Ep.31 Noahs Ark Zoo Farm, conversation with Director Larry Bush

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24 Oct, 2023

Episode 31

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm: The Growth of an Accessible, VisitEngland Gold Award-Winning Visitor Attraction with Larry Bush

In this podcast episode, I had the pleasure of talking to Larry Bush, Director of Noahs Ark Zoo Farm in North Somerset.

In 2023 the attraction was recognised for their exceptional efforts in accessibility and inclusion, by winning the prestigious gold award in the Visit England Award for Excellence.

With one in five households having someone with an impairment or disability, it is crucial for businesses in the visitor economy to prioritise accessibility. Consideration and awareness for customers with additional needs can make or break a decision to choose a business.

Supporting people with access needs has always been essential, but in recent years, more information has become available, and businesses in the visitor economy are responding more proactively than ever before.

“I have a daughter who is autistic and another daughter who had really suffered with mental health challenges and had struggled with different stages of schooling. I think that helped me to have increased awareness of how challenging life can be for lots of people.”

Larry’s journey to running a successful and inclusive family attraction is truly remarkable. Before taking over the family business, Larry worked in the corporate sector for a decade, including role at a major FMCG company where he was responsible for introducing Doritos to the UK!

He left that path to work in the fair trade movement before his parents handed over the reins of Noah’s Ark when they reached their 80’s.

We chat about:

> The growth of Noah’s Ark and its transformation from a dairy farm, to a charity, with education, wildlife and people at its core.

> The recent awards the Zoo has received for its outstanding accessibility initiatives, as well as being recognised as a work experience employer of the year.

> Larry’s personal experiences as a parent, combined with the team’s unwavering determination, which has led to the implementation of various inclusive initiatives including their Ark for All programme.
> The importance of training staff to be aware of accessibility needs, alongside regularly gathering customer feedback to improve inclusivity.
> The benefits of collaborating with individuals and families to design accessible facilities and signage, ultimately benefit everyone who visits the Zoo.

> The zoo’s conservation efforts, including their participation in international breeding programs for endangered species and their commitment to conserving rare breed farm animals.

> Their successful work experience program with Weston College, where around 20 students annually gain valuable hands-on experience in animal care and various other areas of the Zoo.
Full Transcription
Kelly Ballard 03:34
Today I am joined by Larry Bush, who’s the Managing Director of Noah’s Ark Zoo farm in between Clevedon and Bristol, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Larry.

Larry Bush 03:45
Thanks for inviting me on Kelly. It’s yes, a real pleasure to be on your podcast.

Kelly Ballard 03:49
Well, I can’t wait to hear more from you because I absolutely love Noah’s Ark. My children are now 11 and 12. And since they were little, we’ve been coming there. And I don’t know why but we always seem to come in the winter. But they love it.
I’ve been looking at your website looking at some of the figures and you’ve got over 100 species of animals, you’ve got the largest elephant kind of space enclosure in the UK, but my children love it for the play area! So all of those educationally important things that you’ve got, they now just love coming for the slides. In particular, they’ve always loved the one where you walk up the elephant’s bottom and down his trunk. That’s hilarious. You spend all your money on all of these amazing things, and yet it comes back to these very basic things.

Larry Bush 04:47
Absolutely, yeah, it sounds like a very familiar story. Actually, Kelly we have so many people who come here and the parents are bringing them to show them the elephants and the Andean bears and actually they just want to kind of go through the chicken walk through and go down the slides and spend all day in indoor play. So, yeah, that’s great to hear that you’ve been here with the kids and you’ve enjoyed it. I think lots of people kind of drive by not really realising how much is here, and there is quite a good variety of things for people to enjoy. And play is definitely one of them.

Kelly Ballard 05:21
Definitely. What I love about it is the year-round experience, I think, your indoor play area and, the, I want to call it the petting zoo, it’s probably got a better name than that, but it’s fantastic. That area that you’ve got with the auditorium where you get the animals out, and you talk that is really, really good. And so if it’s raining, it doesn’t matter.

Larry Bush 05:43
Yeah, I think the indoor areas, they’re like an Aladdin’s cave, aren’t they, because they’re all farm barns that they used to be, you know, cattle would be in there be hay barn areas. And they’ve been kind of converted into these huge great, home built, a lot of them play areas with incredible drop slides. And there’s like a three dimensional beehive maze and all these really unique and surprising kind of play areas. And then, yeah, we’ve got the animal village in there where people can kind of meet the small mammals and guinea pigs and rabbits and all kinds. And then we’ve got this big ark arena, as you say, where we can have events. We actually use it for our team meeting once a week and then education workshops. So even when it’s pouring down with rain, this vast kind of indoor areas here as well as the 100 acres of outdoor space too.

