TV presenter Jimmy Doherty
At this time of year ordinarily, the man who made his name helping out his best friend Jamie Oliver should be welcoming hundreds of visitors to his wildlife park in Suffolk. Instead, he is facing a bleak financial future and struggling to keep up with Mother Nature which marches on irrespective of coronavirus. “It’s like a ghost town. Things are pretty close to the edge financially right now,” says Jimmy, 44. “It should be our busiest time of the year with weather like this but you walk around and it’s empty.
“We’ve got a beautiful herb garden here with tables and an outside barbecue area and there’s no one around. You walk down into the wildlife area and there are empty playgrounds where the kids would be sitting and having ice cream and the sound of laughter has disappeared.”
To compound matters, Jimmy is constantly firefighting to stay on top of the baby boom – of chicks, lambs, reindeer calves and wallabies.
“What do you do with them?” he asks. “They’re part of a wider breeding programme connected with lots of other wildlife parks and institutions. You can’t just remove them all, you can’t turn them off and you can’t store them.
“There’s this constant cycle of breeding with wallabies,” he explains, referring to the native Australian marsupial’s biological quirk which enables them to have simultaneous pregnancies. “Even if you took the male away, there’s still a conveyor belt of babies coming.”
Normally the surplus wallabies would have new homes waiting but in lockdown nothing is working as it should. “Usually these animals will be going on to different parks to join a male but we can’t do that because of the transport situation,” Jimmy says. “We’ve had to allow the wallabies in with the emus so they’ve got a much bigger area. When lockdown changes they can go to their appointed homes but at the moment we’ve got joeys popping out left, right and centre.”
Jimmy with his lambs
Viewers will be able to watch their progress in near real time on the latest series of the Channel 4 show, Spring at Jimmy’s Farm. Programmes are broadcast approximately a week after filming so it’s possible to see how lockdown has been affecting the 800-odd animals on the farm which range from racoons and pygmy goats to butterflies and reptiles.
With 53 species on site, Jimmy certainly has his work cut out.
“We weigh camels, release hedgehogs, feed the crocodiles – I was measuring boa constrictors the other day,” Jimmy says.
“There is also the sexing of emus,” he says, making me giggle. “To sex an emu you’ve got to have a steady hand and a strong constitution.”
Since lockdown began, and paying visitors are no longer allowed, Jimmy has had to cut down his staff down from 35 to six at the sprawling 280-acre farm and wildlife park.
They practise social distancing where they can, although birthing animals is near impossible without two people in fairly close proximity. And apparently it’s left several species out of sorts, namely the show-offs of the animal kingdom.
“Meerkats, donkeys and even Jerry the alpaca area bit frustrated because they’re thinking, ‘Why is no one looking at me? I should be centre stage and there is no one here’,” Jimmy laughs. “It’s created interesting behaviour. We have one meerkat who we call Steve McQueen because he keeps getting out as he’s bored with no one to look at.
“He’s been off to the rabbits and had a look at the camels. None of the others want to, it’s just him.”
Catching Steve after his Great Escapes is no easy task given that meerkats can sprint up to 30 miles an hour, so Jimmy and his skeleton staff have tried reinforcing the meerkats’ enclosure.
“He’s been able to get out, then he gets back in again, so he’s just making a mockery of it,” Jimmy laughs.
The battle to curb Steve’s wanderlust continues. Despite living in Suffolk now Jimmy is still an Essex lad at heart, with a sunny disposition familiar to TV audiences.
He spent many years living in the shadow of his famous childhood pal but Jimmy’s Farm has been going since 2004 and he’s become a familiar face in his own right, fronting shows including Food Unwrapped, Jimmy’s Food Factory and Jamie & Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast.
His passion began with his dream of becoming a pig farmer but, along with his ambitions, it’s grown and moved on.
Bit by bit, he transformed the land into the popular tourist attraction it is today.
But what his – and many other – businesses desperately need more than anything right now are visitors.
Jimmy in his garden
“All the work we’ve done with conservation – the species we have and the unwanted pets we take from the RSPCA – is all funded by the visitors, so your lifeblood has just stopped,” he says.
“But you’ve still got the feed bills, the electricity and all the rest of it, so that is a worry. It feels a bit like one of those egg-timers where the sand is draining out. But fingers crossed we can open up and get the rest of the summer.”
That is not looking likely. Wildlife parks do not feature in the road-out-of-lockdown measures announced by the Government this week.
Most of the day-to-day running of the farm continues – a constant round of feeding, cleaning and veterinary health checks – with fewer staff doing more jobs.
The break from normality has allowed restoration projects to flourish. The giant South American rodent capybaras have their favoured pond back again after the team dredged the dried-up waterhole and flushed fresh water back into it.
With fewer people around, staff have to be more alert to predators.
“Foxes are coming in during the day and are taking our goose eggs,” Jimmy says.
“The herons are trying to eat all the ducklings. When the general public are around those things don’t really happen.”
Jimmy with his wife and daughters Neve, Cora, Molly and Bo
He also has to share home schooling the eldest two of his four daughters – Molly, nine, Cora, seven, Neve, four, and Bo-Lila, two – with his wife, Michaela Furney.
How’s he coping with adding the role of substitute teacher to his already long list of responsibilities?
“Massive appreciation for teachers,” he replies, without any hint of irony. “Home schooling, wow.”
Like millions of parents across the country now wrestling with primary and secondary education, he knows it’ important to balance the load. “We still try to make Sundays about Sunday lunch and family time and we’ll have some play times with the kids,” he says.
Friday evening is “crisps night” along with other treats and the girls play out in the garden most afternoons.
“A bit of structure really helps but it’s difficult because you can find yourself being quite antsy so it’s about having a laugh, sitting outside and trying to enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it,” says Jimmy.
“It’s difficult but what we’ve got to remember is that this will all come to an end and we should appreciate family’ that closeness we have with our family while we’ve got it.”
Does he believe it’s made them more of a unit? “In lots of ways it has, but I’m picking a lot of jackets and shoes up. That’s what I do quite a lot,” he sighs.
He is happy that his daughters are growing up with an appreciation of nature in the same way he did.
Jimmy with his pigs
Jimmy’s parents came from east London and he was born in Ilford. The family relocated to the Essex village of Clavering when he was three. “My dad bought a house with a two-acre field attached to it,” he says. “I used to spend a lot of time in the tall grass catching butterflies. I always had a real connection with nature.”
He graduated in zoology before reading a PhD in entomology, the study of insects, but then got interested in traditional livestock, which is how he ended up in farming.
“I wanted to produce the food I was happy eating using traditional rare breeds and free range,” he says.
Although things are financially precarious right now, he believes there are positives to come out of Covid-19, such as the renewed sense of community and a focus on being more resourceful.
“I’m really hoping there’s going to be a reinvigorated reconnection with the great outdoors and nature,” he says.
It was his connection to nature that ignited his thirst for knowledge at school. “Once I had something I wanted to find out about, then the hunger for knowledge led me to want to read more. How does that animal work? Where does that butterfly live?”
Who knows – maybe somewhere in lockdown, there are the makings of the next little Jimmy Doherty.
Spring at Jimmy’s Farm, Thursdays at 8.05pm on Channel 4