Looking at the secret lives of the wildlife in one of Britain's favourite gardens, from the family of foxes that play after hours to the toads in the Italian garden.
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The lost gardens of Heligan,
nearly 200 acres of Cornwall,
famed for their beauty and intriguing story.
A story that thousands of visitors every year fall in love with.
But there's a side of Heligan that those visitors don't always see.
The gardeners here look to those that have gone before them,
using the philosophies and secrets of a fallen generation,
adopting techniques that are hundreds of years old.
And, because they do,
Heligan has other secrets to reveal.
The Lost Gardens of Heligan
are the lovingly restored remains of a Georgian estate
that was, in its heyday, the perfect example of self-sufficient living.
In the days before food imports and supermarkets,
these huge productive gardens supplied everything,
both to the family at the manor house and all the estate workers.
The productive gardens are the hub of a wider estate,
which includes farmland
Today the whole estate is managed as it was in its Georgian prime,
using the same combination of practicality
and, "waste not want not" philosophies.
The staff follow the same seasonal rota,
doing everything by hand, knowing that the spring will come.
From season to season,
from year to year,
even century to century,
the gardeners have tended this place through a constant cycle
of life and death,
growth and rebirth.
And the consequences of all this simple care?
Even in modern times
there's still a home here for our most cherished animals.
From the barn owl who hunts the field margins of the farmland,
to the family of foxes who play on the lawns of the pleasure gardens.
And the badgers and woodpeckers, who carve out a home in the woodland.
I think, obviously,
when a place has been left undisturbed as long as Heligan was
it builds a whole body of wildlife that has made it its home.
Since arriving here we've found that,
because we've left chunks alone and opened up other bits,
that we've just added to the ecological niches
that creatures can live in.
and the gardens seem lifeless,
but if you who know where to look,
wild creatures are everywhere.
The blackbirds are already busy.
In gardens they nest two weeks earlier than in the wild.
Combine that with Cornwall's milder climate
and this pair are already gathering nesting material,
even in mid-February.
And if you look carefully around Valentine's Day,
the Italian garden is the stage for an amphibious tale
of often unrequited love.
These common toads are spawning.
Actually, a highly competitive affair.
In the embrace of, often, many suitors,
it's the female in the centre of the group,
each of the males trying to get prime position
to fertilise her eggs.
Toads do migrate to the same breeding pond every year.
Considering they may live to 50,
for those who are unsuccessful this time, there's always hope.
As breeding ponds disappear through our countryside,
this Italian garden is now, as it was a century ago,
a sanctuary for amphibians and humans alike,
but it wasn't always this way.
In its prime, the estate was privately managed
for the benefit of just one family.
But today it's maintained for everyone to enjoy.
In between, the gardens had been forgotten, lost,
until 21 years ago, Tim Smit and his friends stumbled upon them
in a discovery that would change the gardens' history.
It was a fantastic day, cutting through this bramble.
I found this large vinery, which was completely rotted out,
and the glass was hanging in the bramble and the ivy...
..and the sun came out and, there under this green veil,
I saw on the wall...
a pair of vine scissors still hanging on the original nail.
And it's really funny when your eyes adjust to seeing something like those scissors,
how, suddenly, you saw all over the place tools,
all sorts of implements,
just lying there as if someone had many years ago said, "Teatime,"
and they'd gone away fully expecting to return within the hour.
We know now that, in 1915 and 1916,
most of the gardeners enlisted and went off to war
and we know that two thirds of them were to die.
They may be gone, but are not forgotten.
The gardens are restored now
and a new generation of gardeners are reviving their old ways.
Because it's these traditional techniques, often hundreds of years old, that make Heligan special
and that seem to balance and satisfy the needs of all the living creatures here,
from plants to humans.
Gardeners at Heligan perform a timeless set of rituals,
jobs dictated by the seasons and by nature.
Nicola is responsible for the productive gardens.
At this time of year, early spring,
peach blossoms are obviously much earlier than all the other fruits
that are outdoors
and there's very few insects around.
There's the odd bee buzzing around you can hear,
but we can't rely on them to pollinate them,
so we give them a helping hand, basically,
to make sure that they're pollinated.
I use my little rabbit's tail, which is great.
It's just like using a very soft, delicate brush -
you don't damage the flowers.
You just gently, sort of, brush it from one flower to another
and that's moving the pollen.