Kelly Ballard 06:32
Yeah, this there’s so much there. Today, I wanted to get you on because I heard you speak at an event back last year. And I was fascinated by your story in terms of the story of the zoo itself and how you came to be where you are today. Also recently, this year, you’ve won an award for accessibility and inclusion, I’d like to talk to you about that. You’ve also I mean, you’ve when you want we have lots of awards all the time. But these in particular, you won gold in the Visit England accessible and inclusive tourism Award for Excellence, no less. So that was amazing and I’d like to get your thoughts on that in a second. You were work experience Employer of the Year from Western College, which is no mean feat, because I think you know, it’s a real challenge supporting work experience in amongst the working day. So I’d like to talk to you a bit more about that. But yeah, I mean, for those who don’t know tell us what is Noah’s Ark zoo farm today.

Larry Bush 07:42
Yeah, so Noah’s Ark, we are a farm that turned into a zoo. And so this is a family dairy farm. My family had been here for 60 years. And it was my parents who started it off just over 20 years ago. In the early days, it was very community orientated a lovely kind of Farm Park. And then it’s grown up very organically kind of year by year, more animals being added. And so now it’s actually really quite a big place.
It’s over 100 acres, we’ve got some really large and exotic animals, including elephants, and lions and giraffes or bears. So it’s quite surprising. It’s not what you’d expect to find on a normal dairy farm in Somerset. But it’s now this is a really large spacious Zoo. And it’s also got this brilliant adventure play.

So we can I think about having all three of those elements of kind of Zoo, farm park and play all in one place. And we are visited by over 200,000 people every year. We’ve got a really quite a large team here, we’ve got over 100 people that are employed here looking after the animals and looking after visitors. So yeah, it’s sort of grown up in this this lovely sort of organic entrepreneurial way. Still has that very strong community vibe about it. And yeah, it’s a lovely place to work. I think we’re all feel very lucky to be part of the team here at Noah’s Ark.

Kelly Ballard 09:15
Yeah, I interviewed Sammy Luxa back last year, because she started I think she started as a summer job, didn’t she and she worked her way up to managing marketing. And yeah, she had such fond memories of working there. That’s where she cut her teeth working in the industry really.

Larry Bush 09:35
Yeah, Sammy did an amazing job here. And that’s absolutely you know, she grew with the zoo, and I think Noah’s Ark has been a place where it’s a very nurturing environment. And I think it’s somewhere where we encourage people to develop their skills and we sort of create opportunities for people to do that, really and so, part of that so that learning culture is something we value and I value in running Noah’s Ark. And so yeah, Sam is definitely one of our real success stories. She did an amazing job here and has gone on to achieve incredible things with Slimbridge and with WWT. So, yeah, that’s a familiar story, actually some people come for one reason and they ended up leaving a different person.

Kelly Ballard 10:20
That’s really nice. Well, talking about coming for one reason, and still being there. Tell me about your journey into where you are today, because you said it was started by your parents. I remember hearing a hilarious story – you didn’t start in this industry, did you? And it wasn’t your original ambition to go into the farm. Tell me about what you did as a young man and how you came to be where you are?

Larry Bush 10:47
Yeah, absolutely. I definitely did not want to be a farmer. I kind of left home at 18 went off to university and went into a career in business initially. I worked for Walkers Crisps for 10 years. And I was lucky to be part of a team that introduced Doritos to the UK, no way. So in fact that there’s a TV series on Channel Four at the moment called The Secret World of crisps. Yeah. And I speak on that programme about the kind of that experience of being part of the team introducing Doritos. And went off to America to learn all about Doritos, and then introduce that to the UK market. And then various different European markets. So that was a kind of quite a sort of, intense period of my career working for Walkers, which is part of PepsiCo, you know, how many pressure high stakes but really fun as well, very useful and lots of things happening.

I had a long term ambition to really kind of use business for social enterprise, and I was very interested in fair trade. I managed to find an opportunity to work in the fair trade movement. So I left Walkers to do that and ended up being a Director of a fair trade organisation who were very instrumental Tradecraft, were very instrumental in Fair Trade becoming such a mainstream thing, because it’s hard to think now, but going back sort of 15-20 years, it was quite an edgy idea. It was, you know, big business was very suspicious of ethical things like fair trade. And business was, you know, very profit driven, didn’t really think about social responsibilities and sustainability. So it was really exciting being part of that movement to bring ethical values to the fore with business.

