FIFTY years ago this month, the gates were thrown open to one of the most remarkable visitor attractions in the country.

The Cotswold Wildlife Park was the brainchild of one man, John Heyworth, who wanted to rescue the decaying manor house he grew up in. With the help of gardeners and keepers he turned a bramble-strewn wilderness at Bradwell Grove, just outside Burford, into a world-class zoo.

Over the subsequent five decades, millions of visitors have enjoyed days out at the park, which has grown and evolved, opening inventive new, natural enclosures and playing an important role in international wildlife conservation, education and breeding programmes.

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While the park, now run by John’s son Reggie, is now closed as part of the coronavirus lockdown, virtual visitors are welcome to keep up to date with the antics of two of the most popular groups of residents – the penguins and meerkats –via webcams.

Keepers are also uploading animal video updates to the park’s Facebook page to keep regular visitors in touch with activity at the park.

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Curator Jamie Craig said: “Despite the current situation, our animals still need to be fed and cleaned and we need to ensure their welfare is not compromised. We are down to a skeleton crew of essential and dedicated staff who are split into distinct teams to ensure social distancing and strict hygiene.

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“The safety of our keepers is the highest priority. We are convinced all will come through this difficult period none the worse for wear.”

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Pet's corner in the 70s

The current empty lawns and deserted tea room are a far cry from the park’s first days, as John Heyworth recalled in an article for our sister paper, the Witney Gazette in 1978: “Good Friday in 1970 happened to be a fine day and large numbers of visitors, impelled by various motives of which the dominant one was doubtless curiosity, had decided to make it their big day out for the Easter Holiday.

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1970s - Johnny Morris with Cocky the cockatoo star of Animal Magic

“Inevitably teething problems which could have been minor ones became major – ticket machines jammed, and animal keepers found themselves selling tickets, their pockets bursting with loose change, and with ever lengthening queues of cars.

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“The great British public took these setbacks in their stride and, apart from complete exhaustion, the staff survived the long weekend.

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Ring-tailed lemur. Lenny May 1985

“The success of this wildlife park has depended on the goodwill and team spirit of all those who work here. Without their dedication, none of this would ever have been possible.”

The park’s opening was the culmination of a huge effort over the previous year by John Heyworth, curator Brian Sinfield and head gardener Les Scott.

Visitors, who paid five shillings for adults (25p) and two shillings for children (10p), arrived to find some 12 mammal species including wallabies, tapirs and llamas; 62 bird species, including some of the Chilean flamingos still living in the lake; and 20 species of reptiles and amphibians.

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Pam Ayres in 1985

Reggie recalls: “Although on a shoestring budget, great care was taken to make use of the natural features of the house and surrounding parkland with its fine specimen trees and walled garden, which was brought back from being an overgrown wilderness.”

The park developed steadily as visitor numbers grew. A reptile house was added in 1971, rhinos and zebras arrived in 1972 and the popular narrow gauge railway opened in 1975. The following year, one of the UK’s first insect and butterfly houses opened.

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The 1980s saw the arrival of leopards, tigers and fruit bats, and the opening of the tropical house in the walled garden. It also saw the re-roofing of the listed Victorian manor house at the centre of the park.

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Anaconda arrival 1971

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 walkthrough bird aviary in the walled garden. The next decade saw the process continue, with the addition of new enclosures such as the walkthrough ‘Madagascar’ lemur exhibit, and the wolves’ area.

Reggie adds: “In the 50 years since the park opened, millions of visitors have enabled us to grow into one of the UK’s major and most respected zoological collections, with gardens that give equal interest and pleasure.

“I remember giving an interview on our 25th anniversary, at the end of which the question was sprung on me: ‘What’s your ambition for the park in the next 25 years?’

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Staff with Gardeners Question Time staff last year

I hadn’t really ever thought about it much, so I just found myself saying: ‘I want us to be the best wildlife park in the world that no-one has ever heard of’.“I still think, 25 years on, that that is a good ambition for us to aim for, although I’m not sure who is judge and jury of what is the best wildlife park!

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Sharon Davies with giant tortoise in 1995

“Most importantly, we want it to be best for all the animals in our care. Also, perhaps because many of us actually live here, I want this place to be the most beautiful wildlife park in the world. That too is a subjective judgement and it ought to be so simple, but I’m always amazed at how not-beautiful some attractions are. So perhaps it’s not so simple after all: something else we must constantly be striving for.

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Penguin pool in 1972

“Now, 25 years on, we can’t pretend that no-one has heard about us, but we remain low-key and in an important sense very locally grounded, which I hope won’t change.

“We’ll continue to evolve, perhaps remembering always a favourite saying of my father’s: ‘Don’t do what’s new, do what’s never old’.

  • The Cotswold Wildlife Park, near Burford, is temporarily closed but watch meerkat and penguin webcams at