MORE than 2.5m tuned into the first night of BBC2’s four-part Winterwatch series this week, the best viewing figures for a couple of years.
And although some continued to lament the absence of Martin Hughes-Games, the move to the Cairngorms appeared to prove a big hit with presenters and viewers alike.
Veteran TV buddies Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan were joined by the affable Welsh naturalist Iolo Williams, 56, as well as biologist Gillian Burke, 42, who has been a regular presenter on the show for the past two years.
While some critics took to social media to say how much they missed Hughes-Games, with some arguing the show should have honoured his departure officially, the stunning snow-covered venue won plenty of praise.
Highlights included sleepy pine martens, superbly camouflaged ptarmigans and a moving interview between Chris Packham and Bird Therapy author Joe Harkness about the mental health benefits of bird-watching.
The Cairngorms National Park is the new, year-round home for The Watches, with this week’s show exploring how local wildlife adapts to get through the tough winter.
The presenters will then return to their new base throughout the year to cover the changing seasons, keep up with some of the key year-round residents and meet the seasonal arrivals as they flock to the wild landscape in spring and summer.
Home base is at the Dell of Abernethy, a lodge built in 1780 sitting on the edge of the Abernethy Caledonian pine forest and perfectly placed to link viewers to the whole of the Cairngorms.
From here, the team can showcase the whole region, seeking out the wildlife that thrives in this challenging habitat and looking at the people and projects working to conserve it, including the UK’s largest landscape-scale conservation project, Cairngorms Connect.
As ever, the programme reflects wildlife issues and spectacles across the UK in a series of pre-recorded films showcasing the diversity of habitats and species that make this group of islands a truly unique place for wildlife.
All the presenters spoke of their enthusiasm for the new base before the show and have taken to social media regularly to sing its praises.
Michaela Strachan said: “The Highlands have a wonderful diversity of wildlife and habitats. It’s one of those places in the UK where you can really connect with the natural environment.”
Scotland’s national tourist organisation, Visit Scotland, and RSPB Scotland have both been delighted by way the programme has highlighted the scenic and wildlife attractions of the Cairngorms, with some local papers predicting the show will prompt a tourism boost.
The Watches are produced by BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit.
WRITER and environmentalist Peter Owen-Jones doesn’t need much encouragement to start singing the praises of the great British countryside.
That ensures the maverick Church of England vicar is in his element exploring the landscapes, history and wildlife of the New Forest, one of the UK’s most important ancient woodlands, for his latest documentary outing.
The Big Wave film follows a similar BBC4 walkabout last summer which saw the author donning his familiar hat to wander around his beloved South Downs, where he has his parish.
The New Forest: A Year In The Wild Wood, screened on January 9 on BBC4, provides a similarly personal portrait of a landscape shaped by man since Neolithic times.
Although that gives the documentary a slightly promotional feel, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the reverend’s enthusiasm for the extraordinary landscape, with its gnarled ancient woodland, purple heathland and boggy mires, and his particular empathy towards the role of the “commoners” whose lives have been inextricably intertwined with the landscape for centuries.
Opinions about Owen-Jones are divided, with some finding the intensity of his presenting style a little irksome at times; others find his approach much more charismatic and endearing, with online threads on mumsnet divided over the relative merits of his unkempt ‘wonderfully ravaged’ appearance and resonant public-school enunciation.
Whatever your response to his asides to camera, there’s no doubting his total enjoyment in the majestic sights around him – from a goshawk jinking through the trees in search of prey to a stag bellowing amid the autumnal foliage.
A national park since 2005, this is a timeless place with few fences where ponies, cattle and pigs are allowed to roam free. It covers 566 square kilometres and stretches from the edge of Salisbury Plain through ancient forest, wild heathland and acid bog down to the open sea.
The heathland is home to dazzling lizards, our largest dragonfly and carnivorous plants. And some of the trees in these ancient woods were planted by man to build battleships for the British Empire.
