14th July 2021
Next up in our series of interviews with local conservation heroes is farmer and conservationist Ed Pope, who has created an amazing Africa-inspired home for rare deer, antelope and birds deep in West Norfolk. Alison Huntley takes a buggy ride on the wild side
As you bump along a dirt track in the quiet buggy, you may glimpse water buffalo enjoying a dip in a watering hole while shy sika deer dart into the undergrowth and a crane stands to attention in the long grass.
This is not the Serengeti but the Watatunga Wildlife Reserve just south of King’s Lynn, the astonishing brainchild of farmer and conservationist Ed Pope.
Some 170-acres have been reclaimed from old wetland. Herb-rich pastures, a lake, and banks smothered in wildflowers now create a beautiful, secure home for endangered animals and birds.
Ed’s particular conservation passion is for ungulates. There are more than 20 species of deer and antelope here, from bongo to barasingha.
Ungulates get overlooked in favour of more exotic endangered animals such as tigers but in danger they certainly are, with seven species becoming extinct in one decade and many populations in steep decline.
Several of the breeds at Watatunga are now extinct in the wild or at serious risk. The reserve is attracting worldwide interest for its collaboration in invaluable research work and breeding programmes in its efforts to save the others.
Ed’s interest in wildlife comes from his much-loved late father. “He’d take me birdwatching when I was a little boy and would lift me up to his telescope. I’ve always been doing conservation work on the farm, building barn owl nest boxes and so on.”
The African link also comes from his farmer father, who had a great friend in Botswana. Many family holidays were spent there, Ed’s first at the age of just six months.
Watatunga blends the name of his village of Watlington with sitatunga, a swamp-loving antelope.
“As a teenager, I had the dream of breeding water buffalo for conservation work. At 15, I was sitting at the back of a history class working out the maths. I wasn’t very interested in history. I was very interested in water buffalo!” It was another 15 years before he actually got some.
The reserve is also home to rare birds, most significantly great bustards, which became extinct in the UK in 1832.
A particular concern for Ed is when the region gets a rare visit from a white-tailed eagle. “It’s the ultimate nightmare,” he says. “Bustards are such easy prey for them. We were out night and day protecting them when we had an eagle around.”
The reserve has been open to the public for pre-booked tours by electric golf buggy since August last year. There are two lodges there too, offering holiday accommodation.
“I prefer to think of our visitors as guests – guests of the animals,” says Ed. The focus here is very much on creating a habitat and world that suits the animals and birds rather than visiting humans.
“There really isn’t anywhere in the UK remotely like this. Here, humans are coming into the animals’ space. That’s the joy of it. You have no idea what you may or may not see. Every day, every tour is different.”
That uniqueness reflects Ed’s own maverick nature. “I have been influenced by many people and taken lots of advice from various conservation experts but I can’t say I have followed any single approach – I’ve rather added the best bits that relate to this site and tried to forge my own path.”
The approach is proving successful. “We’ve had a lot of repeat bookings from guests who stayed last season,” says Ed. “I love that it brings people of different ages together. Grandparents come with their grandchildren and they all seem to adore it.”
Moreover, the work done here has won him and the team professional respect. “I didn’t know what people would make of it, but everyone has said ‘what we have created is amazing’. And that’s not just guests but also conservationists from across the world. Many of our zoo contacts have said they’d love their animals to come to Watatunga,” reveals Ed.
“It’s humbling to have been recognised and appreciated by some of the finest conservationists in the world. We’ve been blown away by the feedback.”
Watatunga run pre-booked 1.5-hour guided buggy tours (from £60 per buggy) from April to October. Visit www.watatunga.co.uk for details and to book.