lindsey Darking visits Nature Quest

Are you hard pressed to tell your mink from your stoat, or your ferret from your polecat? If so, you're not alone, for as staff at New Forest Nature Quest point out, in Britain we are far more familiar with the tiger or the toucan than the species of our own native wildlife.

Nature Quest aims to change that. Opened last July and situated on the edge of the New Forest near Southampton, its collection of native wildlife is extensive. It includes brown and black rats, harvest, house and yellow necked mice, stoats, water voles, ferrets, mink, polecats, barn owls, red foxes, adders, grass snakes, honey bees, hedgehogs, frogs, toads, crayfish, red deer, wild boar - and even red-necked wallabies, colonisers which are now well established in remote areas.

What differentiates Nature Quest from similar ventures is that the animals are not displayed passively in cages or glass tanks. The wildlife is kept in settings which, though still enclosed, are as close to natural habitats as possible, so that spotting the creatures sometimes involves an element of detective work. In an introductory film fronted by wildlife presenter Chris Packham, visitors are urged to move quietly through the exhibits and to take the time to listen, watch and learn.

"We have tried to create something as near to the natural environments of the wildlife as possible so that visitors can see them going about their everyday lives. By using various viewing devices we are not forcing the animals out on display - they do what they want to do, including sleep. The emphasis here is on spending time and being patient and on going back to exhibits to watch again," said commercial manager Christine Billen.

The centre is keen to stress its educational, research and conservation aims. There are plans for a national database of some of Britain's rarest animals, and to research the behaviour of house martins and polecats. Nature Quest is also working with various wildlife groups on captive breeding programmes for water voles, sand lizards and dormice which aim to re-introduce these dwindling species into the wild.

Some visitors might resent the fact that the animals are not easy to see, but with its emphasis on discovery Nature Quest is well suited to school visits. Exhibits are split into useful sections - a secret garden area, a riverbank setting, a barn setting for nocturnal animals, a British butterfly tunnel, a reptiliary, a deer walk and nature trail, and a tactile area for contact with wild sheep and goats.

Many of the displays are also imaginative and fun. The sight of 100 brown rats running wild over an old car in a garage is enough to keep children transfixed for hours, while a kitchen display where tiny house mice come out to nibble at a sugar bowl, books and magazines, and a group of ferrets darting in and out of the lavatory in an old outside toilet, are also compulsive viewing. Hidden cameras and viewing panels make the animals easier to spot. There are quiz trails and work sheets to keep children busy and although handling is generally not encouraged, school groups get a close encounter with at least one species during a follow-up classroom session. Despite the animals being wild there are the inevitable characters: Digby, a fox cub born at the centre, and Cherry, a female fox who kept coming back when released into the wild.

Programmes are designed mainly for key stages 1 and 2, but visits can be adapted to age groups, special needs, and special interests. Topics are geared to the seasons but a visit in spring or summer is likely to be most rewarding.

New Forest Nature Quest, Longdown, Ashurst, Southampton SO4 4UH. Tel: 01703 292408. Open daily 10am- 5pm. Schools: Pounds 2.50 per child; one teacher free per five children

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