TRIBUTES have been paid to the man who founded one of the New Forest’s most popular attractions.

Derek Thomson, who has died aged 81, was a Forestry Commission keeper who established the New Forest Reptile Centre near Lyndhurst.

Mr Thomson, of Eling, was later awarded the MBE for his conservation work and services to the Forestry Commission.

He was running the Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary in 1969 when he set about the task of building the reptile centre.

It was a project that he took on with his son Stephen.

The first facility included a small pit containing grass snakes and adders.

The two men also built a large pond that he filled with Koi carp and goldfish.

Mr Thomson was also known for writing articles on taxidermy for specialist magazines.

Some of his deer heads are mounted at the Forestry Commission offices in Lyndhurst.

He was once given the job of preserving the head of a prize-winning bull.

It was a job which meant collecting it from an abattoir and driving it home in the boot of his car.

The Forestry Commission’s head of wildlife, Andy Page, described Mr Thomson as ‘a visionary’.

He said he was well respected and devoted to the area and its wildlife.

Mr Page said: “Derek was a well-respected and knowledgeable New Forest keeper who was proud of his historic title and devoted his working life to the Forestry Commission and the New Forest.

“He could see that the Forest’s future was as much about wildlife and people as it was about forestry.

“His visionary thinking produced the reptile centre and the fallow deer viewing area at Bolderwood.

“His legacy is still enjoyed by the thousands of visitors who come to the Forest each year.”

Mr Thomson, who was born at Wimbledon in 1933, was married with two sons and daughter.

He was living in Nottingham when he became pen friends with his future wife, who was based in Lancashire.

They often found it difficult to meet but the long-distance friendship turned to love and they were married in 1954.

Mrs Thomson said: “We were together for most of our lives. Next year we would have been married 62 years.”

Daughter Debra added: “He gave us a fantastic childhood. I don’t think any child could ask more of their father.”