As the backdrop changes with the seasons, the Sunday Times’ walking correspondent strives to find out more about the lives of the Commoners, a group of around 700 people who have retained grazing rights for their animals which date back to medieval times.
From the first foals born in spring to the release of the stallions and the annual herding of the ponies, he reveals a hardy people who, despite the urban development around them and the pressures on the landscape of 13 million visitors a year, retain a deep love of the land and a determination to see their way of life survive.
He discovers how the brutal Forest Laws imposed by William the Conqueror were used to crush the Commoners in order to preserve the forest as a royal hunting ground. Yet it was these same laws that inadvertently helped protect the New Forest that exists today.
The Commoners now face perhaps their greatest threat as the cost of property spirals and rents increase beyond the reach of a new generation wanting to continue the ancient traditions.
“This has been an incredible year. I’ve met people who, against all odds, have retained this ancient way of life and a deep connection to and love of the land. It’s what shapes and defines this extraordinary place,” says Owen-Jones.
A passionate author and environmentalist, he started working life as a farm labourer, became an advertising executive and gave up the London lifestyle to become a vicar, moving with his wife Jacs to Cambridgeshire, where the couple brought up their four children on a fraction of their earnings in London.
Described in a Telegraph interview in 2001 as a “sort of Worzel Gummidge in cowboy boots”, Owen-Jones soon began to become a regular face on TV when he was commissioned to present a series on atheism.
Since then he has presented a number of BBC programmes, including Extreme Pilgrim and Around the World in 80 Faiths, as well as How to Live a Simple Life, a three-part 2010 series in which he turned his back on consumerism
Having served as a rector of three parishes just outside Cambridge, he is now a house-for-duty part-time vicar on the Sussex Downs.
Recent books include Pathlands: 21 Tranquil Walks Among the Villages of Britain and Letters from an Extreme Pilgrim: Reflections on Life, Love and the Soul.
Pathways is an anthology of walks, part travelogue, part celebration of the secret paths and bridleways that criss-cross rural Britain. It’s also a reminder of the importance of walking as part of the meditative process and very much part of Owen-Jones’ own spiritual journey – which includes a daily hike up Firle Beacon where he says his prayers and, he insists, where every morning is new and different.
Perhaps it’s that meditative power that makes Owen-Jones such a natural choice for this sort of documentary – and, along with his thoughtful appreciation of the natural world, which makes him a perfect companion to introduce us to such an unusual landscape and a unique way of life.
THERE’S something truly extraordinary about being hundreds of metres down in the depths of the ocean in a tiny submersible, surrounded by sharks.
But add to that the fact that you are hundreds of miles from civilisation and that the swell is suddenly threatening to smash you against the rocks, and things suddenly get a whole lot scarier.
It sounds like a scene from Jules Verne, but this is a modern-day voyage of discovery with natural history presenter Liz Bonnin following in the footsteps of Darwin in the remote Galapagos islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
UNDERSEA WORLD: Liz Bonnin survives an underwater scare [PICTURE: BBC]
Well, not quite footsteps because Darwin never got this far under the waves. But the three-part BBC documentary series Galapagos had access to the most sophisticated underwater technology, permitting the sort of undersea adventure that Verne could only have dreamed of back in 1870 when his classic sci-fi adventure novel was published.
Not that the cutting-edge technology makes this in any way an easy excursion for celebrity biologist Bonnin, the French-born, Irish-educated presenter tagging along on a pioneering scientific expedition hoping to assess the survival prospects of some of the hundreds of unique species which populate the chain of 13 islands.
Two centuries on from the historic voyage of HMS Beagle, the aim is to explore the ocean depths, journey into volcanic craters and probe ancient forests in search of clues that could unlock the mysteries of these islands and their unique wildlife.
Like Attenborough’s Blue Planet, this is an adventure on a grand scale, as indicated by the portentous and cliché-driven two-minute introduction, which makes much of the fact that scientists know more about the surface of the moon than they do about the ocean depths and pulls in plenty of predictable lines about diving into the unknown on a voyage of discovery.
