"Who doesn't love getting up close and personal with fuzzy friends that squeak or squawk? Whether you're a fan of exotic species, or those native to our shores, there are plenty of fun days out to be had across the north"
Four-legged creatures - not to mention those with wings, flippers or fins - are fascinating to kids and adults alike. Who doesn't love getting up close and personal with fuzzy friends that squeak or squawk? Whether you're a fan of exotic species, or those native to our shores, there are plenty of fun days out to be had across the north.
Flights of fancy
If you like the idea of getting back to nature and seeing wildlife in its natural habitat, head to Leighton Moss, an RSPB nature reserve in Lancashire which boasts the largest reedbed in north-west England. Free to those arriving via public transport (Silverdale rail station is just 150 metres from the site entrance), Leighton Moss is home to numerous stunning native species of bird, including marsh harriers, bearded tits and bitterns.
Spring is a great time to go looking for these creatures, as avocets (the pretty black and white waders that play a starring role on the RSPB logo) return to nest, and buzzards are seen in flight daily. There are seven 'hides' - wooden viewing sheds - as well as three nature trails of varying lengths, all perfect for exploring the reserve on foot or by bike. A tearoom is strategically placed to provide warming drinks and tasty snacks, and the shop stocks binoculars and books to help you identify the species you spot. It's a wonderful chance to see British wild birds in their natural habitat.
If your inclinations lean towards the more exotic, head to the global melting pot that is Blackpool Zoo. Gorillas, orang-utans, giraffes and numerous other creatures are alive and well in this popular seaside town. The zoo originally opened in 1972 and has since been developed to incorporate numerous new species and areas - including the irresistible Dinosaur Safari featuring 32 life-size models of famous prehistoric creatures. New in 2010, and transforming the old sea lion pool, is the Active Oceans area which reveals life under the surface of the water through impressive glass walls. The renovation includes a 250-seat arena for people to watch the fantastic water shows, as well as a new penguin pool. The creatures are delighted with their new abode, and are always keen to show off their skills to visitors!
Pride of Doncaster
Yorkshire Wildlife Park has gone from strength to strength since its opening two years ago and 2010 saw its biggest development yet: the arrival of 13 rescue lions from a run-down Romanian zoo.
The eldest, Johnny Senior, spent the first 27 years of his life confined in a tiny, concrete-floored cage and none of the pride had ever felt grass beneath their paws. Their successful transportation to Doncaster is a fantastic achievement and the sight of these magnificent creatures being able to run, play and feed happily is a heartwarming one.
Already, these majestic creatures have settled into a purpose-built 9-acre home called Lion Country. The first of its kind in the UK, it allows visitors to take a 'foot safari' along 800 metres of raised pathway through the lions' enclosure, providing unique views of the pride.
While you're there, don't miss other old favourites. Yorkshire Wildlife Park is home to a cornucopia of popular animals including lemurs, camels and deer, and the ever-popular meerkats. There is also a play barn for little ones to expend energy, and the Wild Café which sells tasty, locally made fare.
For a more unusual, animal-based day trip, try a city farm. Just outside Sheffield city centre lies Heeley City Farm which celebrates its 30th birthday in 2011 and now boasts some 100 animals. Once there, you'll enjoy a more hands-on experience than your average beastly attraction as you meet the farm's friendly residents - from the gentle giant that is Blaze, the Shire/Dales-cross horse, to the pocket-sized pet mice kept in the Small Animal House.
The farm was established in 1981 after local residents won a battle to prevent a ring road being built through Heeley. As some houses had already been demolished, the land was instead designated as a city farm. Still going strong, it operates as a charity and now welcomes more than 100,000 visitors each year. Entrance to the farm is free, so it's also a purse-friendly day out.
Bags of feed are available for purchase for just 40p at the farm's garden centre, so you and yours can get hands-on with the animals. There is also the 'South Yorkshire Energy House' which gives visitors the opportunity to learn about new energy sources and how we can all try to live a greener life.
Before you leave, pop into the on-site café for healthy, homemade grub and the chance to buy a souvenir that helps raise valuable funds for the charity.
In an age when many children's experiences of animals are based on the works of Disney and Pixar, there's nothing better than seeing them spend a day meeting the real-life creatures for themselves - up close and purr-sonal!
Bring on the animals!
Find a city farm near you...
Rice Lane City Farm
Pigs, goats, rabbits, cows and more are all on show at Rice Lane City Farm. A community-based project, the animals are cared for by local children and young adults, and are always keen to make new friends. There is also a polytunnel which produces plants and seasonal vegetables.
Go by train: Liverpool
Situated just outside Newcastle, Ouseburn Farm is part of a wider project to enrich the area creatively. A small working farm, visitors are welcome to come and meet the animals (everything from ducks and sheep to rabbits) and discover what goes into running a busy city farm.
Go by train: Newcastle
Gorgie City Farm
As well as visiting the animals (everything from chinchillas and ducks to owls), you can also buy fruit and vegetables grown at Gorgie City Farm - and with a suggested entry donation of £2, it definitely won't break the bank. There's even a play park for little ones.
Go by train: Edinburgh Haymarket