Birds tweeting, wolves howling, and tigers growling is part of Neil Mumby’s everyday life as the owner of Woodside Wildlife Park, and every part of it has been planned down to the finer details. Everything with the exception of how the ball got rolling.
Having a plan and being prepared for any situation is something that Neil has lived by, but when he was made redundant after 25 years in the poultry industry, it wasn’t something that he was prepared for.
“It had been a big kick to be made redundant and I decided that I didn’t want anybody to be able to put me in that position again,” said Neil. “The only way that you could guarantee that was working for yourself.
“It was a conscious decision to not work at all for three months following the redundancy – to give us time to think and take stock. If you get 50 years of working, then I was 25 years in, so it was a real centre point.”
Set with his redundancy pay and savings, Neil looked to move back to his home county in Lincolnshire from Scotland. Ever since he was a child, he had been fascinated by birds and what started as a hobby quickly became a business idea to run his own falconry park.
Originally Neil planned to open in Hartsholme Park in Lincoln but it just wasn’t meant to be.
It was then that Neil found Woodside’s current site in Newball, near Langworth in 1999. When he looked at the derelict house, a run down group of barns and a grass field, he only saw the potential of what it could be and started to get to work right away.
“The first thing we had to do was make the house habitable, as I had a toddler and a pregnant wife. Then it was to convert the buildings and have the bare roots of a visitor attraction. It took us two years from purchasing the derelict site to opening it to the public.”
A howling start
The site was officially opened in 2001 as Woodside Falconry Park, but Neil quickly realised that this wasn’t going to be enough to create a sustainable business.
“It may be OK where you have a high population area or high turnover of population – like a holiday destination, but in rural Lincolnshire, that’s not going to be enough. We decided that we needed to diversify and make it a more general visitor attraction.”
This, of course, was easier said than done. Trying to build a tourist business seven and a half miles away from Lincoln came with plenty of struggles. Neil took it all in his stride and found comfort in planning how he was going to grow.
“The biggest challenge was two-fold. One was trying to balance a work/home life because we had to put so much work and effort into growing the business and keeping it afloat, but also having two small children was quite a challenge.
“In the early days, it was quite hand to mouth. We’ve put all of our savings, investments and everything back into the business. We’ve not had an awful lot of surplus cash. It’s always gone to refurbishing toilets or staff development and we’re at the bottom of the list really.”
Then Woodside Falconry Park started to take on more than just birds of prey. In 2004, they introduced the Tropical House, which became home to butterflies and reptiles. The new attractions saw an instant boost in visitor numbers. It expanded again in 2007 with its first exotic animals including racoons and Egyptian bats.
“In 2009, we joined BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums). That opened a lot of doors to other zoos so we could gain more knowledge and more information like nutritional, veterinary and husbandry advice into different species. It also gave us access to animals.
“We were able to get in things like meerkats, lemurs and otters and the more common zoo species.”
In 2012, Neil had plans in place to introduce large carnivores and when he received a call to say that a pack of wolves had broken down in Germany, he moved up his timings.
“They had to remove four of the wolves and they had to do it quickly so we said, ‘Ok, we’ll do it.’
“It got brought forward a little bit but it was nice to be able to save the wolves, because when a pack breaks down, they will fight to get rid of the pack and there will be casualties.”
In addition, the team took on two tigers who also needed a new home. “We don’t profess to be a rescue centre at all. We have very, very few rescue animals.
“The tigers were a bit of an exception and it worked well for us. It was planned to get tigers, but actually to try and get a pair of pure Siberian tigers and go into a breeding programme straight away is not really practical or reasonable.”
Instead, Neil and the team built a breeding facility for tigers and obtained a couple of rescues so that the staff would be able to learn the best ways of taking care of them.
“It gives them the opportunity to learn on a non-breeding pair of tigers. That’s what lead to the rescue case of the two tigers from European circuses.”
A roaring success
With all the new additions, Woodside Wildlife Park now has a turnover of around £750,000, all of which comes from its 65,000 visitors a year.
“We live and die by our visitor numbers. We are only a small site, so we have to work really hard to keep the visitors happy, educated and entertained – so they’ll spread the word and come back.”
Nothing that Neil does to expand the park is a spur of the moment decision, from which animals they keep to whether they breed them.
“Everything we do is planned. We have ethical review committees, which go through a process of deciding which animals we should breed and shouldn’t breed, which animals we should and shouldn’t get.”
As the park has grown, Neil has had to step back from being hands on with the animals. However, there is one deer that he bottle-reared himself, which comes running just at the sight of him; when walking around the tiger enclosure, if he shouts “Julia” loud enough she will come trotting along just like a house cat wanting its dinner.
Walking around the park, it is easy to see how much he cares for both the animals as well as the visitors, providing bits of information to them as he does his rounds.
But it’s not just his park that he has a passion for.
An endangered building
When the news broke that The Lawn in Lincoln was up for sale, and with it the Joseph Banks Conservatory was to be demolished, Neil stepped up to the plate and worked with RW Stokes & Sons to find a way to save the iconic building.
It took him two years to gain permission to move it panel by panel along with all the plants and fish that had taken up residence in the building. Then of course, as Neil says, “it all happens at the 11th hour, 59th minute and the 59th second.”
Many people around Lincoln were upset by the idea that the Joseph Banks Conservatory could be demolished and Neil was no different.
“We looked at it originally and thought it was sad to see something that I used to take the children to would be gone. I thought it was pretty sad and I knew the structure fairly well. I knew it was possible to move. I thought that someone ought to move it really.
“I couldn’t think of anybody else that had a better place to do it than us,” Neil laughed.
“The fish are here and they’re fit and well. They were the first thing we moved and the biggest concern for everybody. The council don’t have an awful lot of livestock so of course, it was very important for them to do it right and we wanted to do it right.”
Now that everything is safe in Neil’s care, he has big plans for what is in store for its future. The addition of the animals will continue with crocodiles and red pandas.
“It’s been put into storage for the moment. We have brought it to a farm not too far away and we can start digging and making a right mess of this place,” Neil laughed.
Once the conservatory is installed, ready to open in the Spring, Woodside Wildlife Park will nearly be at maximum capacity in regards to land space, but Neil is already working on trying to find a solution to the minor problem that may hinder future growth.
This feature interview was first published in issue 99 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.