But if the intro feels a little overblown, we can forgive the documentary makers that self-indulgence once we have actually seen what’s in store for our intrepid heroine.
It’s easy to shrug off talk of dormant volcanoes and life-threatening currents when you’re sitting safely on your sofa at home, but although cheery Liz doesn’t dwell too much on what could possibly go wrong, in the second episode we share in her horror first hand when things start to get fraught under the waves.
We have already met upbeat and experienced submersible pilot Mark “Buck” Taylor earlier in the series and had our first taste of the amazing underwater world that can be accessed in his formidable eight-ton Triton submarine during the Blue Planet series.
DANGEROUS WATERS: exploring the reef beside Darwin’s Arch [PICTURE: BBC]
Buck himself has spoken in the past about his awe for the Triton’s abilities: not only can it undertake dives of up to 12 hours on occasion and reach depths of 1000 metres, but it can film a crab the size of your thumbnail in extraordinary detail.
It’s a machine which has been deployed in numerous scientific expeditions over the years, capturing the first ever footage of the giant squid in its natural habitat in 2013 and being used in a landmark series about the Great Barrier Reef with Sir David Attenborough in 2015, as well as Blue Planet II, which became the most watched UK series of 2017.
It’s clearly an honour to be one of the two passengers joining Buck on his descent into the deep and he does have that reassuring seen-it-all-before nonchalance of the expert which helps to put you at your ease.
But whereas last time we saw Liz’s unbridled joy over starfish, seahorses and coral winning out over sheer terror, this time the threat of impending doom is a lot more imminent and real: perhaps not quite what the Countrywise host envisaged when she embarked on the mission.
It’s all very well plunging into murky ocean depths that have never before been studied by science, posing wonderful questions about why hammerhead sharks school in masses and what sun fish actually do when they are underneath the ocean’s surface.
But when the ebullient Buck stops talking, you lose communication with the ship above and the currents start driving you towards the rock wall, you know it’s time to start worrying.
“I’ve had a few wildlife experiences where you get a sobering reminder of the power of the planet,” Liz said of the incident later in an interview for the Irish Examiner.
“There was this massive wall of soupy, opaque dark green water heading straight for us, and we were trying not to crash into the other submersible. The two of us were just spinning around in these currents like we were in a washing machine.”
Back on dry land, Liz sets off in search of rare pink iguanas and giant tortoises, flightless cormorants and scaly marine iguanas.
FOOTSTEPS OF DARWIN: Liz explores the Galapagos islands [PICTURE: BBC]
The aim is to find out more about the spectacular creatures which inhabit these volcanic islands and find out just how vulnerable they are in our rapidly changing world.
Although much of the environment here appears pristine, we know it is not immune to the effects of global warming and one of the mission tasks is to find out more about the impact of El Niño events on the islands.
In her three weeks on board the research vessel Alucia, Liz finds out more about what different scientists are doing to protect endangered species.
And as well as marvelling at the world’s largest gathering of scalloped hammerhead sharks partaking in a “complex mating ritual”, she takes to the water herself in one of the world’s most dangerous dive locations, Darwin’s Arch, hanging on for dear life to the reef as the currents threaten to sweep her away into the Pacific.
From swimming with boisterous sealions to having her mask pecked by a flightless cormorant, Liz is happy to get up close and personal with the local wildlife. Having studied biochemistry and wild animal biology, and with Charles Darwin as one of her “absolute heroes”, it is abundantly clear that this programme represents a dream come true for her.
But as well as serving up plenty of entertaining TV moments, there is also a sense that this mission is actively contributing to science through its ground-breaking findings, something that Liz, who has been appointed an ambassador for the Galapagos Conservation Trust, hopes will be a feature of her work in the future.
“It’s our duty to help communicate what we believe is the most important thing — to understand the wonders of this planet and do everything in our power to protect it,” she says.
Produced by the award-winning independent company Atlantic Productions for BBC Earth in a co-production with Alucia Productions and distributed globally by BBC Worldwide, Galapagos is available for the next three weeks on BBC iPlayer.