It's a bit like doing your own watercolour, really.
It is very much a marking of the season.
I think we, kind of, all wait for the peach blossom to come out.
It very much heralds the start of the year for us.
Outside the peach house,
the hard frosts of early spring linger in the flower garden,
and anemones provide the only bright colour
on otherwise bare earth.
Well, that's not strictly true.
Throughout the gardens, year round,
there are constant flashes of red from the gardeners' friend.
The robin is a real feature in the garden.
Everybody, in all the different areas of the garden,
feels they've got their own personal little robin, really,
because they do constantly follow you around.
It's quite lovely. You know, they're there beside you,
sort of, flitting in and out and they're really quite tame.
It's kind of a balance because we need the worms for the soil
and the robins are pinching the worms.
But other pests and insects,
you know, the aphids and the smaller sort of insects that we don't want on the plants,
they do help us around the garden with.
They're just a lovely part of being outdoors
and you don't want to fight against nature -
you want to work with it as much as you can and appreciate it.
As spring bursts forth, the pied wagtails have begun to nest.
They may think they've chosen a secret place,
but it's right in the centre of the melon yard.
And, in the farmland,
the first of Heligan's lambs soak up the spring sunshine.
Part of the magic here is that spring comes earlier in Cornwall.
The jackdaw is reputed to be clever,
but this one probably needs to rethink a more...fitting nest site?
From the giant Magnolia campellii
to the smaller bulbs,
spring flowers adorn both the pleasure and formal gardens,
but the woodland also puts on a show.
Violets, primroses and bluebells.
But they're only here because of a return to traditional forestry.
Coppicing leaves clearings,
which allow sunlight to bathe the forest floor
and allows these flowers to grow.
CHAINSAW STARTS UP
When a tree IS harvested, the policy is to use it all.
Smaller branches are used in the garden, or as mulch,
and some wood left to rot down - valuable habitat for insects.
One of the really pleasing aspects of the restoration,
when we had, by and large, finished the main gardens
and moved down into the lost valley,
was uncovering the bones, if you like, of the working outside estate.
We often talk about sustainability
and here was the evidence all around you
of what had been deemed to be sustainable operations.
We had several acres of hazel for the pea sticks, and so on,
and the fence making.
Everything was grown on site.
Some trees, although dead,
are left standing.
For very good reason.
A pair of great spotted woodpeckers live here.
Having carved their nest in this dead tree,
they're already feeding chicks.
But one of Heligan's most charming woodland creatures
is almost never seen by the visitors
because it's mainly nocturnal.
Before dusk, this community begins its nightly foray for food.
As night falls,
their explorations take them all the way into the pleasure gardens.
The tearooms at Heligan actually play host to all sorts of visitors,
It's here that many of our permanent residents meet up.
By day the tearooms are also bustling with visitors,
made welcome in particular by the rooks and jackdaws.
Gregarious birds are known to flock together during a season of plenty.
All over the gardens are signs that life is moving at a faster pace.
Well, for Cornwall, that is.
They say a suicide is very rare in gardeners.
Most gardeners I meet,
they have a calm and a pace about them,
which is different to any other profession I know.
It would drive me mad.
When we start sowing a row it's 100ft long
and you can be there for some time,
but there's something about the state of mind when you're doing those things
and sometimes people look at you and they go,
"Oh, that would drive me mad,"
because you're pricking out hundreds of plants and it's just that monotonous thing,
but it's quite calming, and being outdoors all year round...
I just think internally, you know, that's very good for you.
In the Sundial Garden,
the blackbirds have the first of this year's babies.
We do have a lot of birds in the peach house with us,
particularly in the summer when it's very dry in there
and the birds are having little dust baths.
So, there's always some fluttering around in the soil
because it's very dry.
We have a lot of flies, sort of, later in the season.
We put biological controls in the glasshouse to keep pests down,
but you often see them pecking along the base of the walls
and you get little mosses growing
and the birds, sort of, peck through and find the little insects,
so it's great because for us they're clearing out our pests
and for them, they just get a feast, as well.
The walls of the productive gardens were used for growing fruit.
When the gardens were first built brick was expensive,
so they were mainly built of stone.
However, in the sun brick warms up much more than stone,
so, ever practical, the gardeners only used brick in those positions
where the extra warmth would assist the ripening fruit.
What would they think of the state of this precious wall now?
