How this unique Sheffield wildlife attraction has survived lockdown –  with animals and staff adapting to changes

One of Sheffield’s most unique attractions has opened its doors once again despite facing its own hardships during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Saturday, 29th May 2021, 4:45 am

For the last 27 years, the butterfly house tucked away on the outskirts of Sheffield has been a star attraction for families looking for a unique day out, and it’s not just the butterflies that people come for.

Exotic, vibrantly-coloured insects, bats, birds and reptiles all await visitors to the Tropical Butterfly House, Wildlife and Falconry Centre in North Anston, 15 miles from the middle of Sheffield.

The butterfly house itself, a glazed structure kept heated to a humid rainforest temperature, was where the attraction started and was the brainchild of Bob Bellis, a builder by trade with an enthusiasm for wildlife, bugs, and plants.

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Tropical Butterfly House: Head keeper Steve Dickie and Sulcata Tortoise. Picture Scott Merrylees

Zoos and wildlife centres across the UK have suffered massively during the coronavirus pandemic as a result of financial losses from a lack of visitors.

Despite agreeing not to launch any fundraising efforts and working with a small team of staff, the butterfly house has weathered the storm of the pandemic and is all set for visitors once again.

Martine Mellor, marketing manager at the Tropical Butterfly House, said: “It’s been difficult, but because they run quite a tight ship and a good business, they've managed to get through it. I suppose any businesses that are well run and are not working on their last coppers have survived.”

During the national lockdown, the team at the Butterfly House have been busy upgrading the current facilities and have installed a new parrot enclosure.

The Tropical Butterfly House is home to many different reptiles. Picture Scott Merrylees

Martine added: “We've actually done little bits of work as well, like a new parrot enclosure and things while we've been closed. In one way, the public not being here has had its positives because obviously, it is very difficult to build or move things around when you've got people around.

“We open seven days a week, so one benefit is that we've had that bit of an opportunity to get some bits and bobs tidied up and things like that; we obviously can't wait until the 17th when we can have people back indoors.

“We've got a cafe on the site, and we've got a bus, and then we've got Lottie's Coffee Lounge, which is part of the Butterfly House and owned by the house but also runs independently. So we've extended all the patio area and added extra seating out there for people to be outside. It will be nice when they can actually be back inside as well. So, we have had some big changes like having to do all the takeaway foods, you can't serve things on proper plates, and everything has been paper cups. One thing about Lottie’s is it’s a nice relaxing cafe with nice cutlery and nice glass cups for your coffees, but we’ve had to go to takeaway. People accepted the change, but I think everybody is waiting for everything to go back to normal.”

The butterfly house reopened its doors to the public on April 12 after Covid-19 restrictions were eased, under the roadmap plan out of lockdown.

Ring-tailed Lemurs at the Tropical Butterfly House. Picture Scott Merrylees

Visitors can currently explore the outdoor areas and enclosures but the indoor spaces, including the butterfly house and activity centre, remain temporarily closed due to Government guidelines.

Speaking about the return of visitors, Martine said: “I can’t tell you how excited everybody was.

“When we first closed, we had so much support from our regular customers.

“We did have a couple of them say, we can buy adoptions or why don't we set up a crowdfunding page or you ask for donations and they supported us the whole way through. The customers then started asking, when are you going to open and are you going to be open on April 12, and the influx of emails and everything started coming in again.”

White Tree Frog. Picture Scott Merrylees

Like many venues, the Tropical Butterfly House has had to deal with the huge challenge of the pandemic, and it also had the extra burden of handling an outbreak of avian influenza or bird flu around the UK last December.

The centre had to take precautionary measures to protect bird species in its care, including changing the way they are fed to avoid attracting wild birds into the area.

Surprisingly, it is not only the staff that have had to adapt to the novel circumstances during the pandemic; according to head keeper Steve Dickie, the animals have had to learn how to adapt due to a change in the general atmosphere of the centre.

Due to a lack of noise and interaction from the public, the staff at the centre have spent more time around the animals, especially the meerkats, birds and lemurs that are usually a favourite of the visitors.

Face masks have also confused some of the animals, especially the lemurs, and the staff have had to help the animals get used to increased visitor interaction once again as people return.

Martine said: “When we get to a stage where we won't be wearing masks, they'll have to readjust again because they will suddenly be able to see people's facial expressions that they've not seen for so long.

At the Tropical Butterfly House, Wildlife and Falconry centre, you can encounter the exotic in Sheffield - meet lemurs, meerkats, owls, otters, snakes and more. Woodsetts Road, North Anston, Sheffield, S25 4EQ

"That's something we're constantly working on because where the parrots are, for example, you can imagine how many people stop and talk to the parrots and try and get them to talk back, then suddenly there are only one or two or three keepers, and that's all they hear all day, so it's strange for them.

“It’s also a case of getting them used to the public, again, before we can start flying the birds and doing the bird shows because they've not been used to flying above anybody. We have been doing that all the way through but you can't practice with crowds if the crowds aren't there.”

The wildlife and falconry centre is a popular attraction for many families; Martine believes the reason is down to the centre being consistent with everyone striving to give customers the best experience possible.

“It's because we're consistent; giving the customer experience as good as we can is what we focus on. We don't pack people in to make money.

“I think with us being contained there’s so much interest for the kids, so they don't get bored, and we've got a lovely outdoor play area and a water splash park as well. So even though at the minute, the indoor tropical house and the kids' craft club is closed, when it is a nice day like today, there's plenty to do in the park, so the parents can sit and have a drink while the kids are playing.

“But I think it's the customer service, just the fact that it's family-owned. If anything, touch wood does go wrong when you visit, or you're disappointed with anything, you can speak to one of the teams straight away; we're not council-owned or corporate, and so, I think that is what's standing in good stead for us, and that's probably why we've ridden the storm as well,” Martine said.

The Tropical Butterfly centre is currently operating with restricted numbers of visitors as a safety precaution, and the team have introduced booking slots to keep queues down, allowing people to socially distance themselves and feel comfortable.

For more information or to book a visit, go to www.butterflyhouse.co.uk