THERE’S an easy chemistry between Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan that always makes them a delight to watch on screen.
It helps that the pair have known each other for so long, “growing up” together over the past three decades, because this is the sort of TV magic which you can’t create artificially.
They first met back in the 1990s when Michaela joined the Really Wild Show, taking over from Terry Nutkins as one of the main presenters. The pair clicked instantly and have spent many of the intervening years renewing their on-screen partnership on Springwatch and its seasonal spin-offs.
Adored by fans for their cheeky banter – which has also led to BBC bosses ticking them off on occasions when the innuendos have become a little too saucy – the pair were reunited for a surprise Christmas special that found them setting off on a quest to uncover the wonders of the winter skies.
The trip takes them from the wilds of the Arabian Desert in search of the fabled Star of Bethlehem to the opposite weather extremes of the Arctic Circle in the hope of witnesssing the magic of the Northern Lights.
“I’ve worked with many, many male presenters over the years – but with Chris there is instant chemistry, that little spark of something on screen,” Michaela told the Mirror last year.
“We both really enjoy working together, we work well together and we have a lot of fun.”
It’s a winning formula for television and what has worked so well on Springwatch translates easily into this exploration of celestial wonders.
Mishaps with camels, sandstorms and snow sledges create a chaotic backdrop for their journey from Jordanian desert to Arctic tundra, with some rare oryx, friendly reindeer and welcoming bedouin herders helping the duo share a little festive spirit along the way.
When the Radio Times asked the pair to identify each other’s most attractive traits, Chris mentioned Michaela’s “unwavering optimism and joie de vivre” while she referred to his intelligent humour and expansive knowledge – “not just about wildlife but all sorts of other random things”.
Perhaps it’s that mutual respect that is the secret ingredient which makes them such an appealing duo on the small screen. For anyone who missed the Christmas Eve special, Chris and Michaela: Under the Christmas Sky is available on BBC iPlayer for the next few weeks, with the promise of a new Winterwatch series to come from the Cairngorms later this month.
Last Christmas, one of the more unexpected revelations about the woman who played MI6 chief M in seven James Bond films spread over 20 years was the discovery of her lifelong love affair with trees, chronicled in a special BBC documentary screened shortly after her 83rd birthday.
If you missed the programme’s original screening, there’s another chance this year to catch up with her one-hour tribute to all things aboreal, in the shape of Atlantic Productions’ documentary, Judi Dench: My Passion For Trees.
Much of the filming takes place in her own “backyard” in Surrey, but then this is no ordinary garden, but a six-acre memorial forest dedicated to loved ones in her life who have died.
“I started planting trees here with my actor husband Michael Williams,” she explains. “Every time a relative or friend died, we would plant a tree.”
In other words, this is quite an emotional journey. As Fiona Sturges summed up in her Guardian review in 2017: “Judi looks at trees in the same way that other people look at vintage sports cars or newborn babies: benevolent, indulgent, endlessly astonished.”
But for nature lovers this is a marriage made in heaven, with one of our most beloved national treasures expounding on a subject which has her wide-eyed in admiration.
Shakespeare (another of her great loves) features prominently as we stroll with Dame Judi through the beautiful woodland which surrounds her home and where she has planted trees to commemorate family members and actor friends who have passed away.
We uncover a civil war-era cannon ball found wedged into a 1,500-year-old yew tree, learn how beech trees use tannin to deter roe deer and find out how trees can even summon ladybirds to fight off invading aphids.
It’s an engaging journey and a delight to spend a little time “backstage” with a living legend, picking up a host of intriguing titbits about the secret life of trees along the way.
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.
SEAWEED 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.”
RURAL 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.
SPRINGWATCH fans have reacted with shock and anger to the news that presenter Martin Hughes-Games is to leave the popular BBC series.
More than 1,300 followers of the programme’s Facebook page were quick to voice their horror at his departure – with many attacking the BBC for “political correctness” and airing their concerns that he might be replaced by newcomer Gillian Burke.