So I was I was helping to run that company, working with producers in some really difficult circumstances in many, many countries around the world, but also influencing the way mainstream businesses and retailers were gradually kind of supporting Fairtrade. So yeah, so that was a sort of second stage of my career. And then, yeah, the story that you refer to actually happened while I was working for Walkers.
My dad phoned me up one day and said, Would you mind taking a day off to meet some rhinos at the airport at Stansted Airport? And I think we as a family have recognised that our parents are not sort of normal dairy farmers. They’re quite unconventional and very entrepreneurial. But this was a phone call I didn’t expect to have so all these sort of images raced through my mind of like, rocking up at the airport with a sign saying Mr. And Mrs. Rhino this this way. But yeah, I arrived at the airport and it was, you know, it was the cargo parts of Stansted. And there were all these amazing, you know, vets and animal professionals. And sure enough, these two big crates are unloaded from an aeroplane and covered in cargo netting and it felt very Jurassic Park actually with these rhinos inside these crates, and I followed them down in the lorry. It was a very windy day at Noahs Ark. There was a huge crane that lifted the crates over the top of the brand new Rhino house and the crates were swinging in the in the wind. And thankfully, they landed safely on the other side and the rhinos into their new enclosure. And yeah, I think that was a big milestone for Noah’s Ark. You could probably say that was the moment it became a zoo. Previous to that there have been things like ostriches and llamas and kind of slightly exotic animals. But this like rhinos, this is like a proper animal.

Kelly Ballard 14:46
Wow. So when did you become involved in the zoo? When did you decide that this is what you were going to do?

Larry Bush 14:55
Yeah, that’s a really good question. So it was sort of at the end of my time working in fair trade. I left that position. And I worked freelance for a few years actually, by that stage, I had sort of 25 years of experience. And I was helping various charities and social enterprises in the Northeast of England and thinking about their strategy and marketing.

At that stage, my folks gave me a call and said, Would I come and do a review with the team here at Noah’s Ark. And I think when I came to do that, I could see that Noah’s Ark had become really quite big. And it had been very much a family startup, no real sort of awareness of the kind of systems and ways of working that, you know, good-sized businesses need.

I could see that there were some changes that needed to happen in order to sort of adapt to the scale that Noah’s Ark had achieved, and equally, it was a catalyst for some family conversations about succession because my parents actually didn’t start Noah’s Ark until they were in their 60s. So by this stage, they were in their mid 80s. And they were absolutely loving it. And they have done an amazing job in this place to have the courage to launch a new business and to grow such a big enterprise, especially at that kind of later stage of life. But I think they, they realised through talking it through that, you know, they were not able to sustain that that level of pressure and intensity, too much longer.

So, after quite a series of discussions amongst the family, we all agreed that it would be a good idea for myself to take on the running of the business. And at that stage, my parents still owned the business. And so I relocated with my family, back down to Bristol, where I’ve grown up with my family, my children were sort of at the stage of going off to university.

So my son was actually quite horrified because he had just got a place at Bristol University and he suddenly realised when we tell them what was happening, that his parents were moving back. He was trying to escape to the other side of the country so we had to reassure him that we weren’t planning to rock up at the Student Union on a Saturday night and he still have plenty of his own space and independence.
But yeah, it’s been been an amazing thing. It’s something I never anticipated would happen, because it felt like I’d have my own completely separate kind of normal professional career. So the idea of, kind of coming back to the family business, and literally back to where I grew up on the farm was wasn’t something I planned. But yeah, it’s been really fun. And such a it’s such a colourful job to do.

Kelly Ballard 17:53
It is, isn’t it? And I think, well, working in this industry is, but also what you do in terms of you know, working in an attraction is amazing with animals. It’s just people love it. I mean, there’s obviously controversy surrounding people that don’t, but it’s it is such a lovely place to be in. So, I mean, just thinking about the business now, I mean, 200,000 visitors a year and 100 staff, yes, that’s, that’s a huge business to run, isn’t it? And you’re always thinking of new ways to get better, be better. And, you know, just thinking about the award that you’ve won recently, this accessibility and inclusion award. You know, is that something that you’ve been always thinking about? How has that come about? And why is that important to you?

