World’s oldest surviving provincial zoo to relocate due to Covid-19 pandemic

By Claire Hayhurst, PA
·5-min read

The world’s oldest surviving provincial zoo is to relocate to safeguard its organisation’s future in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bristol Zoological Society announced on Friday that the site of Bristol Zoo Gardens in Clifton, which has been open to the public since 1836, will be sold.

It will close in late 2022 and move to the society’s Wild Place Project in south Gloucestershire.

The move was announced after the second national lockdown in England forced Bristol Zoo Gardens and the Wild Place Project to shut, following months of closure during the peak spring and summer months.

There have also been declining visitor numbers to Bristol Zoo Gardens recently, with the organisation having made an operating loss in four of the past six years.

Bristol Zoological Society chief executive Justin Morris said: “This year has been by far the most challenging year the Society has faced in its 185-year history.

“But for many years Bristol Zoo Gardens has been struggling with fundamental and persistent challenges, namely an inability to meet the changing needs of the animals within the available space and infrastructure, and declining visitor numbers.

“These challenges have had an enormous impact on our finances and the impact of Covid-19 has caused us to radically rethink our plans about the future and how we address the fundamental and persistent challenges that we face in order to save Bristol Zoological Society.”

Dr Morris said the new strategy presents an opportunity to create a world-class site which will set the standards for a “modern, forward-looking zoo in the 21st century”.

He said the new Bristol Zoo will be an immersive experience with conservation and sustainability at its heart, with animals having the space and facilities to “thrive”.

New exhibits will link visitors to the society’s projects around the world.

The society, which is a registered conservation charity, has 178 active shareholders who elect a board of 12 independent trustees to govern it.

Red panda at Bristol Zoo
Shifumi a one-year-old female panda, arrived in September (Ben Birchall/PA)

All 12 trustees recently unanimously voted to support the relocation of the zoo.

A planning permission process will now take place to ensure the future of the Clifton site is “something that the organisation will be proud of” and leaves a lasting legacy of the zoo, a spokeswoman said.

This will include an urban conservation hub in the zoo’s main entrance building, which will also become the base of the Avon Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project community and conservation programmes.

There will also be an exhibition of the zoo’s heritage, and a cafe.

New housing will be created in areas of the site where there are already built structures and the existing gardens will be largely unchanged.

Bristol Zoo Gardens will remain open until late 2022, as well as the Wild Place Project. The south Gloucestershire site will become the new Bristol Zoo from early 2024.

Golden lion tamarin
A golden lion tamarin, which was born at Bristol Zoo (Ben Birchall/PA)

Charlotte Moar, chairwoman of trustees for Bristol Zoological Society, said: “This decision has not been taken lightly and follows a rigorous process of assessing the strategic options over several months, as well as taking independent professional advice from a range of sources to ensure we are doing the best possible thing for the Society’s future.

“Over the next five years, even if we were to sell all our property in Clifton, except Bristol Zoo Gardens, and raise £7 million through philanthropic fundraising, we would still have a capital funding shortfall of £8 million.

“Over 20 years this shortfall increases to £44 million and as a result we would not be able to sustain our two zoos, our education programme and our UK and international conservation programme.

“This new plan ensures that Bristol Zoo continues to exist for generations to come, offering millions more people the opportunity to experience the magic of a new Bristol Zoo.”

Marvin Rees, the mayor of Bristol, commended Bristol Zoo for “tackling this challenge head-on” and taking the decision to move to a more sustainable location with improved facilities.

Mr Rees said this choice would ensure that future generations would be able to learn locally about conservation.

“The move also presents Bristol with a unique opportunity to develop homes on the site, and I am reassured about the zoo’s commitment not only to working with the council, but also ensuring that any potential developer understands the need to retain and protect the gardens, only builds where buildings have stood, and includes affordable housing on the site – something which is hard to come by in Clifton,” Mr Rees said.

“At the moment, the majority of visitors to the zoo travel by car, bringing traffic straight through the city centre and posing difficulties with parking.

“We will work closely with the zoo, transport operators, and South Gloucestershire Council to find sustainable transport options for visitors to the new Bristol Zoo once it relocates and opens at the Wild Place Project site.”

Toby Savage, leader of South Gloucestershire Council, said he was “really excited” by the relocation plans.

“The zoo’s move will build on the fantastic Wild Place Project in South Gloucestershire that has already proved itself as a very popular destination for families and schools,” Cllr Savage said.

“The new location offers far more space, which is more suitable for a modern zoo and will help the Society continue to develop their conservation and education projects.”