Sparrows peck at the old mortar for the grit it contains.
It helps them grind their food inside their stomachs,
and the traditional limestone also helps make strong eggs -
vital at this time of year.
Although they were once abundant,
the sparrow is now listed as a threatened species.
Here, they're still thriving.
June, and a new season begins.
The holiday season.
In the pleasure gardens,
the giant Cornish red rhododendron trees are now at their peak.
But the captivated visitors are just day-trippers.
Each evening they pack up and leave.
And when the visitors are gone...
..permanent residents reclaim the lawns once again.
A family who call this home.
This year's cub is still just a baby, with a lot to learn.
The older cub is, perhaps, a yearling
and seems reluctant, yet, to claim his independence.
So, for the time being,
Mum, with her one scarred eye, will hunt for all of them.
The little ones have much more important business to attend to.
Here every creature has a place, not just to live,
but to hunt.
Out in the farmland, a rare sight these days -
the ultimate symbol that here they're getting it right.
The sensitive management of the fields, the hedgerows
and the wide margins provide habitat for plenty of small mammals
like field voles
and, without them, this barn owl simply can't survive.
To have created a place where a lot of living things can't thrive
is almost an affront to your approach to husbandry,
or living, if you like, with the grain of nature.
I think, also, it's important for people to think about the hedgerows
and the wild areas, and the creatures that live in it
as having a sense of rights to it,
because we're so used to looking at humankind as having "dominion,"
as it says in the Book of Genesis, "over all living things."
I think it often blinds us to the fact that
wild things are part of us.
To grow your own pineapples was, in the great Georgian era,
the ultimate accomplishment from the gardens
and then, as now, required
extraordinary effort and know how.
Pineapples need heat to grow
and the pineapple pit relies on a precise balance of straw
and rotting horse manure to provide it.
Like pineapples, pied wagtails are known for their love of warm places.
They often gather together to roost in sewage works,
so is it that which has inspired the wagtails to nest here
in the gap warmed by the pineapple pits,
even though it's one of the busiest places in the whole garden?
YOUNG BIRDS CHIRRUP LOUDLY
Visitors are just part of the scenery
and it's all systems go finding insects for five chicks.
Usually, a pair of woodpeckers
produce between four and seven eggs,
but this year there seem to be only two chicks.
It may well be that our great spotted woodpecker,
himself a predator of nests, has had his own nest raided.
All of those dead logs provide plenty of good Cornish grub.
The grey squirrel,
commonly blamed for the decline of our woodland birds
for their egg-stealing habits.
Is that fair?
Birds lay so many eggs -
perhaps they are expecting to lose a few?
Our squirrel may well have visited the nest before
and taken some of the eggs,
but today he's more interested in the tree as a grooming spot.
When darkness falls, Heligan's woods get really busy.
And this year there have been lots of babies.
But it's not just the badgers out in the woods tonight.
The barn owls have chicks.
They're just a few weeks old
but already eating their own bodyweight in mice and voles.
The night shift at Heligan is full on.
But dawn reveals tragedy for one family.
No-one knows what has killed the youngest cub.
Another territorial fox,
We can only guess.
Most of Heligan's babies are flourishing
and some are ready to take their first leap into adulthood.
For others, though, it does require a leap of faith before they've tested out their wings.
Mum tries to encourage him out with a tasty caterpillar.
Every second he's on the ground is dangerous.
Before he can fly, he's completely vulnerable to predators,
but his instincts seem to tell him to head for the trees.
Like many mothers, this one has a strong urge to feed her young,
which doesn't go just because he's fledged the nest.
So, instead of flying lesson one for our woodpecker chick,
today turns out to be tree climbing.
Our pied wagtail chicks are out of the pineapple pit and, here in the melon yard,
for the next few weeks, they will also get basic training in flying...
..and will finally find out what that tail can really do
when they move on to acrobatics and fly catching.
The height of summer.
The peach house in the summer is the most beautiful part of the garden.
It's really beautiful and the peaches themselves are lovely.
You get these big, fat, ripe peaches.
It's a constant job in the summertime to keep an eye on them
because, obviously, they're so delicate and soft
that if they fall they bruise very easily.
But you get to a point
where they're literally ripening by the hour.
There is no access, for obvious reasons, to the peach house in the summer for visitors,
but they are so beautiful and so tempting,
you quite often see these little bruised finger marks on the peaches
where people have tried to grab them and pull them down.