Larry Bush 18:40
Yeah. It’s a really interesting one, it it’s come about for a number of reasons. And I think it’s a lovely coincidence of a few different things coming together. I think one thing is that Noah’s Ark has always been a very sort of caring, nurturing kind of environment for people as well as for animals. But for myself, coming into Noah’s Ark, I’d had the experience of being a father of some children, who’d had challenges growing up. I have a daughter who is autistic, and another daughter who had really suffered with kind of mental health challenges and really struggled with different stages of schooling. And I think that helped me to have increased awareness of how challenging life can be for lots of people. And that, you know, I had a specific insight as a parent, but it gave me a glimpse of that kind of wider world of everyone’s different, and everyone’s kind of facing different challenges of all kinds. And so, and that was my perspective.

Equally within the team at Noah’s Ark. A member of the team we have Rhian Gunstone came from a special educational needs background. She was a teacher and she had a real professional expertise in this area, and she was aware of what could be done and what needed to be done really, for Noahs Ark to make us more accessible. And then I think the third thing is we as a team, really believed this was something we wanted to focus on and make a real major focus on.

We had created a five year plan, we created a programme called Ark for all. And we’ll have this sort of determination that we didn’t know exactly what we needed to do. But we just really wanted to make Noah’s Ark a welcoming place for as many people as possible. And that we would do whatever it takes to do that. And we saw, we sort of started that journey around about 2018. And we launched the project by doing some practical things, we created an inclusive playground, actually right next door to the elephant, butt slide that you mentioned earlier,

Kelly Ballard
You call it the butt slide. That’s hilarious.

Larry Bush 20:56
So we had a lovely set of swings up there. And there’s a roundabout that is inclusive, and that you can easily anyone can enjoy using the roundabout, but it’s easy to get a wheelchair onto it, it’s easy for everyone to use. And then right beside it, we installed the changing places toilet, which we learned was a real game changer for lots of people, they just can’t go for a day out if there isn’t a changing places toilet with a hoist. So that became our, for all hub.

Kelly Ballard 21:27
Larry, just for those that don’t know, what is a changing places toilet because I’ve heard and seen this a lot recently, whilst I’ve been doing a bit of research, what is it?

Larry Bush 21:37
Yeah, so it is, it’s an accessible toilet that goes further than a sort of disabled toilet as they’ve traditionally been called. So that there’s lots of space. And it’s really it’s a large room, there’s a toilet facility in there. But crucially, there’s a hoist and there’s a changing bed so that some people need adults need a hoist to be able to be changed by their carers, because of the nature of their disability. And without that people are faced with having to lie on the floor and be changed in a toilet that’s, you know, a cold floor and that this is the reality for lots of people, if they’re going for a day out. If there isn’t a changing places toilet, they’re put through that horrible ordeal. And I think once you’re aware of that, you know, I think every attraction would want to installa changing places toilet, and incredibly there aren’t actually that many around. So lots of people, they’re excluded from going to lots of places when there isn’t that kind of facility.

I think for us, it’s an example of how we’ve learned so much by talking to people. And really the progress we’ve made with the overall programme is by being willing to learn and willing to listen. And we’ve been guided by our customers and members and people who we’ve engaged with who have said, Actually, you could really do with changing places toilets, or you could do with a better hearing loop system.

We’ve really been being led by the experts, whether it’s kind of people who need those facilities or other organisations. And so what what we’ve brought to the party is the desire to improve, and the determination to install new facilities and improve our physical infrastructure.

I think almost as important as that is to create that culture of wanting to be welcoming, genuinely wanting to be welcoming and have training happening, lots of it’s free training, there’s so much available. We’ve done the Dementia Friends training, we’ve we enrolled in the sunflower lanyard scheme, and all of these kinds of organisations provide free training in lots of cases. So yeah, I think it’s been it’s been a journey that we just kind of were determined to do that. And we had no idea this was going to end up with kind of a national award that isn’t at all why we’ve done it. But it’s been an encouraging sort of milestone on that journey to kind of feel like we’re making progress. still so much we want to do. But yeah, I think we kind of feel really keen to share the experience that we’ve had with others. There’s some other brilliant work going on. Talking about WWT Slimbridge, they also received the National Award for what they’ve done in accessibility and inclusivity. There’s some great, great work going on, particularly here in the West Country, actually, this area, so we’re kind of keen to share, those experiences and kind of highlight the good reasons to do it that it kind of just helps you be a better welcoming place actually, just by doing these things.

