Devon Radio Presenter Judi Spiers interviews Exmoor's Famous Resident Wildlife Expert Johnny Kingdom
PUBLISHED: 21:32 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 09:52 20 February 2013
Judi meets Exmoor's resident wildlife expert, and finds that even the professionals can still do silly things<br/><br/><br/><br/>I felt like I'd done ten rounds with a rutting stag after I'd interviewed Johnny Kingdom!
Judi meets Exmoor's resident wildlife expert, and finds that even the professionals can still do silly things
I felt like I'd done ten rounds with a rutting stag after I'd interviewed Johnny Kingdom! He is a fresh breath of Exmoor air at a time when the television is awash with what I call 'professional Northerners' and 'cheeky-chappie Southerners' desperate to be thought of as the down-to-earth boys next door (but who just happen to live in a two-million-pound-plus houses for part of the week). A true character following in the footsteps of Johnny Morris, Hannah Hauxwell and Fred Dibnah. Yes, I'm pleased to say that every now and again they do come along and give us a unique insight into their world.
Johnny had been making wildlife videos about his native Exmoor for many years and selling them at county shows before being spotted at Honiton Show and hauled off to Yorkshire Television where they made a film about him and his life on Exmoor. Called The Secret of Happiness, it was broadcast in 1993, and you can bet your life 'The Old Snare and Gin Trap' near the hamlet of Brayford was packed to bustin' that night. It led to an appearance on Pebble Mill, a visit from Sir John Harvey-Jones, and countless invitations to open garden centres and be guest speaker at ladies' skittles dos; he even opened the new Tarka the Otter train station at Bideford. Programmes for HTV and BBC Bristol and Wales sporadically appeared over the years, but recently the whole of the country has been able to appreciate Johnny with his Friday night networked BBC 2 series A Year on Exmoor.
Though not a tall man, Johnny is physically a very forceful presence. In his late sixties, he's still heavily muscled and covered in tattoos - the result of a visit to a Chinese tattoo artist on the notorious Nathan Road in Hong Kong where he was posted during his National Service days.
The once-thick black curly hair is still lustrous though somewhat dusted with time. It's hard to imagine, even with his camouflage combats on, that this hugely charismatic man could ever blend into the undergrowth, but judging by the wonderful footage he shoots he obviously does. When he talks to you in his delicious Devon burr it's like he's seeing everything for the first time. He laughs like a drain and peppers his conversation with random animal noises that almost have you jumping out of your skin. Perhaps that's how he got so many moleskins to sell when he was just a youngster. You just know when you meet Johnny that he must have been 'a little heller' in his day.
"I was a real sod, I don't mind saying it," he confesses. "I was a poacher as I was growing up."
I can't begin to do justice to the story of Johnny being locked up overnight with a red deer stag in a police cell. As it happens, on this occasion he was innocent, but admits
"I'd have been a feather in any policeman's hat around that area."
Johnny turned to shooting animals with a camera after a horrific accident during his lumberjack days. The hydraulic arm on the back of a tractor came right through the cab and hit him full in the face. "He hit me so hard he put me down where the pedals were. The next thing, I come round and my dog's there, Sandy, and he was licking me. I was 'Oh my God, somebody's give me a leathering'."
As he admits in his book "The accident knocked me for six. My nerve went. I fell hard. I lost my confidence." He went from a man at the top of his game who had just bought his own home, to being off work with only sick pay of 29.90 per week and a family to support.
"It was shock that had run through my system like a bolt of lightning and made me afraid of life itself."
It was thanks to the wonderful Revd Pennington who was apparently "good at dealing with people in trouble" that he turned his life around. Then a friend from a well-known entrepreneurial family, Roger Gregory, entered the frame.
"Roger lent me this camera. Back then nobody had cameras. 'Take my camera, boy' he said, and I took it over the moors. I walked right across Anstey Common, down over the dip and up the other side. There was a nice herd of hinds lying there so peacefully in the sun. So I got down through the river and when I got to the top I started crawling - I always crawl and I always use a mask, you see. Anyway, I got to the top of this fence. I got my camera through the hole. I was there filming away thinking I could see in the viewfinder there's gonna be beautiful shots. I crawled back, made my way home, and the biggest laugh was when I got home to play it all back. There was heather, stones and water, everything bar them deer. D'you know what I'd done? When I started out I turned the camera on. When I got there I turned it off. And d'you know, I'm not being funny, I still do it today!"
Thankfully Johnny has captured some priceless footage. There's Bambi, the three-legged deer that he raised as a pet; the badgers playing in the 'Disneyland' he created for them; the wild boar and the big black stag who nearly 'did for' him. There is, however, one animal he's yet to see and would love to film, but he's not going to do it on Exmoor...
"Alaska. I would like to go and film the brown bear and I must see him catching salmon."
I only hope the powers-that-be have booked the flights... and I can't wait to hear Johnny's growl.
Johnny Kingdom - A Wild Life on Exmoor is published by Bantam Press (ISBN 0-593-05688-4) priced 18.99.
PHOTO: RICHARD TAYLOR-THOMAS