Philip Wayre was a naturalist who saved the otter from extinction in England and founded the country’s first wildlife park
Philip Wayre, who has died aged 93, co-founded the Otter Trust, a charity which pioneered the captive breeding of otters for release into the wild and has been credited with saving the animal from extinction in much of England.
Otters had been a common sight in Britain in the early 1950s, but the following two decades saw a dramatic decline in numbers, mainly due to the widespread use of organochlorine pesticides. Despite the banning of the chemicals, by the late 1970s the only healthy otter populations in Britain were in parts of Scotland, although small populations remained in Wales and northern and south-western England. A survey of nearly 3,000 old otter sites in the late 1970s found evidence of otters at only 170.
Wayre, a television naturalist and conservationist, established the Otter Trust in 1971 with his wife Jeanne. They had four objectives: to promote otter conservation; to maintain a collection of otters in semi-natural conditions for research, public interest and education; to carry out a captive breeding programme with the aim of releasing young otters back into the wild; and to promote and support scientific field studies of the animals.
In 1976 the Wayres established their first reserve at Earsham, on the banks of the river Waveney on the Suffolk-Norfolk border.
They went on to found four more reserves, attracting nearly 100,000 visitors a year. The first three otters bred in captivity were released in 1983 on to the river Blackwater in Suffolk, and by 1996 the trust had released a total of 130 animals on rivers in Suffolk, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Rutland, Hampshire, Dorset, Bedfordshire, Essex, Wiltshire, Cambridgeshire, and on the Upper Thames. They also supplied otters to programmes in France and the Netherlands.
Their breeding programme was so successful that it sparked an otter baby boom in the wild, putting the species on the road to recovery and removing the need to breed the animals in captivity.
In 2006 the Trust closed its sanctuaries. A recent report on the 3,000 otter sites surveyed in the 1970s found otters at more than half. There are now believed to be more than 12,000 otters in Britain – about a half to two-thirds of levels seen in the 1950s.
Philip Wayre was born on May 26 1921 and educated at Sherborne School. He first visited Norfolk when he was 17 and, following service in the Royal Navy in the Second World War, during which he rose to the rank of Lieutenant, he returned to the county to try his hand at farming. After working for a farmer at Mileham, near Dereham, in 1949 he bought his own farm in the village — 400 acres of mixed arable. “I ran it for three or four years until I ran out of money,” he recalled in an interview. “I wasn’t a successful farmer, I wasn’t a good farmer … I didn’t actually go bankrupt but I got fairly close and it was pointed out to me in fairly frank terms by Barclays that I should give it up.”
In 1954 he bought a smaller, 50-acre, farm at Great Witchingham and started rearing turkeys not far away from Bernard Matthews’s first turkey farm. Unlike Matthews, however, he did not have much of a head for business.
Wayre had always been interested in wild animals, some of which he tamed and kept as pets. From the late 1950s, after the launch of Anglia Television, he got a five minute slot on the station’s midday show showing his animals, work which led on to making programmes about natural history, including Wind in the Reeds (Anglia, Survival, 1962); A Wind on the Heath (Anglia, Survival 1966); Pheasants to Formosa (BBC, Traveller’s Tales; 1967); and Twilight of the Tiger (BBC World About Us, 1970).
In Wayre’s early days on television, however, the theory was that picture quality was much better with a television camera than a film camera. So he had to bring animals into the studio . “In those days the law was quite different, you could get whatever you liked, there wasn’t any quarantine for the most part, except for dogs, cats and horses,” he recalled. “I used to acquire hand-reared animals especially for television. When I had used them I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t like to get rid of them, because it would be cruel.”
In 1961 he solved the problem by turning his farm into what became the Norfolk Wildlife Park — the first of its kind in Britain — calculating that if he opened the park to the public he would get some money to pay for the animals’ food. The collection grew to include lynxes, foxes, badgers, birds of prey and owls, and won awards for the first breeding in captivity of the brown hare and the European wolf. It attracted 100,000 visitors a year in the late 1970s, though by the time Wayre sold it in 2000 numbers had dropped to about 18,000, as rival wildlife parks got going.
It was at the Norfolk Wildlife Park that Wayre first tried his hand at breeding otters, work which became the focus of his energies after he and his second wife Jeanne established the reserve at Earsham. As well as his conservation work, Wayre made a documentary film, The Vanishing Otter (1978), which did much to raise support for the cause.
Philip Wayre served on numerous conservation bodies including the survival service commission of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. He was a member of the councils of the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, the International Council for Bird Preservation and the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust, and also served as the chairman of their conservation committee. From 1976 to 1978 he was chairman of the Eastern Regional Council for Sport and Recreation. In 1994 he founded the Philip Wayre Wildlife Trust to promote conservation and the protection of wildlife.
Philip Wayre was appointed MBE in 1994 and the following year was voted “Countryman of the Year”.
Away from his animals, Wayre loved spending time at sea on his converted trawler, the Jeanne Helene.
His wife, Jeanne, whom he married in 1975, died last year. He is survived by two daughters from a previous marriage.
© Daily Telegraph 10 Jul 2014