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Animals: Take a walk on the wild side at Shepreth

It began with an injured jackdaw, but four decades on, Shepreth Wildlife Park is home to more than 100 species. As the park’s conservation charity celebrates its 10th anniversary, Louise Cummings chats to director Rebecca Willers about her inspiring work with endangered animals

Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park (57137541)
Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park (57137541)

Rebecca Willers is a true force of nature. Passionate about conservation, she has devoted the best part of her life to saving endangered species. Barely 20 when she took over the running of her family’s wildlife park, she was the first ever female chair of the National Zoo Association back in 2016, and has undertaken countless extreme challenges in the name of conservation.

The daring exploits, which have raised more than £35,000 to support anti-poaching projects in Sumatra, include swimming the English Channel (and being attacked by jellyfish), climbing Kilimanjaro, trekking 40km across Sumatra’s Kerinci-Seblat National Park (removing tiger snares) and completing the Isle of Wight 106km Ultra Challenge.

Not even the pandemic could dull Rebecca’s resolve as she set about completing a half marathon of Shepreth Wildlife Park, to mark her 40th birthday, raising £16,000.

So, where does this dynamism come from? “My dad put a very strong work ethic into my brother Nick and I,” enthuses Rebecca. “My mum is incredible too; she ran the London Marathon a few years back and she is in her 60s. So, I think we are just very energetic people!”

Rebecca’s dad Terry bought a patch of land in Shepreth back in 1979, intending to build houses, but the family began rescuing animals, and by 1984 had given refuge to so many creatures, they decided to open Willers Mill Wild Animal Sanctuary.

Red Panda at Shepreth Wildlife Park (57137628)
Red Panda at Shepreth Wildlife Park (57137628)

“Jack, an injured jackdaw, was our first rescue, but we ended up with so many animals because my parents would rescue from road traffic accidents, so deer, badgers, foxes, along with exotics that people didn’t want to home anymore,” explains Rebecca.

Growing up at the sanctuary, she has fond memories of living (quite literally) alongside the animals: “I remember we lived with an emu in the kitchen for a while and had a kinkajou (honey bear) on the landing upstairs,” she recalls.

Though Rebecca’s career path initially took her into magazine journalism, she continued to live and work within the wildlife park. And not long after her 20th birthday, when the park manager left, her father and brother asked if she would step into the role.

“I didn’t need to think about it; I snapped it up!” she smiles. “I was thrown in at the deep end, but I have no regrets. I’ve been doing it for 21 years now, and I absolutely love it.”

Under Rebecca’s stewardship, the focus of the zoo, which was renamed Shepreth Wildlife Park, has moved towards conservation, education and research.

She introduced her beloved Sumatran Tigers (which are severely threatened in the wild by illegal poaching), and signed up to BIAZA (the British and Irish Association of Zoos & Aquariums) and EAZA (the European Association of Zoos).

Capybara at Shepreth Wildlife Park (57137616)
Capybara at Shepreth Wildlife Park (57137616)

“It was a critical point as we got to meet our peers and explore the role of zoos,” she explains. “So, we moved away from the idea of Shepreth as a day out attraction and focused more on its role in education, conservation and research, which is now at the heart of everything we do.”

Today 40 per cent of Shepreth’s animal population is made up of threatened species, including the maned wolf, red panda, clouded leopard, capuchin monkey and ibis. The endangered list is depressingly long – but Rebecca and her team have played an important role in raising funds and awareness to combat the decline of these extraordinary species.

In 2011 they founded Shepreth Wildlife Conservation Charity (SWCC), and in November 2012, launched the SWCC Hedgehog Hospital, which has rescued more than 5,000 injured hedgehogs.

Through various initiatives – including popular tiger and panda days – the park, plus SWCC, has raised a staggering £500,000 to support the hedgehog hospital and conservation organisations worldwide, including Red Panda Network and Wildcat Conservation Alliance.

“To have got to 10 years and raised half a million pounds is just incredible,” muses Rebecca. “It’s so rewarding to be able make such positive change.”

To mark the 10th anniversary of the charity, the SWCC Hedgehog Hospital Charity Ball will take place at King’s College, Cambridge, on Saturday, November 19. Featuring a sumptuous dinner, entertainment and captivating speeches, the ball will raise funds for a new Conservation Centre to support the Hedgehog Hospital.

Not one to shy away from adventure, Rebecca is personally marking the milestone by taking on 10 new challenges in the hope of raising £10,000.

“I’ve decided to go extreme, so my challenges will include the Welsh Three Peaks with my mum, the Yorkshire Three Peaks with the team I trekked the Sumatran jungle with, and the Welsh 3000s, which will be the hardest. It’s the 15 highest peaks in Wales, and we’re trying to do that in sub 24 hours, so part of it will be in the dark.”

Rebecca will also tackle 24 peaks of the Lake District over two days, run a marathon distance around the zoo on Red Panda Day and spend around 15 days in September walking the 180km GR20 on Corsica, which rises to 12,000 metres in elevation.

“My final challenge, which I’m most nervous about, is doing a piano recital for friends and family!” she confides. “I haven’t played since I was 10 and I love Ludovico Einaudi so I want to learn to play I Giorni, which is quite a long piece.”

It’s a tall order, but if anyone has the grit and determination to succeed, it’s Rebecca!

Find out more about Shepreth Wildlife Park’s 10th anniversary events at sheprethwildlifepark.co.uk

Animal Experience

Velvet's Louise Cummings meets the ring-tailed lemur at Shepreth Wildlife Park (57137623)
Velvet's Louise Cummings meets the ring-tailed lemur at Shepreth Wildlife Park (57137623)

As part of its education programme, Shepreth Wildlife Park offers visitors the opportunity to get up close to some of its most fascinating creatures, including the charismatic capybara.

I was lucky enough to experience one of these enthralling animal encounters, which was so much fun I found myself considering a new career path!

Three snoozing aardvarks were our first meet and greet and didn’t mind as I gave them a gentle stroke. Nocturnal feeders, one of them snuffled my hand with its long snout, but on finding no tasty termites, returned to its contented slumber.

I felt like an extra on I’m a Celebrity at Meerkat Manor as Rebecca covered me in live mealworms, much to the delight of the meerkats, who jumped on my knee to gobble up the wriggly snacks.

Lemur Island was our next destination, and as the floating platform neared, the excited ring-tailed lemurs prepared to pounce. Rebecca warned me not to put my fingers in the large tub of fruit and veg I was holding, or the feisty females would assume I was pilfering their lunch. So, I stood statue-like, as they leapt onto my shoulders and dived into the tub! It was fantastic to be so close you could feel their soft fur brush your skin.

In the marmoset enclosure, live locusts were on the menu, so I tentatively plucked out the insects, which the monkeys grabbed and devoured with gusto.

To finish, I met my favourite Shepreth resident, Ago the red panda, who was tempted down from his lofty branch with black grapes. He cleverly carried out various tasks, including touching noses with me (which melt my heart melt) and giving a high five, to earn his juicy berries. It was simply the best experience to finally come face-to-face with this beautiful big-eyed panda, which I’d admired from afar for so long.

Book your animal experience, and helps support the work of SWCC, by emailing office@sheprethwildlifepark.co.uk

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