End of an era for Chapel-en-le-Frith’s much-loved wildlife park

Carol and Roger Heap, pictured in 2013 with the Chestnut Centre's deer herd.
Carol and Roger Heap, pictured in 2013 with the Chestnut Centre's deer herd.
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The owners of a popular wildlife centre say their decision to close after more than 30 years was taken with a heavy heart.

The Chestnut Centre Otter, Owl and Wildlife Park in Chapel-en-le-Frith will close permanently from December 31 as Carol and Roger Heap, who have ran the sanctuary since 1984, look to step away and semi-retire.

Staff celebrating 30 years at the Chestnut Centre back in 2014.

Staff celebrating 30 years at the Chestnut Centre back in 2014.

Carol, 72, said: “It is with a massively heavy heart we made the decision to shut the doors, and we are all very sad as it has been our life for such a long time.”

The couple first started working with otters back in the 1970s. They owned a pair of Asian short-claw otters, and things just grew from there.

Carol said: “We never set out to make a business from this, we have just always been fascinated by otters and how wonderful they are.”

Word got around about the new arrivals, and it wasn’t long before cubs, scouts and even their teachers wanted to organise visits to meet the creatures.

Carol Heap in 1976 with her two sons Charlie and Ed and the family's very first otter.

Carol Heap in 1976 with her two sons Charlie and Ed and the family's very first otter.

In 1981 there was an opportunity for the family to buy Chestnut Farm adjacent to their home, and the menagerie began to grow when their eldest son was given two tawny owls to look after by someone so impressed with his bird of prey knowledge.

Carol said: “It was a long journey for us.

“Roger and I were both still working full time, but we did start to do the occasional conservation weekend and it grew from there.”

The Chestnut Centre opened to the public in 1984 and the level of interest surprised even the family.

The centre and its animals have proved popular with locals and tourists.

The centre and its animals have proved popular with locals and tourists.

“We never imagined this many people would want to come and learn about wildlife and animals but they did,” Carol reflected.

Over the years the centre has stayed true to its owl and otter roots. When Roger retired 20 years ago it marked a big leap forward for the family, who began to push it as a business with more marketing and trips.

Around 45,000 people a year pass through the centre’s doors, and 8,000 of those are organised school trips.

Carol said: “You forget over the years just what it took to get us to where we are now.

“When we first started out we were novices looking after a couple of otters, and when they were sick I used to sit up with them all night in the bathroom willing them to get better.

“Everything was trial and error; there was no handy help book.”

Since then Carol has gone on to write books about otter husbandry, and her knowledge has been felt around the world with her texts even being translated into Cambodian to help the natives look after their own otter population.

There have been many happy moments for the centre. Carol recalled being the first to breed giant otters from Germany, which she said was an incredibly proud moment.

She said: “For us it is about conservation and protection and getting animals back into the wild.

“Only a few weeks ago an injured owl was brought to us. We gave it a quiet place to rest and time to heal, and when it was ready we went back to where it was found in the Goyt Valley and went released it.

“Even after all these years there is still such a sense of exhilaration when you see a wild animal being returned to the wild where it belongs.”

The whole family will be returning to the Chestnut centre on Sunday for the final day.

Carol said: “For our boys they grew up here. They helped to clean out the animals and care for them just as much as we did, so it felt right they be here for the last day.”

All of the Chestnut Centre animals and birds will be re-located to the New Forest Wildlife Park in Hampshire, which is managed by their son Ed and his wife Clare, who also run Battersea Park Children’s Zoo, but Carol and Roger will still have an input into their care.

Some of the owls will be moved to the National Centre for Birds of Prey in Helmsley, Yorkshire, which is owned and run by Carol and Roger’s elder son and his wife Vicki.

Carol said: “By closing down the Chestnut Centre it gives Roger and myself the chance to take a more of a backseat role and hand over the reigns to our sons.

“We thought about selling it with the animals, but that didn’t sit right with us as we would have no way to control how the animals are looked after.

“We have been thinking about doing this on and off for a few years, but have always kept saying that we will keep going.

“Roger turns 80 next year so we felt the time was now right.”

Carol added: “This is the end of an era, it really is, and I’m sad we are closing the doors, but we know we have made the right decision.

“We’ve been around so long now that we are getting people who visited as school children returning with their own children, which is really lovely.

“To everyone who has helped and supported us along the way, we thank you all. You have helped to shape the centre into what it is now.

“We have been welcomed with open arms by the community and it will be strange not be a part of it any more, but you will not be forgotten and we hope we have given people happy memories to remember us by too.”

For more information, visit www.chestnutcentre.co.uk.