SPRING­WATCH TALES

A YEAR IN THE COUN­TRY

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

Se­ries pro­ducer Chris Howard re­calls the tri­umphs and tri­als of film­ing the live-ac­tion na­ture spec­tac­u­lar, as the show bids farewell to the Cotswolds.

The live-ac­tion na­ture show has en­tranced view­ers since its in­cep­tion in 2005. As Spring­watch spends its last year in the Cotswolds be­fore mov­ing on to pas­tures new, se­ries pro­ducer Chris Howard re­views the pro­gramme’s tri­umphs and tri­als

It all started with an off-road chase, an aban­doned quarry and a steamy car.

“There – they’ve just dipped be­hind that hedgerow!”

We were hot on the tail of a flock of lin­nets, but the birds, around 60-70 strong, were giv­ing us the runaround.

Peter, one of the ten­ant farm­ers on the Na­tional Trust’s Sher­borne Park Es­tate, wasn’t to be de­terred. Eye­ing up the large ditch in front of us, he put his rusty old 4X4 into gear and crashed over the lip.

“Good luck fol­low­ing us over that,” he cack­led to the Na­tional Trust staff mem­ber in the Fi­esta be­hind.

It was March last year, and se­ries ed­i­tor Rose and I were in Glouces­ter­shire for a tour of

Spring­watch’s new home. Peter had al­ready shown us the barn in which the swal­lows prefer to nest (“don’t worry – I’m pretty sure this old floor will hold all three of us”); had us on our hands and knees look­ing at a mazy myr­iad of vole runs in the long grass (“crawl­ing with them – owl food!”); and checked out the large field mar­gins that he as­sured us would be teem­ing with wild­flow­ers and in­sects by the time we came back.

But it was his lin­net flocks that he was most proud of, even if to­day they were prov­ing elu­sive. Like many farm­land species, the lin­net has de­clined hugely in the past few decades: the RSPB es­ti­mates that the UK pop­u­la­tion has de­clined by 57% be­tween 1970 and 2014. So to chase such a large flock of this gor­geous but red-listed bird across the es­tate re­as­sured us that Peter and his fel­low ten­ant farm­ers must be do­ing some­thing right here.

KEEP­ING IT REAL

Although the very first Spring­watch was based on an or­ganic farm in Devon in 2006, since 2008 the se­ries has been quar­tered at na­ture re­serves and parks all across the coun­try.

These na­ture re­serves are of­ten lo­cated in the ex­tremes of the UK and are home to some of the UK’s most exotic species. Their sole aim is to al­low wildlife to flour­ish and thrive – a job they do fan­tas­ti­cally well. They are the clos­est the UK has to sa­fari parks.

But how ‘real’ are our na­ture re­serves? Most of the UK’s pop­u­la­tion wouldn’t find much in com­mon be­tween a re­serve and their lo­cal patch. Around 70% of the UK’s land area is farm­land – the UK coun­try­side is a place where peo­ple work, live and play.

BROAD CHAL­LENGES

Peter ex­plained that his ex­ten­sive win­ter feed­ing regime was be­hind these large flocks, and as one fi­nal stop he wanted to show us his main seed sta­tion in an old quarry.

Un­for­tu­nately, block­ing our way down the track was that blue es­tate car. And it had very, very steamy win­dows.

Peter gave a sharp rap on the glass. “Morn­ing”, he called, “it’s just the BBC – they are here to film…”

With that, our coun­try ad­ven­ture had be­gun.

So for Spring­watch 2017 we de­cided to ex­plore a mi­cro­cosm of this ‘nor­mal’ Bri­tish coun­try­side for a change, and to stay put for a whole year to see it change through the sea­sons.

Find­ing some­where to fit the bill was a gar­gan­tuan task. Af­ter a year-long search, we set­tled slap bang in the mid­dle of the coun­try in the Cotswolds – at the Sher­borne Park Es­tate. In na­ture re­serves, an­i­mals oc­cur at high den­sity in small ar­eas. By com­par­i­son, Sher­borne is large and spread-out, pre­sent­ing a huge chal­lenge for our cam­era teams. We used more ca­bles on this se­ries than ever be­fore, cov­er­ing many dif­fer­ent habi­tats to get a wide va­ri­ety of species.

