Deepest Lincolnshire is not known for its amazing biodiversity, yet in the village of Deeping St James, iguanas and corn snakes live alongside Scottish wildcats, llamas, soay sheep and an Asian fruit bat with a film career.
The Exotic Pet Refuge's owner, Pam Mansfield, opened it 26 years ago and the refuge is now home to 400 or so animals. It all started with a kestrel brought to her with a broken wing. She nursed it to recovery and went on to see successive generations released into the wild. "Our aim is to release everything we can possibly return to its natural habitat," she says. "We only keep animals such as the reptiles and monkeys and wildcats. Foxes we release through an RSPCA scheme in Scarborough."
The refuge provides a rare opportunity to have close encounters with unusual animals and that is exactly what the children from Kirkstone House School in Baston are doing.
William Moffit stands patiently for more than five minutes while a beautiful golden Corn Snake winds its way inquisitively round his neck and shoulders. "They are called Corn Snakes because farmers in America release them into corndriers to catch mice," explains Pam. "But they come in many different shades, from quite dark brown to almost white."
Later on, the enthralled eight-year-olds discover that iguana skin feels "dry and rough, like canvas". There is an unmistakable whiff of fox as we pass one pen. Next door, two Scottish wildcats look deceptively like your average moggy, but are not to be tangled with.
All the creatures have names, even the short-stay residents. Doris, the 52-year-old Ground Hornbill, looks haughtily at us from her run. She came to stay when her original sanctuary closed down.
Many of the animals have come from other small pet collections, but others have been unsuccessful household pets. The two iguanas were owned by an elderly lady who kept them in her sitting room. "She had no idea how big they were going to become or how much it would cost in heating," says Pam.
"These creatures are wonderful and fascinating, but they really are not pets."
The Exotic Pet Refuge is a charity and its existence is down to the hard work and dedication of Pam and her husband Mel and their helpers. They are constantly trying to raise funds. "Our latest project is new stables for the horse, the llama and Fudge, the three-legged soay sheep, who was brought to us after being found hanging in a tree," explains Pam. The next project is to build a visitors' room for school visits and open days. At present there is shelter under a marquee and in the various animal houses, and a new toilet block.
Every animal has a story to tell at the Exotic Pet Refuge. Recent additions include the two racoons, rescued as babies when their mother died.
Introducing them to the children from Kirkstone House, Pam describes how she drove to Scotland to collect the week-old cubs, and had to give them two-hourly bottle feeds, day and night, for two weeks.
And the film star? That would be Sammy the Flying Fox, an Asian Fruit Bat who featured in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone hanging about in Diagon Alley.
EXOTIC PET REFUGE:
102 Station Road, Deeping St James, Peterborough PE6 8RH pound;2 adults; pound;1 children. Book in advance.
Tel: 0117 925 4980 Email: email@example.com
Caroline Fallowfield, Year 4 class teacher, and John Wyman, principal, Kirkstone House School.
The Exotic Pet Refuge visit fits in well with the work we're doing this year on plants and animals. The science topic includes research into different animals and we can see an amazing selection here.
There are domestic animals, some of which are quite unusual, such as the guinea fowl and the peacock, and there are also animals you rarely see, such as the owls and foxes.
The exotic pets have proven very popular, especially because the children can handle snakes and other reptiles. It's a memorable experience to be so close to such rare animals and to learn about them and how they came to be at the refuge. What we have heard will form the basis for literacy work later in the term.
We are very interested in conservation at Kirkstone House, we even have our own herd of soay sheep. In the past we have brought injured creatures here and have been impressed with the dedication of the staff. The refuge is a wonderful example of a real practical concern for wildlife.