Springwatch returns

SPRINGWATCH

SPRINGWATCH returns in style for the May bank holiday with a special 90-minute opening show broadcast live from the Sherborne Park Estate in the Cotswolds.

Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan host, with a plethora of live cameras trained on brand new nests across the Gloucestershire countryside.

They are joined by Steve Backshall, the first in a series of special guests on the show this year, and by Gillian Burke, who spends the next three weeks travelling the length of the UK – starting at its northern tip in the Shetlands, where she hopes to see killer whales.

The show has been running since 2005 and has been broadcast live from a variety of locations around the country using a crew of 100 and more than 50 cameras, making it the BBC’s largest outside broadcast event.

Many of the cameras are hidden and operated remotely to record natural behaviour, for example, of birds in their nests and badgers outside their sett.

Springwatch is broadcast four nights each week for three weeks on BBC2 at 8pm.

Blooming marvellous

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IT’s rhododendron time again at Langley Park, which means a spectacular fireworks display of colour in the Temple Gardens.

From here you can look out over the park towards Windsor Castle – but not before spending a little time wandering along the pathways enjoying the dazzling range of different colours and blooms.

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In mid- to late May it’s a genuinely spectacular sight, and you arrive early enough in the morning or on a weekday, you may have those winding paths pretty much to yourself, apart from the odd jogger or dog walker.

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Reds, pinks, whites, yellows – each time you turn a corner there’s a bush of a different hue or blooms in new dramatic shapes. See the link above for more details about the park, and the council website for opening times and parking charges.

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Ramblers return to R4

BALDING

FANS of Radio 4’s countryside programme Ramblings will be pleased to see its return this week for its 39th series.

For almost 20 years, broadcaster Clare Balding has been tramping around the British landscape transporting listeners on another Thursday afternoon aural adventure, accompanied by enthusiastic local walkers from all walks of life.

A chaotic and lively dog-walk near Honiton in Devon kicked off the new series, with rebellious golden doodle Nigel trying to upstage Clare and her guests.

But that’s not everyone’s idea of entertainment, of course. Back in 2013 Will Self, writing in the New Statesman, hit out at the show as being symptomatic of the state broadcaster “kowtowing” to its parliamentary paymasters with an “excessive amount of mittel-Englandry of the leather-on-willow, cask-aged-bitter, spinsters-cycling-to-evensong variety”.

He sniped: “Balding is a natural for this sort of thing. She comes from that stratum of the British who seem to love their dogs and horses more than their children and certainly a great deal more than the working class. ”

However even Self recalls the show as being “a thoroughly amiable affair: the walks are usually in areas of tolerable – if not outstanding – natural beauty and the chit-chat flows like milky-sweet tea from a Thermos flask”.

Of course the very concept of pitching a walking programme on radio is an extraordinary one. Speaking to Country Walking magazine in 2016, Balding explained how the show’s long-term producer Lucy Lunt originated the idea:  “She had such a conviction and faith in it; she saw the ideas and stories that could come from putting two people together on a walk with something to talk about. ”

Balding joined for series two because the original presenter wasn’t able to do it, and proved an immediate hit.

Elisabeth Mahoney, the Guardian’s radio critic, wrote: “The finest broadcasters make you forget the medium. They sound as if they are chatting to you, off-air and informally, and are just happening to say amazingly clever, interesting stuff.

“She is quite simply a radio natural, and presenting a format that couldn’t suit radio better: a walk and a talk.”

If you miss the Thursday afternoon broadcast, more than 200 episodes of Ramblings are available as podcasts. And at least one walking group for bereaved people was set up by people who had listened to Ramblings and loved the way the series helped to evoke the best memories of time spent with their partners.

“If Ramblings never accomplished anything again, that would be success enough for me,” Balding said in 2016.

Ramblings is broadcast on Radio 4 on Thursdays at 3pm.

Family fun on the Thames

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NOW that the Thames Path has finally dried out, it’s the perfect place for an evening stroll – especially with so many feathered families out and about on the water.

On the section from Bourne End to Marlow, the ducks and geese are out in force alongside the walkers, sailors and rowers.

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The hawthorn blossoms are in full bloom, the goslings are learning to swim and, a couple of fields away, the baby bunnies are out playing too as dusk falls.

