Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Fota Wildlife Park

Fota Wildlife Park Peacock

Not too far outside of Cork City, 10km to be exact, Fota Wildlife Park is now my favourite thing to see in Ireland after many trips to the Emerald Isle over the years. Part of the Zoological Society of Ireland, Fota comprises of 100 acres and it's so much more (and better) than a typical zoo. It's also the second largest visitor attraction in Ireland with nearly half a million people flocking to the park annually. If you love animals, Fota Wildlife Park needs to be on your bucket list... 


I didn't know what to expect when we went to Fota and feared it would resemble some of the attractions I'd visited in the past with animals cooped up in cages, looking sad and uncomfortable, but it's simply not the case. The first thing you see when you enter the park is a wide open space with zebras, oryx, giraffes and ostriches roaming around. It's a sight to see and so open that you could easily picture yourself on safari rather than feel as though you're standing in a zoo. The animals roam freely in this wild, open space, eating, sunbathing and socialising with each other while visitors walk a track that surrounds the area. For animal lovers, it's a stunning sight.


Unlike most zoos I've ever been to, there are many animals that aren't contained from birds that fly around as they please to peacocks that mill about in public areas. Being so close to such animals was such a welcome experience for this city girl... I didn't ever think I'd be so close to a kangaroo without taking a long trip to Australia, but there were loads of them just hanging out. Who knew I'd see my first kangaroo in Ireland of all places?

Sumatran Tiger

Not just a tourist attraction, conservation is at the heart of Fota Wildlife Park's mission. The conservation habitats have been created to promote conservation worldwide and the park participates in breeding programmes to help maintain species like Sumatran Tigers, Asiatic Lions, Giraffes, Gibbons and Rhinos, all of which can be seen in the park. These animals as well as the others in the park and the plants are all the top priority of the park. One example is the cheetah which happens to be the oldest big cat on earth and it's a species that has a high cub mortality rate. Once grown, cheetahs face many survival challenges in the wild. Fota has successfully bred over 200 cheetahs, helping to keep this species from becoming even more vulnerable than it already is. 


One species in the park is lesser known, but significant because though it's native to Ireland, it became extinct there in 1901. Thanks to Fota Wildlife Park, the White Tailed Sea Eagle can now be seen in Ireland again. I love this part of the park's mission... They aren't just preserving the popular animals that attract visitors - they focus on less popular attractions as well, which is so important.


While walking around Fota, I couldn't help but having the feeling that I was walking through Jurassic Park. While the space is open and vast when you enter, you soon find yourself following sign posts that tell you which way to walk for various upcoming attractions. There are some large structures that introduce various parts of the park such as the entrance to the Asian Sanctuary, but there's a wildness about the whole place. As a girl from the American South, I found myself feeling quite thankful that aside from the ones in aquariums, Ireland is snake-free, but yet I still found myself watching my step just in case. The sign posts are great for finding your way around, but I really loved that at each junction there was one sign displaying the direction for the recommended route, which we dedicatedly followed. It's the best way to make sure you see everything.


It would be difficult for me to say which part of the park was my favourite - there were so many beautiful animals everywhere and surprises around every corner. One highlight of our visit was seeing the Siamang Gibbons, which as apes are the closest related animals to mankind in the whole park. I have always had a thing for primates - I find them fascinating and adorable, but these guys were the coolest I've ever seen and since they were housed on an island, just across from a small waterway with no fence, I felt I could actually see them better than any Id seen in the past. Three adult apes were there, joined by one very special one - a baby! Siamang Gibbons mate for life and both parents are present in raising their babies. This was obvious, as the mother held the baby the entire time across her chest, even while she did other things, but the father was never far away, often sitting right beside them, cuddling them or following close behind. We spent a lot of time watching the gibbons interact with each other, laughing most of the time. At one point, the father was clearly annoying the mother and she bit him in the face. Following that she walked away and sat next to a large rock, swaying back and forth, banging into it. I could help but wonder if she was, like many humans would do, trying to rock her baby to sleep. Meanwhile the other adult ape was putting on a show for the onlookers, swinging from ropes, doing tricks and acting altogether cheeky. He was clearly the troublemaker.

baby gibbon


The way the park is designed, you occasionally might double back past something you've already seen, but maybe on the other side of it... One of the best things we experienced happened when we came back past the other side of the gibbon island and we started to hear the most unusual sound. It was so loud, but we couldn't figure out where it was coming from until we really looked hard. The mother and father gibbons were singing to each other, with the male's throat swelling up a bit like a bullfrog. After a bit of research we learned that breeding males and females will sing duets together to maintain their bond, announce their presence as a mating pair and lay down some territory boundaries. Newly paired mates will sing more often than a more established couple and their duetting is different from other species because it has a more complex vocal structure featuring four distinct sounds which can be produced by both males and females.

spider monkeys

The Columbian Spider Monkeys were another major highlight for me as I'd never seen them before. I love how they swing not only with their arms and legs, but also with their tales. As we approached the area where they are housed, we noticed a couple of spider monkeys on a large wooden structure. One was stretched out and looking very relaxed while the other groomed him (or her?). They seem to look after each other and it's quite sweet. At the end of our time at this exhibition, they all met up on the wooden structure as seen in the above photo. Some had been playing, swinging from ropes and trees, while other had been running around in the grass, but they all came together before making their exit as a group up to their shelter. I found them fascinating.


