ANIMAL keepers and staff at the Cotswold Wildlife Park have paid tribute to the park’s founder who has died, and said his legacy will live on in the zoo he created.
John Heyworth, who has died at the age of 87, set up the wildlife park, near Burford, more than 40 years ago.
Staff, including Mr Heyworth’s son Reggie, the current park director, joined a service on Wednesday to celebrate his life.
Park spokesman Debbie Ryan last night described the death of Mr Heyworth, who passed away on November 24, as “truly an end of an era”.
She added: “His unique spirit and vision for the Wildlife Park over the past four decades was nothing less than remarkable. The Cotswold Wildlife Park was his brainchild and he leaves a lasting legacy that will continue to delight visitors for many years to come.
“His passion for animal conservation will also continue through the work of the park, which he started over 40 years ago, with a dream which came true and will never be forgotten.”
Mr Heyworth, the son of Lt-Col Reginald Heyworth of the 1st Royal Dragoons and his wife Moyra, daughter of the 3rd Lord Tweedmouth, set up the wildlife park on his family’s 3,000-acre family estate at Bradwell Grove, in 1970. He had inherited the house, in which he was born, from his grandfather in 1948 and had previously leased it out to the local health board, during which time it had fallen into disrepair.
A life-long animal lover, he had been fascinated by nature since he was a boy, having kept including rabbits, grass snakes, slow worms and a toad that he found in the grounds. While living in Sussex as a schoolboy, he kept terrapins and tortoises, newts, ducks, quail, a spoonbill and a gannet - which he had been rescued on a school walk.
Educated at Eton, Mr Heyworth went on to join the army, seeing active service in Denmark and Germany.
He inherited Bradwell Grove on leaving the army and invested a huge amount of effort into restoring the estate while raising a family with his wife Susan Burder, whom he married in 1950.
While best known for his work at the wildlife park, Mr Heyworth was also a former High Sheriff of Oxfordshire and had been a chairman of the Oxfordshire Country Landowners’ Association. He was also a keen rider, taking part in point-to-points in the 1950s and hunting with the Heythrop. He was also a successful cattle breeder.
He had latterly suffered from Parkinson’s disease.
He is survived by Susan, Reggie and three daughters.
A remarkable vision
THE Cotswold Wildlife Park is among Oxfordshire’s biggest tourist attractions.
Its collection contains 2,094 animals from 267 species – ranging in size from stick insects to giraffes, and the rhino and zebra which graze the lawns in front of the house. And that does not even include its resident population of leaf-cutter ants, which number 80,000.
The wildlife park was the vision of John Heyworth, who was inspired by the safari parks at Woburn and Longleat.
After a huge amount of work by Mr Heyworth and his team – which included Brian Sinfield (the park’s first curator) and Les Scott (head gardener until 1999) – and a £40,000 loan, the park opened in Easter, 1970. Visitors paid five shillings (25p) for adults and two shillings (10p) for children to see 230 animals from 40 species, including wallabies, tapirs, llamas, hornbills, flamingos and various species of reptiles and amphibians. Initially, Mr Heyworth relied on volunteers until he was in a financially secure enough position to pay them.
The attraction proved a huge success and with the rise in visitor numbers came an increase in the animal population. A stable block was converted into the reptile house in 1971; and rhinos and zebras arrived the following year.
In 1975 staff laid a narrow gauge railway around the park.
The 1980s saw the arrival of leopards, tigers and fruit bats and the opening of the Tropical House in the Walled Garden.
Highlights of the 1990s included the arrival of Asiatic lions (replacing the Bengal tigers, which died of old age in 1996) and the rebuilding of many of the park’s original enclosures such as the walk-through bird aviary in the Walled Garden.
More recently new enclosures have been built, such as the walk-through lemur area ‘Madagascar’, dedicated spaces for wolves and wolverines and a new giraffe house.
New greenhouses have also been built.
In 2007, Witney MP David Cameron formally opened a new station on the track – which, he said, was a favourite with his children. The park’s train is named Bella in memory of one of its White Rhinos. Mr Cameron said at the time: “It may not be the answer to Oxfordshire’s transport problems, but it must be the most popular train in the county.”