A YEAR IN THE COUNTRY
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.
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.
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.