At the edge of a field outside Witney in Oxfordshire, there is an old mill. Since its closure in the 1970s, the buildings here have served as a small, rather pretty, industrial park: there's an old car workshop next to a ceramics shop and the offices of a polythene company.
Nothing remarkable there. Carry on along the track, however, to the very end of the lane – and this is the bit where unsuspecting visitors who use this bit of road as a turning bay quickly apply their brakes – you will find yourself at the door of 'Britain's First and Only Crocodile Zoo'. Crocodiles of the World is home to just that – some 60 scaled creatures who live in a series of enclosures kept at just the right temperature (26-27C) with the help of a lot of fancy equipment, and the constant attentions of 33-year-old carpenter-turned-croc-connoisseur Shaun Follett.
In 2010, following a near-death experience, this local lad sold his house, moved his wife, Lisa, and their three children into his brother's place up the road, and ploughed every penny into building his very own giant reptile zoo. It was an unusual career change, and one that caught the imagination of the Discovery Channel, which made a documentary series about the venture, promising viewers Britain's answer to Steve Irwin – replete with a diamanté earring and an Oxford United tattoo on his right calf.
Since then, Follett has continued to make headlines, most recently for successfully hatching Britain's first home-bred African Dwarf crocs. Today, visitors to the zoo are met by 14 of the little fellows, now nine weeks old, who are about the size of a gecko and strangely cute. There are "oohs" and "aahs" from visitors who are occasionally allowed to hold them because their teeth are so tiny right now they wouldn't break skin. Aged 18, their mum, Jolie, is the oldest croc in residence here, though at six foot she rarely elicits quite the same response as her babies. The same applies to the 11 other species of crocodiles, alligators and caiman that Follett has collected in this unassuming corner of rural England – not least 34 Nile crocodiles, which he acquired from a zoo in the South of France, and brought across the Channel in boxes in the back of his Ford S-Max.
These, Follett says, are the great unloved, the creatures whose public image as ruthless killers means they don't get the same care as cuddlier-looking wild animals: "Because they have this terrible reputation, it's really hard to get people to think about them in the same way as other threatened species". But it is deeply important, Follett insists, that we do.
While in recent years a number of crocs and alligators have made it off the endangered animals list – like the American crocodile, which lives largely in Florida and was re-categorised as 'vulnerable' in 2007; and, earlier this year, the Morelet's crocodile, which is found in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico and was first f classified as endangered more than 40 years ago but now is considered a less alarming 'conservation dependent' – these are still critical times.
The first creatures who meet visitors at Crocodile World are Hugo and Rebecca, two of just 500 Siamese crocodiles left in the world. The biggest threat to Siamese was the skin-trade: "Skin-farming wasn't regulated and people started cross-breeding the Siamese, which has the good skin, with the salt water crocodile, which is much bigger," Follett says. They created a hybrid which should never have been released into the wild, but which has since escaped from a number of zoos, not least during a big flood in Thailand last year. As a result, the genetic purity of the now extremely rare Siamese has been destroyed. But today, the greatest threat to crocodiles in general is the destruction of their natural habitat.
Which is where conservation comes in. Before opening this zoo, less than two years ago, Follett kept a fair number of these animals (in cages) in the garden of his Oxfordshire semi. They are, Follett says, extremely intelligent creatures; certain breeds have specific character traits and each animal has its unique personality. Rebecca the Siamese, for instance, is "a complete psychopath". Rebecca originally came here from Normandy, and is named after the surgeon who stitched together Shaun's hand and leg after "a little training mishap. You have to be so careful, you have to be 100 per cent focused on what you're doing; my mind was on other things." While he admits that "you can never completely trust a crocodile," Follett has managed to train many of them according to the Pavlovian method.
At one point, we stand in front of a seemingly empty murky pool, behind reinforced glass, and Follett calls "Hugo… Hugo," much like one might beckon a Labrador. A moment later, a pair of eyes emerge on the surface in the far corner and then here is Hugo, all 12ft of him, lurking centimetres away from us apparently waiting for a snack, perhaps a chicken or a rabbit. Generally he only eats once every 10 days and when he does he consumes 10 per cent of his own body weight. "It's just like training a dog," Follett explains. "Except, well, it's a bit harder."
