'I can smell 'em. I can smell where they are'

On Exmoor in the early morning you might bump into grave-digger turned film-maker Johnny Kingdom out shooting deer. By Martin Whittaker
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The Independent Online
It is just before dawn and Johnny Kingdom is in his element. "Shh..." he whispers. "Hear that?" There's a low bellow coming from the nearby woods. Then another more distant call from a different direction - very eerie. There are two or three red deer stags close by and this is the rutting season.

Suddenly there's the loudest call of all, a harsh roar tearing across the valley and sounding worryingly close in the first morning light.

"Oooh ... that's nasty. That's a nasty call, see. If you go out there now and he's on his own, he'll challenge you," murmurs Johnny. He wants to get closer. He wants a better shot.

Putting on his camouflaged hat, he picks up his video camera and we crawl behind a wall, peering over the top. And there they are, just visible among the trees as the sun comes up. There's a magnificent stag stomping around the field, guarding some 20 hinds. As another male approaches the stag throws back his crown of antlers and roars again.

"Oooh - he's a big one," whispers Johnny, camera perched on his shoulder. "I'm going to go closer. You stay 'ere."

Eventually he gets to within 20 yards of the deer, stalking silently, often crawling on his belly, to get close enough to film. He doesn't use big lenses - just a lifetime's experience of tracking and stalking. When he reappears half an hour later he's as pleased as punch. "There's been so much talk about this lovely big stag - he's the biggest wild stag in North Devon."

These wild deer are on an 86-acre estate in Rackenford, North Devon and have been to this spot regularly over the last week. So this has been relatively easy.

Johnny will spend days out on Exmoor tracking deer. Once he spent 12 hours over three days, stuck up a tree above a deer wallow, waiting. Needless to say, he got the shot he wanted.

In his home village of Bishop's Nympton and throughout most of North Devon, film-maker Johnny Kingdom, 57, has become a local hero. Until 14 years ago he made his living digging graves and tree-felling. Then an accident changed everything. He was felling a tree when a winch broke and he was hit in the face, fracturing his jaw in five places. While recovering he borrowed a friend's video camera and experimented with filming wildlife. When a compensation claim was settled years later, he bought his own camera and editing equipment, and began producing films on video for friends.

To date he reckons he's sold some 10,000 videos. His films are on sale in WH Smith throughout the South-west, and he sells them by mail order throughout the country. They have been praised by professional film-makers and reviewers.

Johnny is short and stocky with hands like shovels. He talks in a gentle Devon brogue which at times sounds almost Irish. The only time he's been away from his native county was two years' National Service in Hong Kong.

Walking across a dewy field with him, ordinary folk see... well, a dewy field. But to Johnny Kingdom it's like a map, with that trail there made by a stag, this one here a fox, those droppings from a roe deer, and so on.

"D'you know," he says. "I can go in a wood and when the wind's right, I'm not seein' it, but I know there's a deer up there. I can smell 'em. I can smell where they are."

He still digs graves and is teaching the trade to Craig, the youngest of his two sons. Outside the former council house he shares with his wife Julie, stand the wooden coffin templates he uses to get graves the right size.

In the back garden what was once neat lawn is now converted into a paddock for Bambi, a three-legged pet deer he found when she was just days old, her leg caught in some wire.

Inside he's converted a former coal shed into his editing studio, and another room is full of boxes of his videos. There's a pile of 480 envelopes waiting to go out, advertising his latest film "Johnny Kingdom's Badger Watch", released next month .

Filming badgers is fraught with difficulty as they're nocturnal. So how did he do it with just a Panasonic camera?

The answer lies on a hillside two miles away. There, above a large set, he's built what can only be described as an adventure playground for badgers. There are wooden ramps, bridges, tunnels, pieces of drainpipe, and a big home-made wheel made from an old cable drum filled with peanuts. A badger turns the wheel to get a reward.

He filmed them from a home-made hide overlooking it all. Incredibly, he lit the badgers starting off with red, which they didn't seem to mind, then gradually introducing ordinary lights.

Johnny says his years of filming and practically living in the animals' environment have led to a greater understanding of wildlife, giving him the confidence he needs to take risks other film-makers might shy away from.

"Yesterday a stag went for me. I made this noise something like a stag and he left his hinds and came up to me - he was just nine yards from where I was standing in the river. But I got the shot I wanted.

"Yes it is dangerous - you should never mess with a big stag. But this is part of the challenge when I'm out filming.

"I've learnt all sorts of things about the deer - the way they box, how they dance, the way they enter the wallow early in the mornings, what time to catch them. It's the same with the badgers. I've been watching the set all the time. I know they pick a certain route every night. I'll film them at play, then let them go off to their own environment to catch worms and that.

"It's taught me a lot and I'm still learning. I don't suppose I'll ever learn it all."

For more information on Johnny Kingdom's films call: 01769-550367