A children's hospital has announced plans to make an unusual admission to help young patients connect with nature. 

Meerkats will be given a new home at NHS Lothian’s Royal Hospital for Children and Young People (RHCYP) in the Scottish capital.

A mob of the small mongooses will be moved from Edinburgh Zoo into a specially-built enclosure at the hospital. 

The initiative, believed to be the first of its kind outside Australia, is being delivered through a partnership between Edinburgh Children’s Hospital Charity (ECHC), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and NHS Lothian.

ECHC chief executive Roslyn Neely said: “Some children are too unwell or have been in hospital for so long that they don’t have the opportunity to engage with the outdoors, or interact with animals.

“Many of the children who visit the hospital care passionately about nature and the environment.

“Our programme will allow them to learn from experts while getting up close to the best teachers of all – the meerkats themselves.

“The wellbeing benefits of engaging with animals and using nature in the healing process are well documented, and there’s great excitement within the hospital in anticipation of our furry friends arriving.”

The programme remains in the early planning stages but it is hoped that the meerkats will be able to move into their new home at RHCYP next year.

Their pack will be formed of five animals and their enclosure will replicate their natural habitat, with sand, rocks and logs.

Hailing from southern Africa, the animals only grow up to 35 centimetres tall and weigh under a kilogram. 

The courtyard of the Castle Mey Ward, which is on the ground floor of the RHCYP, will be home to the enclosure.

Many young people pass through the ward which is also known as the  ‘paediatric acute receiving unit’ or PARU.

Children in pushchairs or wheelchairs will not miss out on the opportunity to meet the furry mammals as they will be visible through Perspex panels.

Keepers from Edinburgh Zoo will care for the meerkats and provide educational sessions, both in communal spaces, at bedsides and outside at the enclosure.

RZSS chief executive David Field said: “Our conservation education programme has already been a great success and now we are taking this incredible next step by creating the only meerkat enclosure at a children’s hospital outside of Australia, making this a first in the UK and Europe.

“Being close to nature and animals can have a tremendous impact on people’s mental and physical health and wellbeing.

“We also know that people and communities are more likely to help protect nature when they have had the opportunity to connect with our natural world.

“We are really looking forward to bringing a group of meerkats to live at the hospital next year and seeing the impact this will have for the children and their families.”

In Edinburgh all the welfare needs of the animals, such as feeding and veterinary care, will be overseen by RZSS, which will provide expert animal keepers, vets and trained volunteers.

NHS Lothian will lead on all aspects of patient safety.

Allister Short, director of women’s and children’s services at NHS Lothian, said: “We are really excited about this innovative programme coming to the RHCYP.

“Meerkats have been introduced into many children’s hospitals in Australia and this unique concept encourages children to learn and be inspired, particularly when they’re in hospital for long periods of time.

“We want to brighten up our patients’ days in an educational way and we know that the meerkats will be an exciting addition to the RHCYP.”