Living the wild life
PUBLISHED: 17:56 12 September 2014 | UPDATED: 18:08 12 September 2014
As I arrive, the Somerset-based charity Secret World Wildlife Rescue is releasing an orphaned wild hare into Simon’s long grass meadow. High in the trees, a brood of baby woodpeckers are venturing out on their first flights and a mallard duck is showing off her fluffy ducklings on the pond.
It’s all in a day’s work for Simon. After 30 years travelling the globe from Africa to the Arctic making wildlife films, which earned him a clutch of awards and an OBE, between stints co-presenting the BBC’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch programmes, he’s come home to film the wild creatures in his own back yard.
“I’m a Somerset boy,” he says. “Even when I used to live on the edge of Bristol I was in the woods all the time - up trees, in meadows, in streams. Even if you don’t have the great passion for the subject I do it’s a great way for kids just to be kids.”
Wild Meadows, the 10 acres behind Simon’s 300-year-old house near Frome, is part garden, part wildlife reserve. He and his family share the space with six foxes, eight badgers, a pair of otters, three hares, and uncounted birds from kestrels and owls to wrens and jackdaws.
Every detail of their daily lives is streamed live via dozens of webcams linked to Simon’s website (simonkingwildlife.com), giving you a breathtaking ringside seat at every day dramas from a bluetit brood hatching to a fight between a kestrel and a barn owl over a nest box (the kestrel won).
Over the past three years Simon has transformed the site into a series of wildlife habitats. He began by planting a mini woodland of 2,400 silver birch, ash, hazel and oak, then dug out a huge two-metre deep pond big enough for swimming and boating. The spoil went to create mounds, turning the previously flat paddocks into an undulating landscape.
Mown pathways wind through areas of long grass left to flower so they dance with meadow butterflies like marbled whites, skippers and blues.
“If you want your garden to be a place where your kids can go and explore and see bugs and feel like it’s a bit of a jungle, just let it grow and cut a path through it,” he says. “Make a little circuit where your kids can run and be part of that world.”
You begin to look at weeds differently after you’ve been here a while too. Hogweed flowers, for example; seen through Simon’s eyes, they’re spectacular, nectar-rich white flowers with lemony-flavoured edible seeds. Purple thistles are pretty, and nettles are magnets for butterflies. He even likes having blanketweed in his pond.
“This year will be really good for the damselflies because they lay their eggs on the algae, and then all their larvae will populate the pond,” he says. “Everything is checks and balances. What you don’t want to do is immediately start messing with it and say, ‘oh, I can put a chemical in and that will get rid of it’, or ‘let’s pull it out’. Pull that out and it’s like one big net - you’re pulling out half your invertebrate stock.”
Simon’s most recent project is a kingfisher nesting bank (with pre-installed camera, of course). At the moment it’s unoccupied, but as Simon puts it: “Build it and they’ll come.” As well as the pond, a river winds through the trees, giving both standing and moving water - both essential habitats for wildlife.
“The otters on the river come and use the pond regularly, and we have kingfishers and herons and dippers,” says Simon. “And this is only a baby pond finding its balance, it’s in its infancy - it will only get better.”
The biggest splashes of colour in the garden are just around the corner, from the flower-filled meadows just bursting into bloom. One is planted with an annual wildflower mix; the other with seed harvested from the Coronation Meadow at the Chancellor’s Farm Nature Reserve, just north of Priddy high up on the Mendips.
The Coronation Meadows were set up by the Wildlife Trusts (of which Simon is President) last year to help save Britain’s wildflower meadows from the brink of extinction. Each restored meadow helps provide seed for new ‘recipient’ sites, like the one in Simon’s garden.
Alongside is an annual meadow, sown with chamomile, cornflowers and poppies and in full brilliant bloom.
“That rivals any cultivated display of anything for me,” says Simon. “That could be your back garden, your front garden – you could do that anywhere. And if you do that in every back garden across Britain, you’ve got 270,000 acres offering bees and butterflies and all the associated bugs and birds, everything that comes with them, somewhere to live.”