So, even though they are not supposed to be in there,
I think we do get a few illegal trespassers.
Flowers were the peak of horticultural achievement
in the Georgian era and now the flower garden is at its best.
Bustling, not only with people, it's a nectar rich heaven
for all sorts of insects, including the declining bumblebee.
But there are other pollinators, too,
not all welcome.
Enemy of the gardener, as a caterpillar,
the large white butterfly was munching on the cabbages here.
Some of these tiny creatures are touching down here for the first time after crossing the Channel.
A Red Admiral feeds on the echinacea flowers.
And a hummingbird hawk moth from as far away as Africa.
These insects in the flower garden are vital,
not only pollinating the plants,
making sure they'll set seed for next year,
but also providing food for insect-eating birds.
Next to the flower garden,
inside an old boiler house, a new family of swallows.
These harbingers of high summer are hungry and demand a feed almost every two minutes.
The acrobatic parents catch insects on the wing and are ceaseless
in their energy, but, luckily, don't have too far to go to hunt.
It might help if the chicks were a bit less fussy.
It had long been rumoured that half of Mevagissey was conceived in the jungle
because, after it got overgrown, it was a very romantic trysting spot,
which, I believe, is the old-fashioned word for it.
It is hard today to convey to anybody that the word "jungle"
had become literal, but in the sense of British by the time we got there,
and I don't think I'm exaggerating.
There were 2,000 sycamore and ash trees through the middle of it.
It was a monumental effort of work.
It was a huge job. I feel tired just talking about it.
Yet underneath, remarkably, all of the ferns had survived.
There was the most monster collection of really big tree ferns, which are beautiful.
Heligan's jungle has a unique microclimate
five degrees warmer than other areas and so these exotic plants thrive,
as do more familiar species.
The grass snake...
..our only egg-laying snake,
needs the damp and extra heat of the jungle to hatch its eggs.
The jungle is designed around a man-made string of ponds and streams
which all flow into each other.
Great wildlife habitat.
Just like any garden pond,
keeping this lot clear of weed is relentless!
In fact, it's this network of pools throughout the gardens
that are vital for the success of the wildlife,
from the jungle
to the Italian Garden.
Even down to the most delicate of creatures.
Here, where the toads spawned, dragonflies and demoiselles
as beautiful as any of the flowers
now gather to dip delicately in the water,
laying their eggs.
Common blue damselflies entice each other with courtship dances.
A fragile existence.
Here in the pond their eggs will be safe.
In the barn, the mother barn owl is doing her best
to encourage her chicks out of the safety of their nest.
They're not so sure.
Tomorrow night, perhaps.
In these hot August days, when they might be forgiven for finally getting the deckchairs out,
the gardeners are planning for the following year.
The way we're starting to look at the world now,
we come up with posh phrases like, "living with the grain of nature", don't we?
You know, "treading lightly on the Earth".
But, I think, it actually comes back to some old values
that we know from our granny's knee of "waste not want not"
and about nurturing, stewardship, mentoring, all of those things which are about husbanding resources
in a way that means there's more to go round and that you, actually, do today with tomorrow in mind.
We've been so based on living for today that the tomorrow was never something in mind
because this concept called growth meant that tomorrow would look after itself.
These estates are a fantastic metaphor
for what is good about husbandry and nurturing and working with the grain of nature.
Although autumn comes later in Cornwall, it does happen.
The growing season eventually comes to an end and so begins
a new season of gathering for birds, animals and humans alike.
When I lived in a city, winter, I could see, had no purpose whatsoever
and autumn was just a depressing prelude to being even more depressed in the winter.
And summer was great at the start but towards the end,
you were depressed at the thought of autumn,
which was a prelude to winter,
and spring was fine and hopeful.
Once you start to work with the seasons and you work in a living
where what the weather is like actually matters,
as opposed to it being just something at the end of the news,
it roots you in a way that I'm not sure any other profession or type of profession does.
The idea is to have this almost seamless annual cycle.
There's a time for everything.
I think, in some ways, it's comforting that we're carrying on with the way that the garden is done
and just people's passion to make it work.
And it's that way the gardeners work which means that, as they prepare
for the winter's lean months, the garden remains home to such a variety of birds.
A female blackcap, usually migratory, but she'll stay here through the winter.
