The flatlands of the Somerset Levels have inspired wildlife film-maker Simon King since he was a boy, and in this exclusive article he explains why.
The Somerset Levels and Moors have played a pivotal role in my life since I was a teenager. This low-lying, flat land covers some 650km2 between the Mendip Hills to the north and the Quantocks to the south, and, to the casual observer, may seem featureless and unremarkable. Here and there, anomalies rise up from the flood plain like giant molehills – the best known being Glastonbury Tor – but it is otherwise easy to label as topographically dull.
Why, then, did the Levels capture my imagination and heart with such fervour, and take such an enduring hold on my passion for exploring the natural world? To understand the magic of the Levels, you must understand what made them, you must look to the sky as much as the earth, and you must feel the pulse of natural forces weaving a spell that can be felt nowhere else in the country.
I was introduced to the Levels by my friend and mentor, Mike Kendall. Mike and I worked together on a television series called Man and Boy in the 1970s and, from time to time, I would stay at his house just south of Cheddar to go birdwatching. Our trips took in the reservoirs of Chew and Blagdon, the cliffs and quarries of Cheddar, and the Levels themselves.
I confess to wondering what these low, wet fields could offer in the way of natural marvels when Mike first took me to Tealham Moor, one crisp spring morning in 1976. There were no hedges and few trees except for lines of pollarded crack and white willows. Instead the area was crisscrossed by drainage ditches, or rhynes as they are known locally. It all seemed entirely unremarkable.
As we strode across a puddled meadow that was stickled with unruly mops of rushes, a small brown bird rose on whirring wings from the grass a few metres in front of us, then arced back into the lush green sward. “Jack snipe,” Mike hissed, his cheeks round with his inimitable grin. It may not have been a golden eagle, but it was still a species that, for me, had so far only existed on the pages of field guides. A ‘lifer’, albeit for a 14-year-old boy.
We continued our walk, listening to the symphony of the skylarks and watching the lapwings that tumbled and hurled themselves about the sky.
“Ah, just there, Simon, on the fence. See it?” Mike urged me to join him and pointed at a small, dainty bird that swayed on a strand of barbed wire. Its yellow chest had a dandy joy that was echoed by its strident metallic voice. “Yellow wagtail,” Mike whispered, “just in from Africa.” The revelation that this individual had been snatching flies from the ankles of elephants only a few weeks ago thrilled me to my core.
As our walk continued, we spotted male brown hares racing madly in pursuit of a female, and a late flock of golden plovers flying high towards their northern breeding grounds.
Tealham and Tadham Moors were just a couple of the haunts that Mike introduced me to over the following years. Westhay Moor boasted a small but mesmerising acid bog reserve, surrounded by peat cuttings, that was home to exotics such as the insectivorous sundew and the flashing forms of hobbies. Here, we would wait in the summer dusk for the air to fill with the woody churring of a nightjar and, if we were lucky, the event would reach a crescendo with the addition of the liquid cadence of a nightingale.
As my career as a cameraman developed, I started to go to the Levels to film its wildlife. By the time I was 18, I was driving around the moors in my Morris Traveller with a camera rigged on a tripod in the passenger seat, poised to film hares chasing in the fields, lapwings displaying or a fox sniffing along the edge of a rhyne. The more I explored, the more I discovered: every quiet corner could harbour exotics such as water rails and marsh harriers. I had close encounters that will remain in my catalogue of wild memories forever.
I lived through the different faces and moods of the Levels: the hazy meadowsweet-scented shimmer of summer, the eerie, half-lit low mists of autumn. And then there was the sky – always the sky. Gradually, it dawned on me that, for much of the time, it is the heavens that take centre stage. The Levels, I realised, are an ever-shifting tableau on a vast scale, an impression reinforced by the flat-land horizon.
Eventually, I bought a cottage on the edge of the Levels in Westbury-sub-Mendip, and then moved into the heart of the moors in Godney when I was in my 20s. But as I made them my home, so there came a change.
Sadly, the annual winter flooding that has made the Levels what they are for thousands of years was becoming increasingly incompatible with the need to exploit the rich alluvial and peaty soils for livestock. Humans have drained the Levels – via those rhynes – for hundreds of years, but to a certain extent had always fought a losing battle because flooding still took place. But, in the latter half of the 20th century, we became more and more successful at it, draining the life-blood from the wetlands.
Battles raged between what was then the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) and farmers, who burned effigies of its officials in protest. Then there came a radical change in the harvesting of grass to feed cattle – instead of cutting for hay in late summer, farmers began cutting for silage in late spring. Arguably this had an even greater impact on the Levels and their wildlife.
Where I had known fields to harbour lapwings, skylarks and yellow wagtails, there was now a chilling silence. When meadows were left for hay, these wild inhabitants had time to raise their families before the cut in late July, but now they were being sliced out of existence. Bit by bit, the magic of the moors was being squeezed into a few, postage-stamp reserves and fallow fields.
Peat extraction also became mechanised. When I first started filming on the Levels, peat was dug by hand, with lines of workers staking the peat blocks into bee hive-shaped mounds to dry. Now, machines chewed up the acid bogs and tossed the valuable peat into grow-bags at an ever increasing rate. In a matter of years, it seemed, the sky would be the only element of the Levels that would be left.
But, I am delighted to say, this is not the case. The attitude of many landowners has evolved to accommodate the Levels’ wild residents alongside viable businesses. More significantly, the network of reserves has been extended and linked together to create an increasingly living landscape. The Somerset Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Natural England (once the NCC, then English Nature) and some private owners have developed a shared vision to restore the magic of the moors.
Though there have been casualties – tree sparrows, nightjars, redstarts, breeding lapwings and other waders are either very rare or absent now – their vision is being realised, and there have been astonishing and exciting success stories. The reserves at Shapwick Heath and Ham Wall fizz with life throughout the year, and some of the cast of players are old friends such as hobbies, barn owls, marsh harriers and water rails. Other species are new to the scene.
Bitterns now boom in the reedbeds, and little bitterns have bred successfully here, too. The explosive song of Cetti’s warblers rings out and little egrets are increasingly common. I still do a double take as I drive past a rhyne and spot one of these graceful hunters stalking along its edge. Otters have made a comeback, and can be spotted during the day on some reserves, including Shapwick Heath. Everywhere roe deer browse in meadows and marsh borders.