Until 10 years ago, training crocodiles wasn't really a concept people thought much about. "The purpose of training is to give the animals enrichment for their brain and to help keep their body active and engaged, and it's also for our own safety," Follett explains. Trained crocs are generally much less aggressive, which means Follett and his full-time keeper, Jamie, can go inside their cages to clean and maintain equipment, as well as allowing vets to take voluntary blood tests when they're ill – though that is not often. Only 1 per cent of baby crocodiles survive in the wild, but those who do can live up to between 60 and 80 years and sometimes to 100. Because they have such brilliant immune systems, they don't suffer from infections the way we do: "In the wild they have limbs pulled off and the wound just heals".
Earlier this year, at a conference held by the Crocodile Specialist Group in the Philippines, the reason for their seemingly miraculous powers of recovery was finally revealed: a certain protein in their blood that destroys bacteria. There are now talks about applying this knowledge to the field of human medicine, which, if successful, could have very exciting results.
Everything Shaun Follett knows about crocodiles and alligators (which is a lot: "you can tell the difference [between them] because a croc's bottom teeth sit on top of their jaw, and an alligator's sit inside") is self-taught. Today Shaun is a leading light himself, and gives talks around the world.
Follett spent 16 years working as a carpenter but says he always had a fascination for reptiles. "I was quite an allergic child, I couldn't have pets and I wanted to keep reptiles. When I was 16 I was finally allowed my first one" – a bearded dragon. A few years later, by which point he had also acquired Dave, a royal python, he was at his local garden centre when he saw an advert for a crocodile for sale. "I saw this sign and then I saw at the bottom 'Dangerous Wild Animal (DWA) licence holders only'." That was all it took.
That afternoon, young Follett went away and began his research. Finally he got his DWA licence, which involved various animal welfare and public safety checks; then, by pure chance, he came across another man in the area who kept crocs. One was being bullied, so Follett decided to adopt her. "She was a Cuvier's dwarf caiman and measured 30cm; she is now 1.1m and last year hatched her first eggs," he says; the breed lays an average of 10 eggs a year, which must be incubated for between 60 and 120 days. For a long time she lived in his living room. "I spent a lot of time observing her as I wanted to learn more and more," Follett says. "I went off and researched different species from around the world and kept thinking I wish someone would open a zoo here so I could visit it."
Then, when he was 24 years old, Follett developed a life-threatening blood disease. "It took me 12 months to recover, and it changed my view on life." That was the point at which he decided to take the plunge.
It has been just 22 months since Follett first got the keys to the place, but the gamble has already begun to pay off. By the end of this year Follett expects to have seen 16,000 visitors in 2012, double the amount of the year before. At the moment, planning restrictions mean they can only take guests on Sundays, though Follett intends to go seven days a week when they move to larger premises next year. While school parties are a big factor, it is mainly adults who pour through the doors. The reptile industry is booming in this country, Follett says, with the smallest croc breeds changing hands for around £500.
For enthusiasts, working at a place like this is the mothership. Follett certainly has no shortage of volunteers. "It is predominantly about maintaining equipment and hands-off work. I had one woman who said: 'If I don't get to wrestle with crocodiles every day then I'm not interested' and then got up and walked out." London Zoo has 400 people on its waiting list for work experience, and some of these zoology students divert here, where a shift starts by everyone making sure "that nothing is running around in the aisleways…". So far, they've been lucky.
But it isn't all plain sailing. Follett sighs as we pass the American alligator, who was once his star pupil: "Since she hit maturity she has started looking for a male and apparently I don't fit the bill. All she wants to do now is eat me." Despite this, Follett still feels fondly. "These are such remarkable creatures," he says. "They have survived 223 million years. But if they are going to last until the end of this century, they are going to need our help."