The wildlife presenter announced he was quitting on Twitter – prompting an outpouring of support and sympathy from his 50,000 followers.
Hughes-Games has presented on the programme for 12 years and said in his resignation tweet: “It’s good to go when the show is looking strong. Massive thank you for your support.”
The BBC said in response: “Martin has been a vital part of the success of the Watches– both on and off screen– for the past 12 years, so we’re very sad to see him go. We wish him every success in his new ventures. We’re excited to be bringing Springwatch back to BBC2 in May.”
It brings to an end an uncomfortable last 18 months for the presenter who appeared on the show alongside Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and new girl Gillian Burke.
In September 2016 he announced, again on Twitter, that he was being axed by the BBC in order, he felt, that diversity targets could be met.
That claim was denied by the corporation – but many of the show’s Facebook fans said they believed he was being marginalised for reasons of political correctness and hit out at Gillian Burke’s presenting style.
It’s not too late to catch up with this year’s instalment of Winterwatch, broadcast in January from the Sherborne estate in the Cotswolds.
It’s the familiar format, with good-humoured knockabout exchanges between the three main presenters, cameras installed in key hotspots across the estate and recorded inserts from around the country, with Gillian Burke on the road once more, coming live from Islay in the Scottish highlands.
But beyond enjoying the repartee between Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan, the argumentative badgers, majestic eagles and the site of Martin Hughes-Games dabbling in the brook to find baby trout and marvelling at the size of a horseshoe bat’s penis, it’s an opportunity to be briefly reunited with a team who have done more than most to boost ordinary people’s interest in the natural world.
The programmes may lack the breathtaking drama of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series, but it’s the BBC’s largest outside broadcast event and nowadays incorporates a range of behind-the-scenes clips, extra footage, blogs from the team and articles frompartner organisations which delve deeper into the stories and science on the show.
Unmissable! Roll on the spring bank holiday and the return of Springwatch…
IT’S A crime which would tax even the redoubtable Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby: how to prevent the Chilterns’ picture postcard landscape from being swamped by a tide of unsightly litter.
It’s an open secret that many of the picturesque but deadly villages which feature as backdrops to the long-running detective drama are spread across Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.
Co-creator Brian True-May, who produced more than a dozen series of the show between 1997 and 2011, hails from Great Missenden and one Oxfordshire villages website lists dozens of Chilterns locations where different episodes have been filmed.
Visit Midsomer is a website developed by South Oxfordshire District Council to help visitors to discover the locations filmed for the TV programme. It says: “Fans know Midsomer as the home of traditional pubs, village greens, fetes and Sunday afternoon cricket.
“They watch the improbable number of murders committed in dastardly yet creative ways, and solved by the unflappable Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby of Causton CID. But that’s the fictional Midsomer County.
“The real-life Midsomer Murders locations are spread across Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire where towns and villages have names every bit as wonderful as their fictional counterparts. South Oxfordshire’s villages, stately homes, stone cottages and market towns provide around half of the filming locations.
“This rural English countryside is a short distance outside of London and easily reached for a relaxing short break.”
But visitors taking a tour in the footsteps of Inspector Barnaby might be disappointed to discover the scale of the problem local councils face with fly-tipping and litter pollution. And while councils across the area spend millions keeping the villages and towns as pristine as possible, main roads across the region are harder to clean up.
Beyonder co-editor Andrew Knight said: “You don’t have to drive very far around Buckinghamshire to find roadside verges and laybys which are awash with litter.
“It looks disgusting and it’s totally avoidable. It’s hard to understand the mindset of someone who just throws coffee cups, plastic bottles and half-eaten takeaway meal wrappings out of their car window, but the evidence is there across the Chilterns – and it’s getting worse.
“Our councils do what they can, any many villages, parks and National Trust properties are kept pristine for visitors. But that’s not possible for all the main roads in the area.
“We have to find ways of attacking the problem at source – educating young people about the environment has got to be a long-term solution. But we also want to look at ways of helping to clean up our main roads and stop people dropping their rubbish in the first place.”