UK’s best animal sanctuaries

Last updated 20th September 2023

Running an animal sanctuary isn’t the type of life you choose because you want to get rich quick or take it easy. Full-on commitment is a pre-requisite. Coming close second is acceptance of the fact that small, daily acts of heroism are likely to go entirely unrewarded. Have you ever seen a grateful swan? Then there’s the ongoing slog of simply staying afloat, non-stop fundraising, endless creative thinking, and often, juggling a day job at the same time.

It’s a labour of love and you don’t need to foster a donkey to show your appreciation. Dozens of animal sanctuaries all over the UK welcome visitors or need volunteers. Just as many wouldn’t mind a small donation and quite a few are delighted to come along to schools and talk to kids about what they do and why. So spare a thought for the kind-hearted and find out what’s happening at a sanctuary near you, right now.


1/5 The Berwick Swan and Wildlife Trust

Head to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the Scottish Borders to see the second largest colony of mute swans in the UK. There are over 200 birds in permanent residence and dozens more migrate to the algae-rich River Tweed during the winter moulting season. Naturally, the colony is an amazing sight and the Berwick Swan and Wildlife Trust play a big part in making sure every bird is safe, healthy and protected.

Since the Trust was set up by a small team of locals in the early 90s, it has rescued and treated 1000s of swans, as well as other wild birds and animals in the Berwick-upon-Tweed area. You can visit by appointment or, better still, go see the swans on the river and make a donation.

Find out more about The Berwick Swan and Wildlife Trust

buttercups-sanctuary-for-goats kent

It’s a goat’s life at Buttercups Sanctuary

2/5 Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, Maidstone, Kent

The UK’s only registered goat sanctuary, Buttercups is home to 140 animals and fosters another 120 across London and Kent. Their aim is simple: to give abused and mistreated goats a loving home, safe from harm, for their entire lives.

If you want to see that caring philosophy in action, this is another of the UK’s animal sanctuaries for a fun family day out.

Feeding the goats is a must do for most kids. Although you can take the hands-on thrill to another level with Goat Keeper experiences and hour-long Goat Encounters involving walking, brushing and one-on-one quality time with goats. Or, if you’re thinking of adopting a goat, the sanctuary also runs husbandry courses where you can learn all the basics, before you commit.

During summer, Buttercups is open every day except Wednesday from 11am to 4pm. Winter openings are Friday to Monday from 11am to 3pm, apart from school holidays when it’s open six days a week.  Entry is by donation and there’s a tearoom on site too.

Find out more about Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats


3/5 Barn Owl Bill, Leyland, Lancashire

A self-confessed ‘wildlife nut’, Barn Owl Bill has been working with wild birds and birds of prey across the UK since 1992. This small-team charity is one of the few in England dedicated to rescuing injured birds, responding to emergency call-outs and raising awareness through talks and displays all over the country.

Naturally, the best case scenario is reintroduction back into the wild after treatment but often that’s just not possible, so Barn Owl Bill’s aviary is always full of interesting guests. If your kids are keen to know more about birds of prey and the dos and don’ts of wild bird care and protection, school visits can be arranged. They’re great fun and – best of all – they include meet ‘n’ greets with owls and other wildly interesting feathered creatures.


4/5 Bransby Horses, Bransby, Lincoln

As one of the UK’s largest equine welfare charities, Bransby has been caring for horses and donkeys since 1968. Entirely funded by donation and staffed by volunteers, it offers a safe haven for animals which have been mistreated, abandoned or are simply unfit to work anymore.

Open all year round, this one makes a packed family day out with plenty of horses, as well as children’s activities, and lots of learning. An annual programme of special events raises funds and awareness. Although, if you’re interested in a long term commitment, the charity’s Friend for Life scheme rehomes animals with suitable carers and has regular Adoption Days throughout the year too.

Find out more about Bransby Horses

Donkey-sanctuary Devon

5/5 The Donkey Sanctuary, Sidmouth, Devon

Set on the stunning Jurassic Coast, The Donkey Sanctuary regularly gets named one of Devon’s top family attractions. Apart from the donkeys in residence, it also cares for several 1000 other animals worldwide, and still manages to welcome visitors, 365 days a year.

Close encounters and plenty of donkey petting is the order of the day in the Main Yard. Dozens of trails invite you to walk and cycle around, and dogs are welcome (on leads, of course). The tearoom stays open until 4pm during winter and even later in summer. Plus there’s a pretty shop with plenty of donkey-themed gifts at pocket money prices.

One word of warning about this one: it has donkeys available for adoption. So remember to bring a will of iron, unless you have a big heart, and a big field back home.

Find out more about The Donkey Sanctuary