THE Cotswold Wildlife Park is closed to visitors today for a special service following the death of the park’s founder, John Heyworth, at the age of 87.

Mr Heyworth founded the park in 1970 at his family home, Bradwell Grove, near Burford, which is the Strawberry Hill Gothic manor house and 3,000-acre estate he had inherited from his grandfather in 1948.

Due to crippling death duties, he had leased out the house and grounds for 20 years to the local health board. By the time he got it back in 1969, the house had fallen into disrepair and the garden was overgrown.

He loved animals and, following the example of Longleat and Woburn which were establishing safari parks at around the same time, he decided to restore it and open it as a wildlife park.

But unlike Woburn and Longleat, where visitors drive through to see the animals, he decided that visitors to his park should be able to walk around.

Today the Cotswold Wild-life Park remains one of the most popular attractions in the area but it is closed to visitors today for a thanksgiving service for the life and work of Mr Heyworth, who was also a farmer, point-to-point rider, dendrologist and noted breeder of red poll and limousin cattle.

John Heyworth was born at Bradwell Grove on August 21, 1925, the son of Lt-Col Reginald Heyworth of the 1st Royal Dragoons and his wife Moyra, daughter of the 3rd Lord Tweedmouth.

Mr Heyworth showed an early fascination with nature: he always had pets, including grass snakes, slow worms and a toad that he found in the garden.

In 1938, he went to Eton where, as well as a large box of reptiles, he kept a cage of budgerigars in his room.

In 1943, he signed up for military service and joined his father’s regiment, seeing active service in Denmark and Germany. Shortly after being demobbed he inherited Bradwell Grove on his grandfather’s death.

The wildlife park venture was a huge risk: he borrowed £40,000 – an enormous sum at that time – to buy the animals and set up the park, and he managed to get estate retirees and other people to work on a more or less voluntary basis until he had the cash flow to pay them.

On Good Friday 1970, the first visitors paid admission prices of 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.

The park proved an instant hit, drawing 17,000 visitors over that first Easter, with visitor numbers and species of animals increasing each year.

Mr Heyworth is survived by his wife Susan and their son and three daughters.