Trentham Monkey Forest, Stoke-on-Trent – Review
By Helen Johnston, May 2022
Four youngsters are playing on the grass in the dappled spring sunshine of the ancient woodland. Two female companions sit together nearby watching them, and further away is another basking on a boulder while surveying the scene.
It’s a peaceful Saturday afternoon and this group is out enjoying some fresh air and sunshine just like the human families standing taking photos of them, smiling and exclaiming at the cuteness of this scene.
For the youngers scrambling and climbing on each other and the adults keeping a watchful eye are Barbary macaques, at home in their monkey forest and totally uninterested in the chattering of their human visitors.
While the humans were taking a welcome respite from the worries of rampant inflation, war, and the aftereffects of a global pandemic, the macaques were taking it easy, with nothing more urgent on their minds than which tree to climb next. Living the dream.
“All the attention”
There was a touching moment when we spied a baby peeping out from its mum’s protective embrace, its dark hair contrasting with her pale coat as she nursed it, turning her back on prying eyes. Two other females moved close to her, maybe for a bit of reassurance because it turned out she was a teenage mum.
One of the helpful forest staff who are dotted around the forest told me the baby was only two days old and the mum, at the age of five human years, was only a teenager in macaque years. “It’s rare for them to be seen out with a baby that young, they usually hide for a while after the birth, but maybe as a teenage mum she’s keen to show it off,” she smiled.
She said there were at least two more expectant mums (they get between six and 10 babies a year at Trentham) and they always give birth in the trees at night, the safest place and time in case of predators. The macaques’ lives are very much regulated by the seasons, with babies always born in Spring when food is plentiful for the mums. Another member of staff said the average life expectancy of the forest macaques is 23 although they do have some older, including a 28-year-old which is 100 in human years.
The first time I went to a monkey forest was years ago in the sweltering humidity of Bali, at a place called Ubud. It’s home to over 1,000 Balinese long-tailed macaques who were as cheeky as the proverbial monkey, scampering very close to us and enjoying all the attention they were getting.
The Barbary macaques living in the more temperate, and some might say less exotic, location of Stoke-on-Trent are a bit more refined. They were close, but not too close, going about their business of snoozing, scratching, and nibbling on fruit without so much as a care about whose Instagram post they might end up on. Actually, this might be more to do with the fact they aren’t fed by visitors, unlike their Balinese cousins.
Trentham is very much geared to giving its 140 (141 with the new arrival) monkeys the nearest thing they can get to their native North African habitat. I’ve always felt a bit uneasy about seeing caged animals in zoos, although I understand the conservation reasons why this is sometimes necessary, so it was a joy to see the macaques roaming freely in their 60 acres of beautiful woodland.
Feeding and touching them is forbidden and children are asked not to run, shout or scream, which makes the visit better for everyone. It was a really calming experience to stroll through the forest, spotting monkeys high up in the branches above, grooming each other (it’s dandruff they pick off each other apparently), cuddling each other, or simply chilling out by themselves.
The extra bonus was the squirrels and different bird species who share the forest with them, diving in for a share of the food which is scattered around by staff at various times of the day.
There are babbling brooks running through the wood and we watched a young macaque having a drink from one, lapping it up like it was the finest wine, while bird song filled the air.
“Vital conservation and research work”
Outside the gated forest there is an area for the humans to eat and drink, the eco-friendly Banana Café offering a range of hot and cold food and drink with seating inside and out. There is also a play area for children, a hidden trail through a smaller wooded area, and a meadow walk. There is plenty of information about the monkeys on noticeboards dotted along the walk, plus a chance to learn what their facial expressions mean and a handy mirror to let you have a go at mimicking them. I managed that quite well.
There is also a short monkey movie showing a time lapse of the seasons at Trentham, which is beautifully shot with close-ups of the macaques and aerial shots of the forest. It’s a sad fact that the Barbary macaques are endangered, their numbers down to 8,000 in the wild from 20,000 around 40 years ago. They have fallen victim to a loss of habitat caused by logging and grazing, along with being captured to use as props in tourist photos. The vital conservation and research work being done at Trentham has resulted in two groups being returned to the wild where they are monitored carefully.
The conservation work being done in the forest was given a shout out in February by none other than James Corden on his Late Late Show in America. He gave them a mention after a Marvin Gaye soundalike serenaded the monkeys on Valentine’s Day to help get them in the mood to mate. The idea was thought up by press officer Josh Torlop, a Sheffield Hallam University journalism graduate, and it obviously worked for at least three couples.
Fame obviously hasn’t gone to the monkeys’ heads though. Their faces have a look of wisdom about them, as though they know something we don’t. Maybe that something is knowing how to be content.
I found our afternoon out at Trentham really uplifting and as we left, I said to one of the staff: “I bet it’s great working here” and she beamed back: “It certainly is.”
Trentham Monkey Forest, Stone Road, Tittensor, Stoke-on-Trent, ST12 9HR
For information on tickets and opening times go to monkey-forest.com