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Popular circular walking routes here include riverside sections of the Thames between Cookham, Bourne End and Marlow, with the option of letting the train take the strain if you fancy a jar or two in one of the welcoming hostelries along the way, or a restaurant meal in Marlow or Cookham.

The branch line to Marlow is a single-track seven-mile line via Bourne End to Maidenhead, and very picturesque it is too. Passenger services are operated by the Great Western Railway using two-coach diesel multiple unit trains, normally every half hour, but hourly after 9pm.

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Back in steam days the train used to be known as The Marlow Donkey, normally taking the form of a one-coach train powered by a small pannier tank. Although the exact derivation of the term is unclear, a pub near the station in Marlow is named after it.

Raven Alfie rules the roost

IMG_0662MAKING MISCHIEF: Alfie the raven is determined to play

ALFIE the raven is in mischievous mood during our visit to Corvid Dawn in Berkshire.

This is not at all unusual, it transpires – and to be fair we were given plenty of warning to watch out for one of the more colourful characters looked after by Aimee Wallis at her wild bird rescue sanctuary.

The captive-bred raven flies free around their rural retreat and takes a very close interest in our movements. But then this is a bird who flies and trots along when the ‘family’ goes for a walk and enjoys playing games like ‘fetch’ and hide and seek (as long as he gets to make up the rules).

Alfie’s clearly in his element amid the motley assortment of other animals to be found in Aimee’s sanctuary, and as we embark on a guided tour there are soon plenty of curious onlookers in tow – a trio of dogs, a couple of rescue lambs from Wales and the neighbours’ children, for a start.

Cutest of the new arrivals is Missy the baby duckling, a tiny white mallard found by a couple on a canal, either abandoned by her mother or dropped by a predator.

The RSPB warns people only to interfere with fledglings as a last resort, and says: “Seeing ducklings and other young birds on their own is perfectly normal, so there’s no need to be worried. Just because you cannot see the adult doesn’t mean they are not there.”

IMG_0623BALL OF FLUFF: Aimee and partner Dario with Missy the duckling

But the couple who found Missy could find no trace of mum and looked after her for a couple of days before bringing her to Aimee.

“They did so well, did all the right things, she’s a lucky girl. They’re off back to Australia at some point so couldn’t really take her on,” Aimee explains.

Missy will be in good company here. The rescue lambs are taking a close interest in her welfare as she settles into her paddling pool and there’s a lot of curiosity among the corvids too – the crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens who are the main focus of attention at the centre.

IMG_0605MAKING A SPLASH: Missy settles into her paddling pool

Yes, there are hens and turkeys here too, but it’s the corvids that are Aimee’s first love and which prompted her to create the sanctuary in the first place. Before all this she had a career in the beauty industry, though that life seems very distant to her now.

It’s a few years since Aimee’s first encounter with corvids, after she and her mother took an injured blackbird to a bird sanctuary and she became intrigued by the intelligence of the crows and ravens who were kept there.

In fact she ended up working at the centre as a volunteer and the love affair was cemented when she first encountered a blind five-week-old crow called Wonder. But as she began to learn more about the birds she also began to realise that she and the owner had very different ideas about how the rescue centre should be run.

She says: “My first question was when will the birds be released, but it was clear they weren’t going to be. He didn’t agree with nature, he thought the birds were better off with him than they would be in the wild.”

IMG_0645FUN AND GAMES: playing with Alfie

It’s clear that there are plenty of unhappy memories associated with that period of her life, but Aimee doesn’t shirk from difficult questions and has publicly spoken out in the press about her experiences at the sanctuary, which was raided by police in 2015, after she had left.

“The former volunteers were all devastated by the outcome,” she says. “When I first went there I noticed that the cages were not in a great state and there wasn’t a lot of water. I just thought they needed some help so I started volunteering.”

Aimee started releasing healthy birds from the aviaries herself and taking ill birds to a local vet, learning a lot about the birds’ welfare in the process. She was allowed to take two birds with her when she left, but dozens of birds were seized in the police raid and a number had to be put down.

The corvid family includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaw, jays and magpies – all known for their intelligence – and it was clear to her that she wanted to set up her own rescue centre if at all possible.

After moving back home with her mum for a while she worked in a local pub and was able to keep her birds on land there for a year until the pub got planning permission to expand. By then, word had got around about her rescue work, prompting one farmer she also worked for to offer her the chance of establishing a proper base in the country.