The song thrush, on the decline throughout the UK
because of lack of nesting sites and lack of food, but here they find both.
All over the estate,
birds are making full use of the food left for them,
stocking up for winter.
From the start of spring to now,
harvest festival is the culmination of a season's work for the whole team -
a moment to take stock and even show off what nature can deliver.
One wildlife secret here in the jungle doesn't remain so for very long.
Although he's making the best of it, just like the exotic plants,
this green heron doesn't belong here.
He should really be hunting the waterways of North or Central America,
but has been blown hundreds of miles off course to this Cornish peninsula.
And, as were the unfamiliar plants in days of old,
he has become a curiosity in these parts.
Unperturbed by all the attention, he's decided to stay.
A decision not so welcome for the local frogs.
The frog's response to being caught is to puff up,
hoping to become impossible to swallow.
The gardeners are preparing to make something
that humans have been making here since medieval times.
We fell in love with the idea of going back to charcoal-making.
There's something fantastically satisfying
about watching the timber that's been harvested from the woodlands
being packed so neatly into those big tanks
and then have a hole down the middle where you put the fire.
It's a really amazing sense of doing stuff which ends up in a product of something else that's useful.
A satisfying clunk as the whole thing goes on top
and then you wait for the papal vote of smoke to come out.
The charcoal will burn for three nights and days.
To the old estate, charcoal was vital.
A fuel to keep fires really hot, perfect for blacksmiths with horseshoes to make.
To the woodland wildlife, its production is what helps to shape their home.
There's no time for sunbathing in this season of gathering.
Our woodpecker chick has grown
and now looks a bit more at home on the tree.
Out on the farmland, the sunflowers have long finished flowering
but the huge seed heads are left as food for the birds.
Now their breeding season is over, finches roam in flocks,
teasing out the last of the seeds.
And over in the barn, an eerie silence.
The nest box is finally empty.
The traditional cycle of work and growth never really has an end.
Already the gardeners are preparing for next year's crops.
It marks the time of year because everybody's kind of like, "Huh! It's time for a seaweed run".
So we'd watch the tide times coming up so that we can be down there
as long as possible while the tide's out
to gather as much seaweed as we can.
We need to get it out onto the beds, really, as quickly as possible because we learnt
from past experience that if you leave it for a week before you start putting it out on the beds
it can be quite a smelly job!
It's very good for the soil structure because as it rots down
it binds the soil and creates a lovely crumb structure.
Each bed is 4,500 square feet of bed
that you've got to put the seaweed on,
so it's quite an epic job!
To both the visitors and the people that work here,
Heligan is much more than just a garden.
Perhaps that's because we yearn for a past where we were producers, not just consumers,
where we took today's pineapple
and turned it into tomorrow's.
Going into the potting shed,
the smell of loam and creosote and terracotta and sisal
and seeing the wonderful tools that we've got...
..every person I've ever escorted in there has believed it was the potting shed their granddad had,
even if they couldn't remember their granddad or knew that he didn't have a potting shed.
Does this place feel magical
because it satisfies our hunger for a home in the natural world?
We worry about losing our wildlife and our productive heritage,
but what this place has rediscovered
is that there is something we can do about that
and that makes us feel good.
The early estates, the Georgian model of the great aristocratic estate,
was almost totally self-sufficient except for the luxuries that it brought in.
I like the idea that in the modern day we could be almost self-sufficient again here,
in such a way that you can actually run our countryside
for the benefit of every living thing.
It's no wonder that wildlife thrives here.
It's no wonder to me because actually people thrive here.
What I've learnt at Heligan, more than anything,
is the sense of those cogs of time going round,
where every particular part of the year has a purpose.
If you were to ask me what is my favourite time,
it would have been spring or summer or maybe even early autumn.
But now, it's the end of January,
beginning of February time, when everybody else is depressed, when I feel as if I'm let in
on a magnificent secret as I see the bulbs burst through the ground and it just feels fantastically hopeful.
I wish...I wish I could translate my deep pleasure in knowing that to everybody.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Email [email protected]
Looking at the secret lives of the wildlife in one of Britain's favourite gardens. Shot by Charlie Hamilton-James, this film follows various animals, from the family of foxes that play after hours in the pleasure gardens to the toads in the Italian garden and the badgers that clear up the tea rooms at night. Set against the background of the gardening year, these stories reveal life behind the scenes at Heligan.