BLEAK midwinter days lie ahead for Dudley Zoo and Castle which has had to close its doors again due to lockdown but it still feels like Christmas for the animals thanks to a donation of unsold festive trees from IKEA.

The zoo in Castle Hill has closed to visitors with immediate effect following Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement last night that England would be plunged into a third national lockdown to help get coronavirus cases under control.

It has been a testing 12 months for the tourist attraction which has had no income from ticket sales during the previous lockdowns and reduced visitor numbers when open but a donation of Christmas trees from the Wednesbury IKEA store has helped to spread some new year cheer at the site.

The store's unsold festive firs have been added to the enclosures of some of the zoo's exotic species including the chimpanzees, Sumatran tigers, meerkats, Sulawesi crested macaques and Asiatic lions to provide seasonal enrichment fun.

Zoo curator Richard Brown said: “We’re very grateful to IKEA Birmingham for thinking of us and our exotic species have loved playing with the trees.

“Keepers not only hide food amongst the branches for the animals to hunt out, but the unique smell and texture is enrichment enough for many, as it’s something they don’t experience all year round.”

Zoo bosses have told how "immensely sad" they feel about the latest closure - having already sustained huge losses in income due to the pandemic and a spokesman said: "The closure will only force further financial strains on our charity, but we realise it’s for the greater good and we all need to play our part to protect the communities around us."

Even though the doors are once again closed to visitors - it remains business as usual at the 40-acre site for the dedicated zoo keepers who will continue to care for the attraction's 1,600 animals; and this week has got off to a busy start with the zoo's annual animal stock take.

Zoos across the country have to legally count every invertebrate, bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian in their care each year and input the data into the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) – a worldwide comprehensive database of animal health and wellbeing.

The zoo's new registrar Nicola Wright said: “We have over 1,600 animals on site, including more than 500 mammals, 300 birds and 600 invertebrates.

“Keepers all know how many animals they care for on a daily basis, but we have to officially confirm it in our yearly inventory, so the census is really just a confirmation exercise as part of the zoo licensing.

“This year we do have a number of new arrivals being counted by DZC for the first time from births on site or animals being brought in from other collections including a Colombian black spider monkey, six Barbary sheep, an Asian palm civet, two Six banded Armadillos, a Victoria crowned pigeon and eight poison dart frogs.”

Animals are identified through various methods including microchips, ear tags, body markings, flipper bands and foot rings which correspond to their individual ZIMS records - and the process is an easier task for some keepers than others.

Anyone wishing to make a donation to help the zoo and its animals through the tough time ahead can do so via online donation page or text.

To donate £1, text DZC19 to 70201; to donate £3, text DZC19 to 70331; to donate £5, text DZC19 to 70970; to donate £10, text DZC19 to 70191.

No further donations of Christmas trees are needed.

Anyone with pre-booked tickets for visits during the coming weeks will be able to rearrange their date when the zoo re-opens.