A much anticipated wildlife reserve for endangered species is set to open in Watlington on Monday.
Watatunga Wildlife Reserve is taking online bookings for guided tours using electric golf buggies to get around the 170-acre site.
Visitors will be able to drive in a convoy around the reserve where there are more than 20 types of deer and antelope roaming in woodland and pasture.
The reserve is the brain-child of farmer Edward Pope who decided to create the attraction because of his lifelong passion for conservation.
The venture was also sparked by Mr Pope’s friendship with Julian Stoyel, an expert on deers, who has worked at the well-known safari parks of Longleat and Woburn.
The reserve has a number of rare bird species including the great bustard which became extinct in the UK in 1832.
“We are particularly proud to have the great bustard on site, they are phenomenal birds,” said Anna Hamilton, Watatunga director and wife of Mr Pope,
Miss Hamilton, a former primary school teacher said: “Ed spent time visiting Africa as a child and he felt strongly about certain species going under the radar.
“Although it was good big animals such as the rhinos and tigers got press attention, however, many other species didn’t.”
Two years ago, there were talks of a much larger safari park but, after taking into account views from the community, the project has been scaled down.
With the combination of Mr Pope’s passion for conservation and Miss Hamilton’s teaching experience, the intention is to educate others about endangered species through a programme of science, genetics, breeding and preservation. The aim is also to develop an education programme for schools and young people.
Miss Hamilton said: “Although people go to see the bigger animals at zoos, and there is amazing work that goes on in zoos, there are often space restrictions.
“Really, the idea was to put these animals (at Watatunga) on the centre stage in their natural habitat.”
The wet winter created a challenge to prepare the animals’ habitat and the reserve was due to open in April.
However, the pandemic lockdown delayed the opening plans until next week.
“To be honest, it gave the animals more time to make the reserve their home,” said Miss Hamilton.
As the animals are wild and could be dangerous, visitors can only access the site on golf buggies.
The hour-and-a-half buggy tour will see visitors follow a guide while listening to information through speakers.
Miss Hamilton said: “The tours were going to be with trailers. But because of the restrictions we hired buggies so families can feel safe in their own bubbles.
“There are four-seaters and one six-seater buggy which will all be disinfected after use.”
An online booking system has gone live for a limited number of guided tours and for now, will only be releasing dates for up to two weeks in advance.
The reserve’s name is a combination of its location, Watlington, and the sitatunga, a type of antelope.
The site will be run by five members of staff, including Mr Pope and Miss Hamilton, who will be taking two tours a day to begin with, for four days a week.
There are also two self-catering cottages to let near to the reserve which have golf buggies.
Miss Hamilton said “We are really excited to open, but it will be in a minor way to begin with.
“It’s conservation first and foremost and we have a passion to share a lot of what we do with people and educate.
“A lot of hard work has gone into it and there has been a massive community effort too to get us where we are.”
For more information about visiting see the website www.watatunga.co.uk