From a visual perspective, the flamingos were also a highlight. I'd never seen flamingos (not at least that I can remember - maybe as little girl) before, but they are such a symbol in modern day culture, always seen in prints and various products from fairy lights to coffee mugs that I was intrigued to see them in the flesh. They're stunning, so beautifully pink and bright yet peaceful. I saw them once before lunch and again after lunch when I notice they'd tucked their heads into their feather for a nap, still standing in the same place on one foot, sleeping as a group. They're so beautiful that it's no surprising they've had such an inspiration on the design world.


Fota is a great place to visit for bird lovers or plant enthusiasts as well. If I'm honest, I didn't pay so much attention to these aspects of the park... I've never been much of a bird watcher and I wouldn't know the first thing about a plant, but there's a pretty impressive collection of both for anyone who's interested.

In addition to its conservation mission and being a wonderful attraction for visitors, Fota Wildlife offers many educational programmes for both adults and children. Schools, camps and other programmes are available to the public for educational purposes, which just offers more opportunities to enjoy the facilities and increase awareness to further enhance their mission.


In addition to what you can see at Fota Wildlife Park, there are a number of experiences available. Daily feeding times are published on the website, which could be fun to watch though I didn't see any myself. There are also educational tours and courses, guided tours, group tours and a behind-the-scenes tour which includes participating in the caring for and feeding of some of the animals. These experiences are not included in the ticket price and it's advisable to book these in advance.

As far as facilities go, there were plenty of bathrooms scattered throughout the park, so we never had trouble finding one when we needed it. For those of you visiting with little ones, I also noticed baby changing stations. There are a number of cafes and vendors on-site, though I'll admit that many of them weren't open while we were there, perhaps because it wasn't the high season, but the main cafe at the entrance was open and we enjoyed a lovely coffee there. Additionally, we had lunch at the Oasis Cafe at the far side of the park and I'm happy to report that it's not only reasonably priced, but the food was also delicious. It's nothing fancy... Pizza, burgers, fries and chicken nuggets are pretty much what's on offer, but it's great value for money and very tasty. If you do decide to eat while you're there, it's worth mentioning that you should be careful as cheeky birds will snatch up anything you're not keeping your eye on.

Fota Wildlife Park is very child-friendly, so no worries about bringing the kiddos. There are plenty of bathrooms available, kid-friendly food and play areas as well. We saw loads of people pushing strollers, so there's no worry about that and it's a great place to keep children occupied for a few hours.


In terms of other facilities, there are a limited number of manual wheelchairs available on-site if required. The park is wheelchair accessible with a number of loos that have suitable entrances. More information on that can be found on the website. Additionally there is parking available and it costs €3, which is payable by coins, so make sure you have some handy when you go or get change while you're inside.

Fota Wildlife Park is located on Fota Island and it's not the only attraction in the area. There's also Fota House & Gardens, a regency mansion designed by Irish architect Sir Richard Morrison. Re-opened in 2009 to the public, the house has 70 rooms and fine art displays, many of which are open to the public. Also at Fota House are the Arboretum & Gardens which are internationally recognised for their collection of rare trees and shrubs, many of which were brought to the island by the former owners of the house, the Smith-Barry family. The house is now owned by the University College of Cork. Fota Island is also home to a hotel & spa, a luxury resort with over 130 rooms, a restaurant, a spa and the Fota Island Golf Club which offers Championship standard courses. You really could make a weekend out of Fota Island if you wanted to.

While driving to Fota is quite easy, don't discount it if your plans don't involve access to a car while you're in Cork. You can still visit the park by taking a train from Kent Station in the Cork City Centre to Fota, which is quick, easy and I've heard it's a beautiful journey. Fota Wildlife Park is open daily from 10am to 6pm with last entries at 4:30pm. I recommend planning to have at least 3 or 4 hours in the park to really get the full experience, although you could easily amuse yourself for longer and it wouldn't be any less enjoyable if you only went for an hour or two if you planned out what you wanted to see in advance. Visiting the park does involve quite a bit of walking, which I really enjoyed - it was one of the most active days of my holiday, but it's something to keep in mind if you're not into walking for a few hours at a time. It's also advisable, especially if you're driving, to have a little bit of cash on you during your visit for parking.

Tickets can be purchased in advance online or at the main entrance. There are a number of membership and package options available as well as discounts for students, seniors and children. Standard Adult tickets are €16.70 and my experience was worth every penny. For more information on tickets and memberships, click here. For any other information, it's worth spending some time on the park's website which is very informative and packed full of valuable information about the park, what to do on the island or elsewhere in cork, what's going on in the park and lots of educational info about all the animals, plants and birds you'll see when you visit. For more information about Fota Wildlife Park or to book tickets, visit fotawildlife.ie.

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