Kelly Ballard 24:58
Yeah, it’s true, isn’t it? And I think having worked for many years in this industry, I don’t know it’s ignorance, probably that you see it as a minority group. But actually, when you look at the figures, 40% of UK households have someone in a house with a form of disability. And 75% of families have turned away from a business when they didn’t have the right facilities. And I mean, this is huge. 20% of all day visits, according to Visit England, were made by someone with an impairment, and 16% of all domestic overnight visits, have someone in the group with an impairment. This is a massive market, isn’t it? Let’s be, you know, crude about this. But also, it’s about welcoming, you come as a family group. And it’s not just one person. So this is about what you do as a family. And if 40% of your families have somebody in the group that needs, you know, extra care, then it’s really important that that’s provided, isn’t it?

Larry Bush 26:02
Absolutely, yeah, those are incredible stats, I think we often think about sort of typical family visiting Noah’s Ark. And, you know, it’s so common that maybe one of the children is autistic, maybe one of the parents have special dietary requirements, and quite probably one of the grandparents need to mobility scooter to get around, you know, that we can probably all relate to that. That’s a very kind of typical group of visitors to the zoo. So as you said, this isn’t about, you know, tiny minorities or people this is really just being welcoming to all the groups that turn up and it almost kind of flip this on, it’s the idea of accessibility, it, flip it on its head and saying, if you’re not doing that, you’re actually being quite exclusive, you’re excluding whole proportions of the population, you just, they can’t really enjoy a day out with you, if you don’t provide this stuff.

So I think we are in that process of social change, you know, as a society, within the visitor economy, we kind of reflecting that so that you can know you have to do this stuff, if you want to be a good welcoming place, you really do need to embrace being accessible. And the nice thing is, I think some people feel a bit intimidated by it because if they don’t feel they know what to do, they don’t know what language to use, but what we really encourage people to do, and we definitely think this of ourselves is like, we’re really not experts at this, we are just trying to learn, and everybody is willing to tell us what we need to do to improve. And so you just have to kind of ask those questions and have that genuine learning, approach and listen to the feedback and make small improvements. And you don’t have to do it all at once as well. It’s a step by step journey. So it’s not something to feel worried or too intimidated about. But it’s great to sort of embrace that and be led by our customers.

Kelly Ballard 28:00
I was listening to something the other day, and they were saying there’s a perception that it’s expensive to make these adaptions and kind of, you know, support this visitor more. But actually, that’s the compliance element to it, isn’t it? It’s the kind of like, that’s the physical assets that you need to change. Whereas actually, you’ve mentioned it in terms of customer service elements to that and being kind of aware of, of what people’s needs are as they come in all the different needs. So it’s about training staff to be aware of all of these things, isn’t it? Which doesn’t take that huge amount of investment? It’s just training, essentially?

Larry Bush 28:42
Absolutely. I think you’re spot on Kelly, the training and the culture are the most powerful parts of it. And I think that just comes from a willingness and a desire to be more welcoming, and be more inclusive, and embrace all the kinds of visitors that can. And actually, visitors are really understanding people, though, they understand that you can’t, the attractions can’t have all the facilities at once. They really do. And, you know, we even though we won a national Gold Award, we look around the site, and we look at all kinds of footpaths, where we think oh, that’s still a bit rough, that’s still a bit steep, there’s so much that we know we still have to do to become more accessible. And so it’s just kind of, it’s not something you have to do all in one go. And you know, each year we try and make improvements, but it depends from year to what we can afford to do. But visitors are really understanding and but what they really do value is that desire to become more accessible and that willingness to genuinely listen to what can make your day more enjoyable. How can we help?

Kelly Ballard 29:46
How do you do that out of interest, Larry, how do you actively pursue that kind of feedback? How’d you do it?

Larry Bush 29:57
Yeah, we do. We take on board the customer feedback, we have a customer comments report every month. So all of my senior team will really pour through the comments. Did you

Kelly Ballard 30:12
How do you get them?

Larry Bush 30:16
It comes through a mixture of things. Some of it is through messenger. And through social media, some of it’s through emails, some of its captured through comments on site, we have a pretty close knit team. So we have, you know, lots of informal reviews on a weekly basis, where we’ll kind of pool all the feedback. So I mean, that includes all kinds of feedback. So not just things to do with accessibility, but we do the accessibility comments are really useful source of feedback. And, you know, just to keep it real, you know, we were pretty proud of this kind of visit England Gold Award, and then we’ve got absolutely slammed, you know, a few weeks ago by someone saying, you know, you’ve got this award out, but your accessibility is rubbish, you know, you need to improve these footpaths. So it’s good to sort of Earth yourself in, in the reality because every individual is got their own perspective. And we need to, you know, listen to that.

