A ZOO has been left in a ‘disastrous situation’ following a dramatic day.

Security staff turned up at South Lakes Safari Zoo and stopped visitors from entering as a dispute between the attraction’s managers and the landowners came to a head.

The Zoo Investment Company, which owns the land, has terminated the lease of the company that has run the Dalton attraction since 2017 after months of disagreement.

ZIC said the zoo would close temporarily, leading to fears for tourism.

However, late night bosses at South Lakes Safari Zoo said

ZIC, which bought the site last last year, said the Cumbria Zoo Company had been responsible for ‘serious breaches’ of its lease.

But the company denied any wrongdoing and before regaining access to the site expressed concern at how animals at the zoo would be cared for.

Workers turned up at 6am yesterday to find locks at the site had been changed.

Earlier in the day, the landowners said animal welfare was now the ‘main priority’ with external zookeepers being brought in to help out.

Furness MP Simon Fell said: “This is a disastrous situation for animal welfare, local tourism, and the staff and team on site.”

He said his team had been working with Barrow Council and the Cumbria Zoo Company ‘to try and help find an early resolution’ and had been in contact to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’s zoo team ‘to make sure that they are aware and across the animal welfare issues’.

Dalton councillor Steve Nott said: "The local residents and public can use it and it’s a major attraction for people out of town to visit.

“We hope that matters are resolved.”

Explaining the lease termination yesterday morning, a spokesman for ZIC said: “This decision has been taken most reluctantly after very careful consideration and following many months of trying to resolve numerous and serious breaches of the terms of their occupation and the related agreements.

“For the immediate future the safety and welfare of all of the animals at the zoo will be the main priority for the company.

“We have engaged experienced keepers to assist in this process but it is hoped that the keepers and other staff previously employed by CZCL will wish to join us

“The zoo will be closed in the short term whilst the company liaises with the local authority.

“The closure will be short lived but in the meantime the company intends to carry out a number of necessary repairs and improvements to enhance safety, access and the general quality of the zoo.”

Zoo managers have hit back at claims made by ZIC.

A spokeswoman for the Cumbria Zoo Company said: “We arrived at the zoo at 6am this morning to find the locks had been changed, and a security team in situ with guard dogs.

“There are no breaches of the lease, the perceived issues raised by ZIC relate to the personal property of former owner David Gill.

“These are civil matters and are being treated as such.

“There are no animal welfare issues, our inspection report and subsequent license renewal confirms this.”

One worker also expressed regret over the zoo closing, saying: “It’s maddening. We had autistic children booked in today to feed the penguins and we have had to turn them away and they have been left distraught.”

Bosses from the ZIC said two members of staff from Yorkshire Wildlife Park had been at the site.

The zoo's managers said they were concerned that new keepers would not be able to look after the animals as well as current staff ‘who know which rhino is which’ and ‘who know who can and cannot live with each other’.

A spokesman for Barrow Borough Council said: “We are aware there is a private dispute at the site between the landlord and the tenant. However, the council’s role as the licensing authority in this situation is to ensure standards of animal welfare and public safety are upheld. Should standards fall below that required by law in either of these areas, the council would look to take the appropriate steps to have them rectified.”

The Zoo Investment Company, a consortium of private investors, completed the purchase of the land earlier this year. The licence to run the zoo is held by the Cumbria Zoo Company and was renewed for another six years earlier this year.