That move in November 2017 provided the perfect opportunity to set up Corvid Dawn as a more spacious sanctuary able to offer a proper rescue and release service.

“We were in desperate need of a new base and the farm is run by a lovely older couple,” says 36-year-old Aimee.

IMG_0603WOOLLY FLOCK: the lambs were too small to thrive on the farm where they were born

It’s a perfect location for her centre and it’s been a busy few months working on new accommodation for the growing family. It’s hard to keep track of exact numbers, though, with new arrivals most weekends. That all adds to a pretty demanding work schedule – not to mention proving a costly exercise, with so many mouths to feed.

The aim, wherever possible, is to rescue and release birds back into the wild, although some of the more badly injured will be longer-term residents, along with cruelty cases who may have been mistreated or neglected.

Eventually, Aimee hopes the centre will also be able to perform an important educational role, introducing school children to the birds through talks and displays at locations like the Nature Discovery Centre in Thatcham, Berkshire.

Her mission is to demonstrate just how intelligent and perceptive birds can be and, by sharing her experiences of rescuing and rearing corvids, promote a better understanding of  British wild birds among pupils.

“They are fantastic judges of character. It’s bizarre – they show jealousy and they have favourite objects,” she chuckles.

IMG_0610SAFE REFUGE: spacious cages provide a home for a variety of rescued birds

Providing sanctuary to her family of animals and birds has involved some rapid cage-building, although one day she would love to have a free-flying flock of rooks.

For now, large cages will have to suffice. But partner Dario, 33, has been a willing worker, even embarking on a carpentry course to hone his woodworking skills.

An Italian with former experience in the military, he came to the UK to improve his English and had a job locally working with horses when they first met.

There are signs of his hard labour everywhere, from the fencing and cage construction to the newly turned over patch which will soon become a vegetable garden.

IMG_0639MENAGERIE MANOR: Dario with the chickens and turkeys

It’s clear that he loves animals too, despite the hard work involved in almost every aspect of their care.

Alfie is looking down from a lofty perch inspecting us as we wander around his territory, a reminder that establishing such a close relationship with him has been no easy task.

Bred in captivity for the pet trade, he was angry and suspicious and it has taken many, many hours of cajoling – and plenty of slashes from his razor-sharp beak – to win his trust and establish the sort of easy rapport that we are able to witness.

IMG_0630RULING THE ROOST: Alfie keeps a beady eye on what’s going on

But despite the tough times – the tales of animal cruelty and the trauma of dealing with ill and injured animals – Aimee finds people’s compassion and kindess a huge compensation.

The weekend after our visit sees an influx of new arrivals: badly injured baby blackbirds mauled by a cat, a jackdaw with an eye infection, an almost paralysed crow hit by a car.

“The saddest was three newborn baby blackbirds that came in,” she posted on the centre’s Facebook page, where some of her 1400 followers are quick to offer their support. “They all died one by one, despite antibiotics and heat.”

Yet almost in the same breath she is posting: “Can I just say what wonderful people I’ve met through these birds this weekend, really kind driving them to meet me or even bringing them here, really touching to see people show such compassion, thank you so much xx”

IMG_0635FEATHERED FRIEND: Aimee with one of the hens

Alfie is far from being the only star of the show, of course – there’s Ratchet the rook grabbing an impossibly large twig for nest building, Dara the one-legged crow recovering from an operation at the vet’s, and a dozen other assorted corvids clamouring for love and attention.

Not to mention the animals too, of course. “We are busy with farm animals – we are suckers for it, to be honest, Aimee admits. “We have two little pigs – that was an emergency thing – and two lambs, and some rescue turkeys. And about 23 birds, mainly corvids.

IMG_0640FEEDING FRENZY: Dario with the pigs

Out here in rural Berkshire, there’s quite a substantial population of wild animals too, including hundreds of rooks, jackdaws and starlings in nearby fields and woods, along with foxes and badgers.

The wild rooks may be a little perplexed by Alfie’s decision not to stray too far from home – but so far the fencing has proved a sufficient deterrent to keep the hens in and the foxes out.

Not that the education process is restricted to children. Many farmers regard crows and pigeons as pests, and dozens of fieldsports videos are dedicated to the merits of different guns and cartridges for disposing of the birds, citing their damage to crops and potential spread of disease as key arguments for pest control.

