God in the life of… Reggie Heyworth

feedingtime for web

Reggie at the lemurs’ feeding time.

NancyandAstrid for web

Ruby and her son Ian at the Cotswold Wildlife Park

Not everyone grows up with first-hand experience of rhinos and other endangered species. For Reggie Heyworth, the various animals and beautiful gardens at the Cotswold Wildlife Park have been part of his life since he was just eight. Reggie, who juggles running the park with a role as a churchwarden, tells Jo Duckles his story.

In Reggie’s office the walls are decked with pictures of animals, including some striking black and white images of elephants. There are ostrich eggs, peacock feathers and even a defunct wasps’ nest which Reggie lets me handle.

Brought up in a family where going to church was compulsory, Reggie remembers the vicar, the Revd Stanley Fisher, a don from Merton College who wrote a history of the local area. “I was christened by him and he remained our vicar until I was 10 or 11. He was a figure of great importance and my parents respected him enormously. We were lucky to have such a wonderful man and such an academic,” says Reggie, who was quickly inspired by the “wonderful” people he met through the church. He was privileged to follow in his late father, John’s footsteps, not only as the Managing Director of the family business, but as churchwarden of St Mary the Virgin, Holwell.

John founded the wildlife park in 1970 as a way of reinvigorating the decaying Bradwell Grove Manor and its surrounding estate, with a £40,000 bank loan and a passion for animals and gardens. The investment in the land, which had been in the family for generations, clearly paid off as 45 years later the wildlife park is both thriving and evolving.

A full history of the park was published in 2012, entitled Rhinos on the Lawn. It was named after the iconic rhinos that graze on the lawn in front of the manor house and have become the defining characteristic of the park.

Reggie is passionate about rhinos, and they even inspired a career change when in 1990, and bored of working in banking, he moved to Tanzania on a wing and a prayer, first working on camping safaris and quickly moving into rhino conservation.

“I’ve always been mad about rhinos,” he says. “They are just so sweet, gentle and docile and so vulnerable.” He explained how, because of their gentle nature, it is so easy for them to be shot for their horns, which are valued in traditional Chinese medicine. “They don’t have a mean bone in their body. They are great big herbivores and they are magnificent.”

Since taking over management of the family business, Reggie has also been a trustee of the Tusk Trust – a charity that works to initiate funding, conservation, community development and environmental education across Africa. Part of its work is particularly focused towards stopping the poaching of rhinos and elephants.

Reggie stayed in Tanzania until his father turned 70 and a diagnosis of Parkinson’s led to him needing help to manage the park. “We ran it together and we very much agreed together all of the decisions,” says Reggie, who since taking over has continued to provide a subtle message about the importance of conservation.

“It’s about letting nature do the talking really. I hope visitors leave with an enhanced love and respect for nature, even if it’s subliminal. The trees, gardens and landscape are as important as the animals. We want people to appreciate nature and learn in their own time. It’s stunning and it’s there for everyone to enjoy,” says Reggie, who doesn’t own a television and rarely looks at a screen. The manor house, as well as being home to some of the park’s staff, is used for all sorts of meetings for the 12 churches in the Shill Valley and Broadshire Benefice. It’s a rural area with 3,000 people all under one ministry team, led by the Revd Harry MacInnes.

When he was growing up, Reggie would sit at the front of the church, but now, as churchwarden, he often just enjoys sitting at the back, looking at the roof and experiencing a sense of peace in a beautiful building. “You can’t beat it as a way to spend an hour once a fortnight,” he says.

With 125 full-time equivalent employees at his park, Reggie is no stranger to co-ordinating a lot of people. Those who live outside the park stay in the surrounding cottages, or in the West Oxfordshire towns nearby. And all of them can access the pastoral care from the ministry team in times in their life when they may need it. Once a year they can enjoy the children’s carol service and tea party. “The minister who does it is popular with children and staff but there has never been any attempt by my father or me to proselytize anyone,” says Reggie.

The only days the dedicated Reggie is not at the park is when he is away on holiday. “It must be a nightmare for the staff but I love seeing the animals and the gardens,” he says. As we walk around he picks up any litter he spots. “I’m very proud of it. We employ lots of people. I hope that it’s a fulfilling workplace. I think because there is a strong ethical approach in what the wildlife park runs and what it’s here for and what it tries to achieve. I think most if not all of the staff buy into that and feel proud as well.

“I am often on site, picking up litter, walking around and talking to visitors. I reply myself to every email and letter, so any complaints come to me,” adds Reggie.

He holds just one meeting a month for his managers, and says that all of the staff are busy, knowing what needs to be done and getting on with it.

While not looking to be a global player, Reggie wants the park to be somewhere visitors from the surrounding area return to and continue to enjoy. As we walk around he points out an enclosure within the walled garden, the area that includes both the penguins’ bathing area and the Madagascan Walkthrough, where visitors can meet Lemurs face-to-face. It is an aviary which, when improvements are completed, will provide another walk-through experience. “Our latest innovation was our new children’s playground,” adds Reggie. “We are always looking for ways to improve.”