Captive Animal Photography – The British Wildlife Centre

February 27, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

This post is a review of the British Wildlife Centre, from the perspective of a photography day-trip, and is part of a series about captive nature photography.

You can see my original discussion of nature photography in captivity here, along with my tips for better zoo photos.
Other reviews in the series can be found here.

Please note that this is an unofficial and independent review of my experiences in visiting.



A harvest mouse clings onto a delicate dandelion flowerHarvest Mouse & DandelionA graphic demonstration of just how small and lightweight a harvest mouse is, as it climbs a dandelion.

Nature photography, taken in captive setting, Surrey, UK.
The British Wildlife Centre is in Surrey, UK. They have a great collection of species, with nice enclosures for photography, and their keeper talks are particularly good. It has a really admirable, informal, down-to-earth atmosphere about it, which originates from the friendly staff and knowledgeable keepers.

It’s not a large place, and you could look around the whole place in under an hour. But that’s a great strength too, as it means you can easily get from one species to another as you like, rather than being constrained to an IKEA-style layout preferred by some larger zoos. It also means you spend plenty of time with each species, rather than dashing about in an effort to see everything.

In addition to the animals on display, BWC also houses many others which form important breeding programmes, involving releases to the wild all over the country. So it’s particularly satisfying to know that your entry fee is helping to fund this work.

BWC is very welcoming and popular with photographers, and head-keeper Matt is into photography too, which is great. I first heard of it after a friend on Flickr posted some fox photos, and recommended I pay a visit. I loved it from my first visit, and I’ve been several times since.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to win a photography day there, which was absolutely amazing. This review is based on a normal day visit, but it’s worth noting that they run frequent photography days too, which get you in the enclosures with many of the animals, and unrivalled access to photograph our British species up-close.



An otter swimming head-on at the camera.Otter ApproachingA river otter, swimming head-on at the camera.

This was a shot I really wanted to have in my portfolio, and I'm very pleased with it. The dark background gives a very atmospheric mood to the shot, and the simplicity of the composition leads the eye straight to the subject.

Nature photography, in captive setting, UK.
There are a couple of red fox enclosures; the largest of which is the first outdoor exhibit you’ll encounter. This is a really interesting enclosure, with a variation of habitat / background for photos. The limitation is the mesh wire fencing, which you cannot avoid. If you have a compact, or bridge camera, you can fit the lens through one of the holes, and shoot uninhibited. With a larger dSLR lens, you need to position the lens over the centre of the hole, zoom right in, shoot at the widest aperture possible, and go for close-ups. That aside, it’s really great to be able to shoot from eye-level, and the foxes tend to be happy to pose for you when they’re out, particularly at feeding times.

And speaking of eye-level, the water vole enclosure is my next favourite. It’s very cleverly designed, and although the water voles are shy creatures, if you’re patient you can get some lovely shots which I know from experience are very difficult to get in the wild.

BWC has a large and varied red squirrel enclosure, in which you can walk around with the squirrels. I think as far as photography goes, this might be the best enclosure. There’s no fence to deal with, and the squirrels can get very close! Or as they sit in the trees, you can get very natural photos. They can be shy outside of the feeding times, so aim for that, and be patient outside of that time.

There are a couple of otter enclosures which give you great views, but it’s frustratingly hard to get low enough for a good photo, since otters stay low to the ground, and the fencing does need to be high enough to keep them in, after all.

The stoat and weasel enclosures represent particularly well thought out displays, which as well as featuring a window at eye level, also include little tunnels and pathways which the small mammals enjoy running through. The wooden-board background can be a problem for photos, but you can work around it too, choosing different angles for more pleasing backgrounds.

They have badgers, but it’s again hard to get low enough to the ground for really good photos. But I’m convinced that with enough practice, it’ll be possible to find a good angle.

One rare animal which I’m unlikely to ever see in the wild, is the pine marten. They move very quickly, and you have to shoot through wire caging again, but there’s potential for good photos there too.

I’ve photographed adders in the wild, but at the British Wildlife Centre, I was lucky enough to see two males ‘dancing’ as they fight for dominance during mating season. I’d have loved to have been able to get lower down, but I’m really happy with the photos I got all the same.

Last of all, I shouldn’t forget the birds. BWC has a good collection of owls and raptors, which can be photographed in their aviaries, or during the daily flights. In truth, it’s more or less impossible to get a good clean in-flight shot during the ‘normal’ flying displays, but you can get some nice close-ups if you wait by a perch.

As with any wildlife centre, some enclosures and species are less photography-friendly than others, but if you don’t want to accept the limitations of the enclosures, you can always book a photography day.

I’ve only shared a few photos on this post, but if you want to see more from BWC, I have loads up on Flickr.



Best Enclosures Foxes, Otters, Red Squirrels. Since most of our British wildlife isn’t that large, they don’t need huge enclosures, which means you generally get a good view. In addition to that, many of the enclosures appear to have been built with consideration to photography. They also use a lot of tunnels and interesting designs for the animals to play and explore.
Species Selection 3/5 As the name would suggest, they’re limited to just British wildlife. So not as many species as other zoos and wildlife centres I’ve visited, but what they do have are well presented, and accessible for photography.
Price 5/5 It’s around £10 a visit, which feels very fair, and annual membership is a great option for those who can visit more often.
Day Out 4/5 BWC isn’t a large and sprawling place with as much to see and do as the larger zoos, but it has a really friendly feel to the place, and the keeper talks are particularly interesting and informative.
Photography Experience 4/5 I’ve put 4 here, but it’s 5 for a pre-booked photography day, which they run throughout the year.
Overall 5/5 I can’t emphasis enough what a nice place it is, with a really positive atmosphere spreading from staff to visitors.

Long eared owl in bluebell wood.Long Eared Owl - In Bluebell WoodlandI was fortunate to have the opportunity to photograph the owls from the British Wildlife Centre, in a natural bluebell woodland setting, and this long eared owl was my favourite owl photo of the day. The dappled sunlight shone through the trees, and lit the owl, while the woods kept the carpet of bluebells in shade behind. A highlight for me, from a hugely enjoyable day.
Nature photography, captive, Surrey, UK.


Post by George Wheelhouse, 2015.


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