Best zoos and farms to take the kids to in Scotland

Best zoo and farm experiences in Scotland

Want to see animals without optical equipment? Here's where to go

If there's one thing that's guaranteed to get some kids excited, it's the prospect of seeing animals. But while adult animal lovers would be happy to spend a few hours standing around in a windy nature reserve if it meant they got a glimpse of a rutting stag going full-on Barry White, kids tend to lack patience and stamina. They want animals up close, visible and preferably behind some kind of fencing.

Supporters of zoos say that they encourage public interest in wildlife and conservation, while some critics maintain that it's always indefensible to confine animals in enclosures. Until 2014, one of the highlights of Edinburgh Zoo was its Big Cat Walkway, which featured among other magnificent animals a pair of jaguars and a spectacular male Amur leopard, but the zoo decided that the Walkway, with its relatively small enclosures, was too high a price to pay in animal welfare for its educational purpose. The Walkway's been demolished, and the animals have been housed elsewhere. The favoured practice these days is to stock zoos with animals that have been born in zoos, unless the aim is to release the animals back into the wild at some point; zoo-reared animals are less likely to have a bad experience of zoo life.

A less expensive and more intimate way to see animals is by a visit to a farm. Many farms are open to the public, and the sights, sounds and above all smells of a real farm are the kinds of thing that you seldom get at the zoo. Scotland has a lot of nature reserves, but places where you can get closer to the animals are a little thinner on the ground. Here are six of the best.

Edinburgh Zoo

Best zoo and farm experiences in Scotland

credit: RZSS Edinburgh Zoo
Edinburgh Zoo was designed by the visionary architect and town planner Patrick Geddes, and was built on the side of Corstorphine Hill to give the animals a more natural environment than the usual flat land and steel cages of typical Victorian zoos. It was the first zoo in the world to house and breed penguins, and the penguin enclosure is still one of the most spectacular features, with its thick glass windows enabling you to observe the birds as they swim. One penguin, Nils Olav, is also the colonel-in-chief of the Norwegian King's Guard (it's complicated). Edinburgh is also the only zoo in the UK to house giant pandas, although Yáng Guāng and Tián Tián are really, really fond of sleeping. Be warned that if you want to get the most of a visit, there are a lot of steep hills. Admission isn't cheap, but if you're planning to go more than a couple of times in a year, family membership will soon pay for itself.
Edinburgh Zoo, Corstorphine, Edinburgh. Open Apr–Sep daily 9am–6pm; Oct & Mar 9am–5pm; Nov–Feb 10am–4pm.

Five Sisters Zoo

This zoo is privately owned and run by Brian and Shirley Curran as a non-profit organisation, and has a focus on rescuing animals that have been held in poor conditions: in May 2018 it took delivery of two brown bears, Henk and Eso, which had previously been living a miserable life caged outside a roadside restaurant in Albania. It's also rescued lions and bears that had previously been owned by travelling circuses. Handling sessions can be booked, in which you may be able to touch or hold a royal python, a leopard gecko, a tortoise or other small animals. Birthday party deals are available.
Five Sisters Zoo, Polbeth Road, Gavieside, West Lothian. Open 1 Feb--24 Mar: 10am--5pm; 25 Mar--30 Sep: 10am--6pm; 1–31 Oct: 10am--5pm; 1 Nov--31 Jam: 10am--4pm.

Gorgie City Farm

Best zoo and farm experiences in Scotland

There's nothing about Gorgie City Farm which is just for show: a sign on the premises cheerfully informs visitors that its animals have ended up going to some of the finest restaurants in Edinburgh. Home to several pigs, chickens, goats, sheep and some handsome cattle, the farm opened in 1982 and receives some external funding as well as earning money from the sale of produce; entrance has always been free. A cashflow crisis in 2016 led to an unprecedented flood of donations from the local community, and now it has a robust business plan and operates within renewed enthusiasm. The Pet Lodge is home to some ultra-cute guinea pigs, chinchillas and a couple of ferrets.
Gorgie City Farm, 51 Gorgie Road, Edinburgh. Open daily 9am—4pm except for 25 Dec and 1 Jan.

