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Barnes was educated at Emanuel School, and after beginning his journalistic career on local newspapers in Britain, he travelled to Hong Kong, where he wrote for travel magazines and the South China Morning Post. After his return to Britain, he became a sports writer for The Times, being promoted in time to the position of Chief Sports Writer. He is also an acknowledged specialist writer on the environment and wildlife. He is the author of 16 books including three novels and the best-selling How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher. His latest book, Birdwatching With your Eyes Closed: An Introduction to Birdsong, was published in 2011. Barnes has also appeared in a number of programmes on BBC Radio 2, including a reading of his book, How to Be a Bad Birdwatcher.
Barnes lives in the English county of Norfolk with his family and five horses. He was on The Times team at the 2012 London Olympics, the seventh summer Games that he has covered for the newspaper. In March 2009 he was runner-up in the Sports Journalists' Association's 'Sports Columnist of the Year' award, an award he won in 2008.
In June 2014 Barnes was unexpectedly sacked by The Times after 32 years' continued employment, the newspaper having informed him it could no longer afford to pay his salary. Speculation was intense in some sections of the media for the real reason being Barnes's outspoken views expressed in his wildlife opinion column that blamed illegal activity by red grouse shooting interests on the continued persecution and near extinction of the hen harrier in England. 
- Barnes, Simon; Nik Wheeler (1981). China in focus. Hong Kong :: CFW Guidebooks,. pp. 63p. : chiefly col ill. ISBN 962-7031-12-7.
- Barnes, Simon (1986). Phil Edmonds a singular man. London :: Kingswood,. pp. xi,179p,p of plates : ill., ports. ; 24cm. ISBN 0-434-98092-7.
- Barnes, Simon (1988). Eamonn McCabe, photographer. London :: Kingswood,. pp. xxii, 88 p. : ill., ports. ; 29 cm. ISBN 0-434-98147-8.
- Barnes, Simon (1988). Horsesweat and tears a year in John Dunlop's racing stable. London :: Heinemann Kingswood,. pp. xii, 228p, 8p. of plates ; 24cm. ISBN 0-434-98152-4.
- Barnes, Simon (1989). A la recherche du cricket perdu. London :: Macmillan London,. pp. v,137p : ill ; 21cm. ISBN 0-333-48722-2.
- Barnes, Simon (1989). A Sportswriter's Year. London :: Heinemann London,. pp. v,224p : ill ; 25cm. ISBN 0-434-98180-X.
- Barnes, Simon (1992). Flying in the face of nature a year in Minsmere Bird Reserve. London :: Pelham,. pp. xi,227p ; 25cm. ISBN 0-7207-2005-2.
- Barnes, Simon; Peter Jackson (1994). Tiger!. London :: Boxtree in association with Tigress Productions and Meridian Broadcasting,. pp. 160p ; 29cm. ISBN 1-85283-931-7.
- Barnes, Simon (1997). Rogue Lion Safaris. London :: HarperCollins, London. pp. 320 p. : col. ill.. ; 33cm. ISBN 0-00-649849-3.
- Barnes, Simon (1999). Hong Kong Belongers. London :: HarperCollins, London. pp. 320 p. ; 33cm. ISBN 0-00-651195-3.
- Barnes, Simon; Alan Marks (2000). Planet zoo one hundred animals we can't afford to lose. London :: Orion Children's,. pp. 264 p. : col. ill.. ; 28 cm. ISBN 1-85881-488-X.
- Barnes, Simon (2000). Miss Chance. London :: HarperCollins, London. pp. 288 p. ; 27 cm. ISBN 0-00-651196-1.
- Barnes, Simon (2005). A bad birdwatcher's companion --or a personal introduction to Britain's 50 most obvious birds. London :: Short,. pp. 281 p. : ill. ; 21 cm. ISBN 1-904977-37-5.
- Barnes, Simon (2007). The meaning of sport. London :: Short,. pp. 365 p. ; 20 cm. ISBN 1-904977-85-5.
- Barnes, Simon; Joseph Barnes (2008). How to be wild. London :: Short,. pp. 1 v. : ill. ; 20 cm. ISBN 1-906021-48-1.
- Barnes, Simon (2008). The Horsey Life. London :: Short,. pp. 288 : ill. ; 25 cm. ISBN 1-906021-42-2.
- Barnes, Simon (2011). Birdwatching With your Eyes Closed: An Introduction to Birdsong. London :: Short,. p. 288. ISBN 1-907595-47-3.
- Simon, Barnes. "Wild Notebook: Welcome to my new wet wild home in Norfolk". The Times.
- "Shocked Barnes says Times cannot afford his wages". Sports Journalists' Association.
- Simon Barnes (12 April 2014). "We're going to watch gamekeepers like a hawk". The Times.
- "The curious case of Simon Barnes’s departure from The Times". Mark Avery.