Aimee doesn’t mind discussing such matters with anyone, as long as they can keep the debate civilised.

IMG_0641HOME FROM HOME: the rescue centre takes shape

“I’m just a normal girl who loves animals,” Aimee insists. Maybe so, but it takes a pretty dedicated individual to lavish this kind of time and attention on such a large and demanding family just for the fun of it.

All the hard work doesn’t go unappreciated, though, judging by the reactions of her feathered friends. And it’s Alfie who has the last word, of course, cackling loudly as we start making moves to leave, and even standing out there on the road to see us off…

For more information about Corvid Dawn, see the centre’s Facebook page.

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Kate goes back to the land

201853162_Back_to_the_Land_witSEAWEED FEAST: filming in Cornwall  [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

THERE’S a growing appetite for lovingly produced high quality food – and for rural success stories, it seems.

That was certainly the message when BBC2 placed a supersized order for Kate Humble’s Back To The Land series following a three-part debut run last March.

After whetting audiences’ appetites with a handful of extraordinary tales of aspiring businesses turning seaweed into food and goat’s milk into probiotic drinks, the TV production company 7 Wonder got the go-ahead for a 12-part series of the 60-minute programmes after the show picked up an average audience of 2m on its first outing.

Presented by Kate Humble, the series celebrates rural Britain by championing the UK’s most inspirational rural entrepreneurs and meeting them at different times of the year as they struggle to bring their business dreams to fruition.

Screened four nights a week from May 8 until May 24, the new series allows Humble to roam the country from Cornwall to Yorkshire seeking out more aspirational and innovative businesses fighting to turn their ideas into commercial successes.

The series was ordered by head of popular factual and factual entertainment David Brindley and is executive produced by Alexandra Fraser and Sarah Trigg.

Trigg was quoted in Broadcast magazine as saying: “What we all enjoy about the creative process of making it is witnessing these incredible and aspirational people doing what they love to keep the countryside alive.”

Kate-Humble-Back-To-The-Land-776438RURAL RETURN: Kate Humble [PICTURE: 7 Wonder Productions/BBC]

Humble is the ideal host for this sort of show, not just because of her long-standing interest in animals but because she brings a cheery enthusiasm and empathy to the task that  helps her interviewees to shine on screen as they describe their dreams and dilemmas.

The presenter was born in 1968 and grew up in rural Berkshire in a house next to a farm. She describes on her website how she enjoyed a ‘proper childhood’ – building camps, racing snails, and climbing trees, interspersed with trips to A&E to patch up things when they broke.

Of the first series, David Butcher wrote in Radio Times: “Some series have a cool, wholesome kind of vibe to them right from the off and this, happily, is one of them. It’s warm and watchable and full of heartening tales of rural entrepreneurs who are taking gambles with their livelihoods on innovative (in some cases, slightly crazy-seeming) business ideas.”

These days Humble and her husband, producer/director Ludo Graham, live on a smallholding in Wales where in 2011 they set up a rural skills school on a working farm in the Wye Valley. They live with a variety of feathered and furry livestock and three dogs.

Back To The Land may boast heartwarming tales but it’s not a rose-tinted portrait of rural life. Humble isn’t slow to play up the financial risks and gruelling working hours faced by the budding entrepeneurs – or the personal tragedies encountered along the way, as when in episode two, Mangalitza pig farmers Lisa and Tim in Yorkshire lose two broods of piglets.

In the first episode she meets Caro and Tim (above), who harvest seaweed by free-diving off the coast and have got big plans to cultivate their own crop by gluing seeds to ropes that are strung out next to a mussel farm. Elsewhere, we meet a mass of very sweet ducklings bred by egg-to-plate experts Tanya and Roger, and a forager who puts what he picks into craft beer.

Then she’s off to Yorkshire, meeting 69-year-old ex-submariner Bob, who on retirement bought a boat and set about catching lobsters off the beautiful coastline. We also meet a sustainable game-keeper who sells what he hunts directly to the public and visit an award-winning glass-blowing business based in the heart of the Yorkshire Moors.

Critics may find the hour-long slots a little slow paced on occasion and there’s always the danger of sounding too much like an advertorial when you home in on business ventures, but Humble steers a nice path through these challenges, introducing us to some intriguing and courageous individuals along the way.