So, yeah, we really kind of look at the individual comments. We also have really asked individual families for their help where we’ve got members, and they’ve got members of the family with physical disabilities, for example, we’ve asked them to come in and do tours around the zoo with them to get that kind of insight to say, Well, how could we improve this area. And actually, some of those facilities that we talked about with the inclusive play area were designed with one particular family, where they can have helped us choose the equipment and helped us think it all through and where to position is changing places toilets. So that’s been really useful, as well as another approach.

And then we’ve worked with organisations is one charity called Hard Days Out with the kids. And they’ve been brilliant. They particularly specialise in working with families where they have children with autism, autistic children, and they’ve kind of helped us to train our team and helped us think through things in terms of calm spaces, we’ve developed signage as well. And we have Rhian, who has championed this area for us, and she’s done a phenomenal job.

Here at Noah’s Ark, she developed a whole language of symbols that we use for our interpretation. And that was designed, working with outside organisations who are can, there’s a language called widgets, which lots of people will know. But widget doesn’t really have all the detail of different zoo animals. So Rhian kind of took that further. And she’s designed our own version of, of widgets. And so we have now accessible signage across all of the animal enclosures. But what we found this, that there is a sort of universal law, if you like that, if you make something like signage accessible for one group of people, you actually discover that it becomes accessible for everybody. And so this signage is really popular now for, you know, children of all ages, lots of adults really love it as well, because they say, Well, I actually don’t really want to read all the detail you have on your traditional pen in science, but I love this accessible signage, because it’s a visual and it’s so engaging. So yeah, I think that’s one of the things we’ve learned along the way that if you, if you do make things accessible for one group of people, often you find it just works better for everybody.

Kelly Ballard 33:38
Absolutely. Changing the subject. Now I want to talk to you about your charitable status that you’ve got in 2023. So tell me about that. And your ambition, I guess, for the zoo.

Larry Bush 33:51
Yeah, so the charitable status has been a journey to get there. It’s taken four years to gain charitable status. And it’s something that my family kind of chose to do. My parents have donated the zoo into this charity so they’ve given away that asset. And the reason that they wanted to do that, and we all want to do that as a family is we feel that Noahs Ark has become something much bigger than a family business. It’s something that we want to be shared and enjoyed, for the public good forever. And so the charity is really provided the vehicle for that to happen. And the process of doing it has been to apply to the Charity Commission and kind of set out the aims of the charity.

We’ve got four fantastic trustees on board who are independent, and will bring their really great different varied experiences. And the charity is its conservation charity, and it also has education aims, and then the bit that’s a little bit unique but reflects what we’ve been talking about. with people is we’ve got a third aim which is about human well being. And that that really kind of recognises the value that lovely natural environments like this have to the well being of people and that that really came across strongly, particularly kind of, in the periods during the COVID lockdowns. And in between people were really enjoying coming, coming to this space and telling us how much they valued being in this lovely kind of green oasis of calm that we have here. And that lovely valley, that Noahs Ark is in and being able to kind of connect with the wildlife and the animals. And so we’ve made human wellbeing a third aim, which is, I think, fairly unique for a zoo, I think most Zoos would have conservation and education as their aims, but we’ve got this kind of really interesting third area. So that’s it, finally, we got the registration through about this time last year – autumn winter 2022. And then we went through the actual restructuring process, which I had no idea how complicated it was going to be, but like endless legal documents and financial arrangements. And finally, that transfer happens on the on the fourth of April this year, and Noah’s Ark opened as a charity for the first time.

So yeah, it’s a really exciting milestone for the zoo. I feel really excited about what it will do for Noah’s Ark and providing a real kind of focus. And it’s been really welcomed by staff. I think everybody loves that they’re now working for a charity. And for visitors, they’ve welcomed this as well, I’ve had really good feedback. And already people sort of topping up the admissions and opting in for Gift Aid, and really enjoying kind of supporting the charity.

Kelly Ballard 36:57
Could ask you quickly about your conservation aims and objectives… because as I said, we spend most of our time in the slides. Yeah, terrible parent.

