The Somerset Levels: King’s country

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: King’s country

Starling spectacle

In winter, one of the greatest spectacles on Earth comes to town. Up to 10 million starlings gather to roost on the reedbeds of Shapwick Heath, Ham Wall and Westhay. The ‘super-organism’ of a cloud of starlings is truly one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
There is still much to be done, but more than ever I feel that the people who live and work here want to share this land of sky with their natural neighbours. The initiative to reintroduce cranes (see box, p89) shows how far we have come. When their wild voices trumpet once again, it will show our determination to find a future where we will not be the architects of their, or our own, demise.
Cranes return to the somerset levels
  • A crane reintroduction project is currently underway in the Levels.
  • The cranes are being reared in captivity at the Wildfowl & Wetland Trust’s Slimbridge centre from eggs taken from nests in Germany.
  • In August this year, 21 cranes were released into a secret predator-proof pen, and work began on training them to react appropriately to wildlife such as foxes, as well as humans and vehicles.
  • By October, the cranes are leaving the pen during the day, but still roosting in it at night.
  • Further releases will take place over the coming years and it is hoped that the cranes may start breeding by 2015.
For more information, please click here
The key nature reserves of the Somerset Levels
Catcott Complex
A site that comprises two distinct habitats: the former arable farming land of Catcott Lows, which has been converted back into grazing marsh, and Catcott Heath, which consists of wet meadow, scrub and carr woodland. Wildfowl such as wigeon, pintails, shovelers and teal overwinter on the lows in great numbers, and peregrines are seen in both winter and summer.
Contact Somerset Wildlife Trust: click here or call 01823 652400.
Greylake RSPB Reserve
Winter brings large flocks of teal, wigeon, mallards and waders such as lapwings to the wetlands. Smaller breeding birds in spring include skylarks and yellow wagtails.
Contact RSPB: click here or call 01458 252805.
Ham Wall RSPB Reserve
With autumn coming, look out for birds such as fieldfares escaping harsher Scandinavian climes, while winter brings roosting starlings and hunting raptors such as peregrines and merlins. Great crested and little grebes breed here in summer.
Contact RSPB: click here or call 01458 860494.
Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve
Home to one of the greatest starling roosts in Britain during the winter, Shapwick Heath is also a good place to see wildfowl such as gadwall, shovelers and tufted ducks. In spring and summer, look out for African migrants such as cuckoos and hobbies. Otters are here all year round (and frequently seen).
Contact Natural England: click here or call either the starling hotline: 07866 554142 from early November, or 0300 060 2570.
Westhay Moor NNR
Another key site for roosting starlings (though they appear to increasingly prefer Shapwick Heath) between November and February, Westhay Moor is also good for mammals such as otters and water voles. In spring and summer, the reedbeds and scrub come alive with reed and Cetti’s warblers, and later on, hobbies hawk for dragonflies over the water.
Contact Somerset Wildlife Trust: click here or 01823 652400.
West Sedgemoor RSPB Reserve
One of England’s largest remaining ‘wet meadow systems’, this is the southernmost nature reserve on the Levels. Waders such as lapwings, snipe and redshank breed here in summer, while the winter months see the arrival of teal, wigeon and huge flocks of golden plovers. In Swell Wood, on the southern edge of the reserve, there is a large heronry, which is active between March and June; little egrets also breed here.
Contact RSPB: click here or call 01458 252805
To find out more about Simon King, click here


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