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Take a sneak peek behind the scenes of Highland Wildlife Park’s £7m new expansion

Highland Wildlife Park will open the doors to Scotland's Wildlife Discovery Centre next month, here's all you need to know about the £7 million project.

Highland Wildlife Park's brand new Discovery Centre will open to the public next month. Image:
Sandy McCook/DC Thomson
Highland Wildlife Park's brand new Discovery Centre will open to the public next month. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

If you have visited the Highland Wildlife Park over the last year or so, you may have noticed a fair amount of work going on.

Builders and an expert team from the Kincraig-based attraction have been working tirelessly to bring Scotland’s Wildlife Discovery Centre to life.

Ground was first broken on December 15, 2022, and the project has cost just over £7 million.

The new additions might have turned a few heads recently. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

But now, it’s almost ready to welcome nature lovers and tourists from far and wide, and we were lucky enough to get a sneak peek…

What exactly is the Highland Wildlife Park’s new Wildlife Discovery Centre?

We first visited in April, when some work was still under way and the park was surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

The new Discovery Centre consists of three “hub” sections at separate locations around the park, each featuring immersive experiences and digital technology to challenge visitors, inspire action and encourage learning.

Jess Wise, discovery and learning programme manager, took us on a tour to show off the new facilities which will open to the public next month.

She described the Scottish Wildlife Discovery Centre as a “brand new era” for the park.

Jess Wise, discover and learning programme manager, takes us on a tour of the Scottish Wildlife Discovery Centre. Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

She said: “Heading into summer, we are really excited that we’re about to open three brand new buildings.

“Not only are the hubs a really exciting addition to Highland Wildlife Park, but they will revolutionise how the local community, and global tourist industry, can see us and experience us as they visit.

“We’ve not had anything like this before.”

Read on to find out more about the three different sections, what more than £7m has been spent on, and how this could improve your next visit…

Scotland’s Wildlife Discovery Centre is a ‘gateway’ to nature

We arrived on a Wednesday morning just as the park was opening up, and cars were already queuing eagerly to get inside the Kingraig attraction.

It was a rather grey, drizzly day and snow-capped mountains surrounded the park, which only added to the feeling that we were surrounded by nature.

The prowling snow leopards weren’t too bothered by the weather, though. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Jess first took us to the new discovery area also known as the Gateway. It’s an extension to the visitor centre and cafe (also being refurbished), located at the centre of the grounds.

The brand-new Gateway Hub fits in well with the existing landscape. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

As we walked around the room she pointed out some incredible features, like how all the beautiful graphics are printed directly onto solid, sustainably sourced oak — meaning there’s no plastic involved.

It’s hard to believe this colourful and beautiful display has been made plastic-free. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Everything in the area is made of recycled material which I feel is a thoughtful, and impactful, touch.

Jess pointed to the ceiling and explained it represents a landscape. Originally it was linked to a river, but she said it could also be a break in the canopy of a forest as you look up between the trees.

There was just so much to look at, but the huge squirrel dreys (nests) also caught my eye. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“Like many aspects of the building, the ceiling can mean different things to different people, ultimately encouraging a new perspective and inviting you to explore what it means to you,” she explained.

New sections to help wildlife park visitors ‘reconnect with nature’

The new area uses audiovisual technology and other displays to immerse people in stories of Scotland’s wildlife. From next month, it will be open to all visitors who can use it to explore and “find themselves within that story”.

Jess showed us around the new building and explained how it all works. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“It’s not about preaching, it’s not all about doom and gloom,” Jess explained with a proud smile. “It’s about celebration and reconnecting with nature.

“Whether it’s young couples on a date, or a young family coming in, or an elderly couple who’ve grown up in the Strath — we want them to find their story within that and understand what a special part of the world they’re in, why that matters and what it means to them.”

I could have spent hours reading all the information and following the story around the Gateway, but we had another hub to see. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Learning ‘Hive’ will let everybody enjoy Highland Wildlife Park

Next up is the “Hive”, located behind the long-standing woodland walkabout section of the park, home to owls, pine marten and other curious creatures.

The Learning Hive has also been created with sustainability in mind. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

From up here, the views overlooking Insh Marshes are stunning.

Jess told us it’s called the Hive because it’s going to be a “complete bustle of activity”.

These massive solar energy panels power the Hive. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

The main part of the building is a huge, open, function room that will be used as the learning space.

A divider can be used to split the room up, and audiovisual technology will help tell the story of the Cairngorms wildlife.

And on either side, two beautiful murals show the Cairngorms in winter and summer. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Jess hopes that people living with more complex needs, mobility issues, or learning requirements will be able to enjoy the park from this section too.

The other side of the room. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

She added: “This is a safe space where we can welcome everybody to Highland Wildlife Park and make sure that they can be involved and see that nature and the outdoors is for them as well.”

Are you planning a trip to the Highland Wildlife Park soon? Let us know in our comments section below…

New hilltop ‘hide’ gives visitors the chance to see wildcat conservation project in action

The final section sits on the hilltop near the trig point, and you walk past so many enclosures to get to it. When we visited the park the Conservation Den was still under construction.

The cute Arctic foxes were out to see what the fuss was about as we headed towards the Conservation Den. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

Jess told us it’s the perfect vantage point for 360-degree views of the land, and is one of her “favourite places in the whole park”.

P&J photographer Sandy was able to go back to see how the new building has progressed over the last few weeks. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

It essentially acts as a “big wildlife hide”, giving great views of the amazing animals living in the park and the incredible wild species living amongst them.

Just a teaser of the views you can expect. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

It also overlooks the Saving Wildcats breeding for release centre, and from a distance you will be able to see the massive, naturalistic enclosures.

From the vantage point, you can also see the Cairngorms site where 19 wildcats were released last summer.

And, the discovery and learning team will utilise this new space to host talks and visitors will be able to fully immerse themselves thanks to the binoculars, hands-free telescopes, and tripods that will be available to use.

There’s still some work being carried out but you can see the viewing deck overlooks the landscape. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“You are inescapable in the middle of that story,” Jess said. “And you can see how your visit to the Highland Wildlife Park and your support of RZSS is enabling that project.

“You are already involved, you are already a conservationist.

“And so by coming to places like this, and making decisions like this, you can see how easy it is to live sustainably and with nature.”

She finished: “Hopefully while having a really amazing time, experiencing things and making memories that you wouldn’t have been able to make anywhere else.”

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