Almond Valley Heritage Centre

Best zoo and farm experiences in Scotland

Almond Valley is a museum devoted to the history and environment of West Lothian. It features such attractions as a walk-in camera obscura, a vegetable garden, Livingston Mill and the Scottish Shale Oil Museum. But it's also a farm, with horses, donkeys, ponies, sheep, pigs, geese, ducks, goats and chickens. Older kids can have fun on the zipline or explore the Adventure Zone in the converted shale oil refinery, while for ages 3—8 there's a soft play area. On weekends, small animal encounters let you get up close to a rabbit or guinea pig.
Almond Valley Heritage Centre, Millfield, Livingston, West Lothian. Open daily 10am—5pm.

Mabie Farm Park

Mabie Farm Park has some more exotic beasts, including llamas, an alpaca and Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, as well as Shetland ponies, horses, donkeys, pigs and goats and a range of fowl including peacocks, ducks, chickens, turkeys and quail. Donkey rides are available. The Straw Barn is an indoor area with rope swings and straw bales, and the play barn has a climbing wall and climbing frame for when the weather is less than perfect. Birthday party deals are available.
Mabie Farm Park, Burnside Farm, Mabie, Dumfries. Open daily 10am—5pm.

Highland Wildlife Park

Best zoo and farm experiences in Scotland

Highland Wildlife Park in the Cairngorms was originally set up to be a home for animals native to the Scottish Highlands, but the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which runs both the Park and Edinburgh Zoo, decided that it was better suited than the Zoo for housing animals used to living in highland conditions. The result is that the Park is now home to some of the most impressive animals in Scotland, including a pair of Amur tigers, three Bactrian camels, three polar bears, two snow leopards, two wolverines and a small herd of yak. The main reserve is drive-through, but there are still plenty of walkable areas and there aren't many other chances to see such a variety of creatures in something like their natural habitat. As with the Zoo, admission isn't cheap but RZSS members get in free.
Highland Wildlife Park, Kincraig, Cairngorms National Park, Highland. Open Apr--Jun and Sep--Oct: 10am--5pm; July--Aug 10am--6pm; Nov--Mar 10am--4pm.

A Highland Wildlife Park
Kincraig, Kingussie, Highland, PH21 1NL
This is a perfect day out for wildlife lovers and a particular hit with curious youngsters. You can observe Scottish wildlife both past and present in the dramatic setting of the Highlands. Take your car around the Main Reserve, then investigate the…
B Mabie Farm Park
Burnside Farm, Mabie, Dumfries, DG2 8EZ
This farm park has many animals to look at, as well as a climbing wall, a Pets Corner, Pedal G-Karts, Quad Bikes, an Astroslide, a Boating Pond and other attractions. Birthday Party deals are available.
C Five Sisters Zoo
Polbeth Road, Gavieside, West Calder, West Lothian, EH55 8PT
Five Sisters Zoo has been rescuing animals since 2005 and now home over 180 different species of mammals, birds and reptiles from around the world.
D Almond Valley Heritage Centre
Millfield, Livingston Mill Farm, Livingston, West Lothian, EH54 7AR
A family-friendly museum on a peaceful riverside site, with woods and fields extending for almost a mile. The traditional farm buildings and working watermill are home to many friendly farm animals, including highland cattle, rare breed sheep, and…
E Edinburgh Zoo
Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, 134 Corstorphine Road, Edinburgh, EH12 6TS
Set in 82 acres of sloping parkland, Edinburgh Zoo is home to over 1,000 rare and beautiful animals and the UK’s only giant pandas. Get closer than ever before as you come face to face with the Sumatran tigers in their enlarged enclosure – Tiger Tracks…
F Gorgie City Farm
51 Gorgie Road, Edinburgh, EH11 2LA
This city-based farm is home to a wide range of livestock and a Pet Lodge for more exotic animals such as tortoises and chinchillas, in addition to 19 species of wild birds who nest in the area. There’s a café and play park, and a shop selling the…

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