Obituary: Nature visionary who created Pensthorpe reserve dies aged 90

Farmer and conservationist Bill Makins, who founded the wildlife park at Pensthorpe, has died at the age of 90

Farmer and conservationist Bill Makins, who founded the wildlife park at Pensthorpe, has died at the age of 90 - Credit: Ian Burt

The influential Norfolk conservationist who founded the much-loved nature park at Pensthorpe has died at the age of 90.

Bill Makins was a farmer whose passion for waterfowl and wading birds led to the creation of what is now known as Pensthorpe Natural Park, near Fakenham.

The reserve and its habitats in the Wensum valley were established following a huge excavation which saw over a million tonnes of gravel extracted by the early 1980s.

Realising the site's nature potential, Mr Makins turned the resulting holes into carefully landscaped lakes, and moved his own growing collection of water birds there.

Farmer and conservationist Bill Makins, who founded the wildlife park at Pensthorpe, has died at the age of 90

Farmer and conservationist Bill Makins, who founded the wildlife park at Pensthorpe, has died at the age of 90 - Credit: Archant

With his wife Francesca, he opened the park to the public in 1988 and built it into one of Norfolk's top visitor attractions, and an important conservation hub for rare wildlife.

Mrs Makins said: "All the lakes, the waterfowl and the wader scrapes as we know them today are all because of Bill.

"After the gravel extraction ended, he realised his dream of moving his waterfowl down onto the lakes so that he could create a park for the public to come and experience."

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William Michael Makins, the son of Eustace and Enid Makins of Little Fransham, was educated at Nevill Holt and Repton schools before studying at Cirencester's Royal Agricultural College

He returned to Norfolk to form a partnership with his grandfather, Edward Porter. His father bought the nearby Kettlestone house and farm for him.

After his grandfather died, he moved into Pensthorpe Hall and decided to diversify from cereal crops to growing soft fruit, including blackcurrants for Ribena. Alongside other farmers, he helped to start Norfolk Fruit Growers at North Walsham in the 1960s.

Throughout that time he was also establishing his own waterfowl and wading bird collection, digging large holes around his house and garden for their use.

As his collection and his reputation grew, he was asked to join the board of The Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire.

He married Francesca in 1978 and, following the lengthy gravel excavation project at Pensthorpe, many old buildings were renovated with the help of long-term unemployed workers under the government's Manpower Services scheme.

"We had 40-50 men working for us. It was wonderful to get these people back to work and learn a new job," said Mrs Makins.

Bill Makins pictured at Pensthorpe

Bill Makins pictured at Pensthorpe - Credit: Martin Hayward Smith

The new Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park and Nature Reserve opened to the public in March 1988, with an official opening by the Duke of Edinburgh that July.

A planned millennium project to create an aviary and aquarium for captive puffins was refused funding but, undeterred, Mr Makins decided instead to create a Millennium Garden on a two-acre section of the park.

Having read many gardening books, he invited a relatively-unknown Dutch gardener named Piet Oudolf to design it - who went on to achieve international fame following a win at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2000.

Bill Makins and Deb Jordan in Pensthorpe's Millennium Garden in 2003

Bill Makins and Deb Jordan in Pensthorpe's Millennium Garden in 2003 - Credit: Archant

Mr Makins had a gift for spotting potential in others, and also helped launch other careers including several artists and noted Spanish conservationist Beltrán de Ceballos, who stayed at Pensthorpe 40 years ago as one of many foreign students learning about the management of wading birds and waterfowl.

Mr Makins decided to retire in his early 70s and sold Pensthorpe in 2003 to the current owners, Bill and Deb Jordan.

Mrs Jordan said: “From the first moment we met Bill we were all drawn in by his passion, enthusiasm and love of the birds and wildlife here which would go on to shape our decision to move to Norfolk.

“Bill was incredibly 'hands on', kind and patient when we were learning the ropes from him. It was always a pleasure to find him weeding happily in his beloved Millennium garden and his knowledge of the plants was encyclopaedic.

“Bill had designed and shaped the lakes in the park to accommodate his love of ducks and waterfowl. There was nothing he didn’t know about either subject and he had an amazing way with people that drew you in and made you want to learn everything you could to please him.

“It goes without saying that such an inspirational man will be sorely missed.”

Although Mr Makins and his wife stayed in the hall for another 10 years they left Pensthorpe completely in 2012, moving to near North Elmham.

His passion for conservation continued in retirement and, although old age and ill health curtailed his activities, he was one of three Norfolk trustees to launch the Turtle Dove Trust in December 2021 - a charity dedicated to reversing the decline of one of his favourite birds.

"He was a remarkable man," said Mrs Makins. "I can honestly say he has left two wonderful legacies, Pensthorpe and the Turtle Dove Trust."

Mr Makins leaves his wife Francesca, and he had two sisters, Patricia and the late Jennifer, and he was an uncle to Kate, Henrietta, Antonia, Alexander and Arabella.

After a private family cremation, a Thanksgiving Service to celebrate his life will be held in early September. Donations in Mr Makins' memory can be made to the Turtle Dove Trust, via turtledovetrust.org.uk.