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Shepreth Wildlife Park marks decade of work with endangered animals





Rebecca Willers is a true force of nature. Passionate about conservation, she has devoted the best part of her life to saving endangered species.

Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell
Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell

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 Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell
Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell

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.

“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.”

Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell
Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell

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).

“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.

Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell
Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell

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.

Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell
Rebecca Willers at Shepreth Wildlife Park. Picture: Keith Heppell

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.”

[Read more: Hedgehogs injured by garden strimmers and toxic chemicals treated at Shepreth]

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.



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