We put cam­eras in barns to watch barn owl chicks, and in the fields we in­stalled them in rab­bit bur­rows to gain an in­sight into rab­bits’ un­der­ground lives (mostly sleep­ing). We rigged our first ever red kite nest deep in the woods, tried to col­lar six bad­gers (manag­ing one), and climbed up the vil­lage church to watch a kestrel nest.

Each set-up has its own chal­lenges. The stun­ning red kite im­ages were beamed back to the cen­tral hub us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of fuel cell and ra­dio sig­nal tech­nol­ogy, and the kestrels

“We rigged a red kite nest in the woods and tried to col­lar six bad­gers (manag­ing one)”

gave us all great joy ev­ery time they fouled the glass be­tween them and the cam­era. When I say ‘all’, that prob­a­bly ex­cludes Jo, whose job it was to climb those steep stone steps and clean the glass each time they did so.

All in all, the team was pleas­antly sur­prised with the num­ber and va­ri­ety of species we man­aged to film for Spring­watch in our month on the farm.

Au­tum­n­watch and Win­ter­watch on the other hand, were much harder.

With no nest­ing birds, we usu­ally base our­selves where the sea­sonal spec­ta­cles are for these se­ries, and rely much more on the noc­tur­nal ac­tiv­ity of mam­mals.

By stay­ing in Sher­borne, we had ruled out the spec­ta­cles, and the mam­mals liv­ing in the work­ing coun­try­side were much more wary than those we find on re­serves.

This was aptly demon­strated by our fox ex­per­i­ment, built to com­pare the in­tel­li­gence of ur­ban foxes in Brighton against their ru­ral cousins at Sher­borne. In Brighton, they ex­ceeded our ex­pec­ta­tions, com­plet­ing the task ev­ery night. In Sher­borne it was as quiet as a mouse. Lit­er­ally, we filmed one mouse all week.

How­ever, stay­ing in one place meant that, un­like in pre­vi­ous years, we could pick up on the Spring­watch char­ac­ters and fin­ish, or con­tinue, their sto­ries.

For the first time we were able to re­port on what hap­pened to the barn owls, red kites and kestrel chicks (they all fledged), and fol­low spawn­ing trout and lesser horse­shoe bats through­out the year. In fact, the lat­ter gave us per­haps the stand-out mo­ment of the whole year – in­cred­i­ble footage of two bats mat­ing dur­ing Au­tum­n­watch.

MOV­ING ON

Over­all, the ex­per­i­ment has been a re­sound­ing suc­cess. We have talked about coun­try­side is­sues while show­cas­ing the best of Bri­tish wildlife liv­ing along­side us in this work­ing land­scape, cap­tur­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary things hap­pen­ing in our ‘or­di­nary’ coun­try­side, right on our doorsteps.

It isn’t over yet. This Spring­watch is our last at Sher­borne, and ex­cite­ment is build­ing as we come full cir­cle and com­plete our year in the coun­try.

We know that three pop-star-themed bad­gers are out there, col­lect­ing data on their track­ing col­lars as I type. We have a new area that we hope will give us bet­ter ac­cess to farm­land species such as yel­lowham­mers and sky­larks, and we have some good signs of water voles and ot­ters on the river. There is an­other barn we hope to rig, with lit­tle owls nest­ing along­side their barn owl cousins, and we re­ally hope that the bats will come full cir­cle, with the pups from that au­tumn mat­ing due around the sec­ond week of June – just as we will be wrap­ping the se­ries up.

Let’s hope it is that mat­ing, and not the car kind, that is the star of the show this year...

CLOCK­WISE FROM MAIN Pre­sen­ters Chris Pack­ham and Michaela Stra­chan film­ing BBC Spring­watch at Sher­borne Park Es­tate in Glouces­ter­shire in 2017; a red kite; Chris and Michaela talk to cam­era

RIGHT Spring­watch be­hind the scenes, amid mon­i­tors and mi­cro­phones IN­SET Peter, a ten­ant farmer on the Sher­borne Park Es­tate

OP­PO­SITE, CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP Chris and Michaela with ranger Anna Field and NT coun­try­side man­ager Si­mon Ni­cholas; the es­tate’s large size posed chal­lenges for the crew; a lin­net; the edit­ing suite; cam­era equip­ment is dot­ted through­out the park­land

Chris Howard is se­ries pro­ducer on Spring­watch, which airs for its fi­nal time from the Sher­borne Es­tate from 28 May14 June, Mon-Thurs at 8pm on BBC Two.

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