Review/Gallery: Suffolk Owl Sanctuary at Stonham Barns is a hoot

Meerkats climb over the children in our party and their dads

Meerkats climb over the children in our party and their dads - Credit: Archant

Leaning over a castle wall, watching fiesty meerkats scramble over our slightly-anxious looking children to feast on the mealworms nestling in the folds of their jumpers, is not quite what I envisaged when we planned our trip to the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary.

Meerkats climb over the children in our party and their dads

Meerkats climb over the children in our party and their dads - Credit: Archant

But don’t let the name mislead you, the sanctuary, located on the Stonham Barns complex, is home to stunning birds of prey, more than 80 owls, a family of meerkats and even chipmunks and bugs. And we came away with a while new definition of the term ‘hands-on experience’.

We visited with another family and had a total of three children aged from five to 10. We arrived just in time for the first meerkat feed of the day.

The family of crafty critters live in a low-lying castle, with a step on the outside so your little ones can lean over and see them foraging for food and scurrying away when a plane goes overhead.

This is the closet the children had ever been to meerkats, but that was soon to change.

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Entry to the sanctuary costs £25 for a family of five but for an additional £10 per person you can join the meerkats in their enclosure and help their keepers feed them.

Our trio were desperate to stroke the babies in the family, so as we stood around the castle walls watching anxiously they sat on the sand and let the keepers lay mealworms on their arms and even their heads for the meerkats to come and find.

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Children under 12 had to be supervised, so we had to pay for the dads to join them - not that they were complaining.

They squealed and squirmed as the adorable fellows scurried up the legs of their shorts, into their hoods and over their ears, but it made for some great photos.

Although it more than doubled the cost of our day out, it was money well spent and an experience they have not stopped talking about since

After all that excitement, we thought the birds of prey display may be a little tame for our wild ones. But we should have learnt our lesson.

The falconers brought out three different birds from common buzzards to peaceful looking barn owls during each of the displays (there are several throughout the day) and educated us about their habits, refuting misguided beliefs (I now know that the owl is not quite as wise as I thought) and demonstrating just how powerful some of these stunning birds are.

Three lively children were stunned into silence, and sat watching quietly as the falconer whirled bait around her head to tease a falcon before cheering with delight as the bird out-hunted the handler and swept in for his reward.

The birds were flown right over our heads several times, a little lower each time, until we were convinced they would fly right into us.

We spent an hour or two wondering around the nature trail, waiting patiently to see the red squirrels, and collecting stamps at hidden locations before the children went wild in the play area and disappeared in the maze - sadly they were better at finding their way out than we were and soon returned.

At that point we admitted defeat and prepared for what is always the worst part of the day - the gift shop.

Instead of catering for the masses and offering hundreds of brightly coloured bouncy balls, pencil sharpeners and pads, the gift shop stocked an eclectic collection of owl-related souvenirs, and proved an experience in itself. We escaped with a reasonably-priced owl stick and the promise of ice creams later on - a result in my books.

Your entry ticket allows you to come and go as you please throughout the day, giving you the opportunity to explore some of the other delights at Stonham Barns between falconry displays.

There is a restaurant, tea room, craft workshops, traditional toy shops, a beauty salon, a mini-putt golf course and another childrens’ play area, as well as a camp site and showground, on the site. Or simply green space for you to enjoy a picnic.

We have to admit, the owl sanctuary would fail to entertain you for a whole day but there is more than enough within the complex as a whole to keep your family busy.

In our view, it was a must-visit.

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