Larry Bush 37:15
It’s not a bad thing to deal with that that’s all about human well being. So yeah, I mean, the conservation is there’s actually quite a few layers to it, because the zoo animals part of it, we have quite a number of endangered species, and we’re members of multiple international breeding programmes. So for example, our spectacle bears are part of an international breeding programme, we’ve got a fantastic facility with a cubbing den. So we were allocated a breeding pair of bears, and they had cubs last year. So we’ve now got these twin bear cubs. And so that that’s really important because Andean bears are very much vulnerable and endangered in the wild. And we have now have a link with a spectacle bear charity in Peru, who is working on the grounds, to create reserves and to research and to understand the issues behind the declining population and to act upon that they’re working with the Peruvian government. They’re working with local communities doing some brilliant stuff on the ground, so that local communities buy into the need for conservation.

So yeah, so I think that that’s a good example of how conservation works for us with the exotic species that we have that by, by having species here at Noah’s Ark, we are conserving the species, but we’re also collecting them with conservation organisations overseas, with fundraising for them as well. And we’re raising awareness so that everyone who comes to the zoo, every keeper talk here on a daily basis will talk about conservation in Peru and the need to do that. So that’s the kind of more regular zoo conservation.

But in addition to that, because we’ve got our farming heritage, we’ve also taken off farm animals in a conservation direction. So now we have rare breed cattle and sheep, goats and geese. And we’ve become accredited with the Rare Breed Survival Trust, so that’s a really interesting branch of conservation. That also is fascinating for visitors, and we often find parents and grandparents are really interested to hear those stories of the rare breed and things like the Suffolk Punch horses, which were, you know, the War Horse horses who worked the lands in Britain. There used to be several million of those Suffolk Punch horses in Britain, but now they’re actually rarer as a breed than pandas. And so, we feel strongly as a sort of organisation that has farming roots to play our part in in conserving those rare breeds and this amazing social history that goes on with that.

Then the third area is to do with native wildlife conservation. So we have some brilliant conservation areas around the edges of the zoo and we have surveys done, we monitor what is here its quite exciting. Last year, we had UWE came out and did some research. And they found that we had 11 species of bats in one area of a beech coppice. And they also found the signs indicating there’s Hazel dormice there. So that’s another kind of part of the conservation we’re doing with with the native species around us, because we’ve got this lovely big, wild site.

Kelly Ballard 40:40
Hmm, wow,loads happening. Very interesting. Thank you. I just want to talk about your work experience award and your work experience programme that you have. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Larry Bush 40:52
Yeah, so we, we really enjoy having work experience students here at Noahs Ark, and actually it’s always been a big feature of the experience, I think you may have seen as a visitor, Kelly. But historically, there used to be like loads of teenagers with orange T shirts at the weekend. And they’re kind of helping out in animal village. And when we came to the COVID, period, it all had to come to a stop. So we really had to kind of rethink how are we going to do this going forward. And so we’ve created a really great partnership with Weston College. So now what we do is we offer work experience placements for the animal management course at Weston. We have students on their work experience placements, and they work very, very closely, mainly, with the farm animal team, where they have plenty of kind of hands on interaction. And they ended up being really valued members of the team. We give them a fair amount of responsibility, plenty of guidance, and, yeah, we found that it’s worked really well.
And we were delighted when Weston College gave us that award in the summer that they obviously feel it’s working well, and the students are really, really gaining from the experience they’re picking up here. And we’re equipping them with some real life experience that could take them into further studies, if they want to go on and do a degree or higher education qualification, and then ultimately into the animal care industry.

Kelly Ballard 42:31
So how many do you have? How many students do you have that come and work with you, approximately, across the year,

Larry Bush 42:37
Across the year is about 20 or so? Right? So yeah, so we’ve actually, in terms of the numbers, we’re taking fewer students than we used to, but we’re offering a really good quality experience. And that was kind of really what we’re doing now. And I think that’s what Weston College have told us they value the most is the sort of the quality of the training that we’re getting. We’re also working with Weston with their SEND team. And so we’re kind of looking to see how we can develop that work experience programme and offer kind of a wider range of experiences. And that may well go beyond animal care. Because as an attraction, we have various different kind of strings to our business. So we have, obviously the catering team. And then we have retail, and we have kind of customer service. So there’s various kinds of experience we can offer. So we’re exploring that with Weston College at the moment to see how we can offer that for SEND students and potentially other work experience too.

Kelly Ballard 43:40
It’s important, isn’t it, because these are your employees of the future. And you being a kind of remote rural venue, then you need to have as many people as possible that you can access, don’t you?

Larry Bush 43:56
Absolutely. Yeah, we really see that. And I think we can see through recruitment, we were lucky, but we tend to do well with recruitment, but it is becoming harder to find people with the right skills and the right qualities that we need to continue to flourish as a charity. So we absolutely see, you know, the need for us to commit to that and to be part of that training.

