Snow leopards of Welwyn
PUBLISHED: 13:35 02 June 2015 | UPDATED: 13:35 02 June 2015
Gillian Thornton goes on the trail of big cats at a Welwyn sanctuary that has been helping save rare species for four decades
Tell someone you’re going to visit a cat rescue centre in Hertfordshire and no-one looks very surprised. Tell them you’re off to see snow leopards and lynx, and suddenly they’re interested. Because despite being internationally recognised for its breeding programme and rehoming operation, The Cat Survival Trust is one of the county’s best kept secrets.
It’s 38 years since Dr Terry Moore founded the charity with the aim of breeding endangered wild cats. It began with a pair of ocelots which he kept at his home in Stevenage, but within 12 months, his collection had outgrown the garage and garden, so he bought a chicken farm on a 12-acre site in Welwyn.
Nearly four decades on, Terry’s wild cat collection is as invisible as it ever was, the discreet pens tucked away behind an animal feed store on the Welwyn-to-Codicote road. He doesn’t advertise because the site isn’t licensed to admit the public – only pre-booked groups and supporters who pay a modest annual fee to become members.
‘We are run entirely by volunteers and have 17 at the moment – seven who live on site and 10 local people who help out on odd days,’ explains Terry as we watch one of his precious snow leopards chilling out in the spring sunshine.
‘Animal Planet made a popular series about us called Snow Leopards of Leafy London that was first shown in 2013 and has been repeated several times. Now it’s one of their most popular films, so we get emails from all over the world, and have students booking work experience placements a year in advance.
‘At the moment, we have 34 cats here. These range from small species like serval and leopard cats, to two breeding pairs of puma, five snow leopards, and two very rare amur leopards of which only about 60 exist in the wild. But when we have litters, we have had as many as 50 animals on site.’
Terry’s original aim was to breed endangered cats for release into the wild, but it soon became clear that the operation was prohibitively expensive and not hugely successful. Instead, he concentrated on breeding animals as part of an international programme, loaning them to zoos and private collections. To date the trust has bred 277 wild cats, but that side of its work is slowing up.
‘Many collections have hit hard times in recent years, so we breed fewer litters and instead take in surplus and rescued animals,’ says Terry, who began his working life in insurance, the youngest-ever broker at Lloyds. ‘Not just cats either. We have birds of prey here now, owls, and a number of reptiles.
‘Several of our rescue animals are elderly or have health problems, but I’m qualified as a homeopathic practitioner so we are able to treat them all here, often with considerable success. And there’s something to learn from every one.’
Nor is it just Terry and his team who learn from the cats. Terry has always looked at the bigger picture, setting his beloved cats against the global need for conservation, and he takes every opportunity to spread the word. Back in 1992, the trust raised funds to buy El Piñalito - 10,000 acres of rain forest in Argentina which was home to just 40 wild cats. Now it is part of a protected provincial park and supports an ecosystem that includes more than 70 cats.
Visitors to Welwyn can experience the atmosphere of El Piñalito for themselves. This spring, donations from two benefactors enabled Terry to build a visitor centre and meeting room where he can host school groups and local organisations. And thanks to sponsorship from Jessops Academy, the facilities include two large 3-D screens where he shows atmospheric film footage of the reserve. All that’s missing is the heat and jungle smells.
‘Jessops Academy run a very popular series of wild cat photography courses here,’ explains Terry who is deeply grateful to the many local companies who regularly donate materials or labour at cost.
‘We also have an old caravan on the edge of the farm which is a prime spot for watching native British wildlife like foxes, badgers and a variety of birds. So this year we are replacing it with a purpose-built hide which we will be able to rent out to photographers.’
One of our favourite British mammals is also now getting the Terry Moore treatment. Hedgehogs have been disappearing from our countryside at an alarming rate, so Terry is using rescued animals to start a breeding programme and replace them in the wild.
It’s not surprising that Terry and his wife Judith never take a holiday, but he doesn’t mind. When you love your work as much as Terry does, you really don’t want to go away. His long-term dream is to buy or support areas of natural habitat in Costa Rica, northern India or maybe China, but there are daily challenges at home in Welwyn.
‘The farm shop covers the essential running costs and local landowners are very good at supporting us with donations of game and dead livestock to feed the cats,’ he says. ‘But there is always some new project on the go. At the moment we need more pens so we can take not only more cats, but also other species coming out of zoos.’
Ask him to name a favourite cat and Terry will admit to a soft spot for snow leopards. He’s bred seven litters here and with the cubs being easy to handle for the first six months, he’s got to know them all personally. But he does try not to have favourites and as we move from one pen to another, I can see his point. After all, how can you compare a European wild cat to a Eurasian lynx, a beautiful amur leopard to an unusual Temminck’s golden cat? Each one is a stunner and healthy and thriving here in the quiet Hertfordshire countryside.
Join the trust to support and visit the cats
The Cat Survival Trust The Centre Codicote Road Welwyn AL6 9TU
Contact: 01438 716873; firstname.lastname@example.org
Membership is £7 a year and £4 for seniors and juniors.