Kelly Ballard 44:22
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get into working somewhere like Noah’s Ark?

Larry Bush 44:30
Yeah, I think we have that’s a question that’s often asked to us by visitors. Actually, quite often people will turn up for a visit and they’ll say, How do I become a zookeeper? Yeah. I think for that particular part of we employ 28 animal keepers. So for that, we would always say absolutely do your animal management to your qualifications.

It’s actually a very competitive industry to get into to be an animal keeper. And so usually we are recruiting you know, graduates who’ve done Zoology or Environmental Science, and also have plenty of experience as volunteers. Volunteering is a brilliant way to get into that. And there are, you know, there’s other training that people offer. So people easily enter as an animal keeper with a degree plus a year or so of experience. But yet lots of enthusiasm, I think the dedication to pick up those days of volunteering alongside studies that always counts for a lot. And determination usually goes a long way too but that that isn’t the only way to become a part of and that was our team, because we employ, you know, more catering staff than we do Zookeepers. And similarly, we have people doing all kinds of jobs who love animals, they’re here because they love animals they love what Noahs Ark does, and they really enjoy doing a job in customer service, or in marketing or in HR or something which is not directly involved with the animals, but it really sort of helps create that environment where the animals and the conservation can all thrive.

Kelly Ballard 46:14
Okay, thank you for that. Lastly, I just want to ask you a few questions about you and some of your favourite things to do and places to go. Just a quick fire round. Where’s your favourite place to eat in the West?

Larry Bush 46:31
Yeah, well, I’m kind of new back to the West Country, Kelly, because I have only been back for years. And about two of that we were completely locked down. So it feels as though I’m sort of discovering things for the first time. But somewhere that I ate very recently that I loved was actually in Weston-super-Mare, and it’s a place called Revo. Okay. And that is just brilliant. Because what a stunning view you get from it. I think it used to be the Sealife Centre. So it’s kind of on the beach there. Yeah, I love the kind of lounge style dining and the views were just incredible. So love that place.

Kelly Ballard 47:07
You know what, I love that place too. If you catch it on the right day, it is beautiful. You just, it’s gorgeous, isn’t it? I totally agree.

Larry Bush 47:16
To go out of season as well, I think kind of beach views. But if it’s like hammering down with rain, you can just enjoy the views from the nice dry and

Kelly Ballard 47:25
Lovely, lovely. And how about places to drink? A coffee, drink wherever however you want to.

Larry Bush 47:34
Well, I love coffee. So I love all the independent coffee places in Bristol and actually my son is a massive coffee geek and he founded the Bristol University coffee society. So I always asked him for tips of where to go in Bristol. But the other place that I that makes me chuckle I love just for the West Country Somerset character is the Blue Flame pub, which is just outside Nailsea its traditional and is quite a kind of rough and ready cider drinking pub. But they created an amazing garden during the lockdown. So there’s this lovely kind of orchard at the back and they have all kinds of local ciders there. So that’s, that’s a great locals place.

Kelly Ballard 48:16
Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve not heard of that place. I’d love to check it out now. And how about your favourite place to visit in the West?

Larry Bush 48:25
Well, there’s so many good places, and I admire so many of the independent attractions. There’s loads of fantastic places, but I think my favourite is actually the Bishop’s Palace Gardens in Wells. Just love this like this incredible oasis. I love the fact they’ve got the kind of formal gardens but they’ve kind of got wild spaces as well, then you’ve got the stunning architecture. And it’s kind of right in the heart of Wells. So I have to admit that’s, that’s what I love to escape to, to kind of get away from it all.

Kelly Ballard 48:55
Sounds lovely. I love Wells.

Well, I’ve got nothing more to ask you. You’ve given me so much today. I really appreciate your time. And if anyone wants to find out more, obviously, you’ve got the website. I’ll put all of your contact details for Noah’s Ark Farm Park sorry Zoo Farm… I say that because I’m used to saying that Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm, now that it is in the show notes, and yeah. Is there anything else that you would like to say that we haven’t talked about?

Larry Bush 49:28
It’s been great talking to Kelly, thanks for the opportunity. And don’t think of anything else to say. Yeah, it’s been a real pleasure talking to you today.

Kelly Ballard 49:36
Oh, thanks for sharing all your insights, and well done on the awards.

Larry Bush 49:40
Thank you so much.

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