Winterwatch returns to the BBC tonight. For readers outside the UK, the BBC has been producing a programme called Springwatch, that uses cameras to follow the challenges, usually of birds, in the spring as they raise their young. It’s four nights a week for three weeks and has proven so popular that spin-off Autumnwatch and Winterwatch series have been made. In some ways, it fits a very middle-class niche with presenters in interesting knitwear gathering around a fire to appreciate the countryside. As with many nature programmes, there’s keen interest in what one botanist grouchily referred to as ‘fur and feathers’. The reason I’m pleased to see it’s back is that there’s a more to the programme than that.
For a start, during the spring series, there’s usually one good (5 minute or more) segment on plant life each week. That might not seem like much, but given the series is filmed around things you can see HAPPENING right NOW! that’s actually quite a challenge and an achievement.
Another feature I like is that it’s not all dramatic highland scenery. Recent series have had a strong element of urban conservation. One segment showed how a small bush in Sheffield that might have simply been thought of as an aesthetic installation was providing a roost for hundreds of wagtails. In the past, they have also highlighted how there’s important scientific research in urban conservation contexts.
I think one of the key elements of the series is the presenting team. The onscreen chemistry is important, and nature is a bit more likeable if the people presenting the series are likeable. However, where they differ is that they’re both reflective and outspoken. Martin Hughes-Games was in the news recently following his criticisms of Planet Earth II, but it’s not specifically David Attenborough he’s targeting. In the past he’s said that wildlife television does nothing for conservation.
There’s been debate over his recent comments. An impression I get is that often nature documentaries are socially acceptable dog fights or at least deer versus wolf fights. For example, the clip of the iguana escaping the snakes on Planet Earth II got a lot of social shares, but for most people I don’t think the interest went further than whether or not the iguana survived – but that’s life rather than a serious criticism. I’m sure some people did watch the programme after seeing the clip. Of the people who came in to see the life and death struggle, a good chunk would have taken a deeper interest and moved a bit further down the nature marketing funnel. James Common has said that Planet Earth II alone is not enough to create a generation of conservationists but it would be foolish to ignore that the role they play in starting the process. I agree, with the proviso that it’s only going to help if there’s support to build on the interest you create.
How do you move that interest on into making a commitment? This Winterwatch Series will coincide with the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Again, not all viewers will participate, but many will who would not otherwise, and this will produce genuinely useful data for conservation. For a few this could be the next step down a path that leads to a career in conservation.
As this blog is paid for by the Annals of Botany Company and not the Annals of Birdwatching Company, I could sulk that it’s the birds getting the most attention tonight. Instead, I’m going to be watching to see if we can pick up where they leave off in some situations. The Winterwatch team are often happy to put out a quick graph to highlight how apparently random behaviour can have patterns. That’s could be an opportunity for a sensible scientific journal to provide a service by providing more information for people who are interested. Analysing this week may put us in a better position when the bigger series gets underway in the (probably late) Spring. If you’re in the UK and watching leave your comments below on what features in the show we should be supporting with blogposts. If you’re outside the UK then, because of European copyright laws, we can’t suggest using a VPN to watch the series on the iPlayer. Instead, we’ll have work to tracking similar events elsewhere.
It might be too obvious to state that Planet Earth and the Winterwatch programmes are looking at wildlife from entirely different perspectives, but I wouldn’t like to criticise David Attenborough any more than I would criticise Chris Packham and friends. I do agree that Spring/Autumn/Winter Watch is more down to earth, and easier for ordinary viewers (like myself) to appreciate, but on the other hand Planet Earth is almost like exploring a rich wildlife inhabited outer space. It’s hard to say whether one programme is better than the other, as they’re so different albeit with a common theme.
I would agree however that the Watch programmes in particular could do more to promote nature conservation. As a lifelong birdwatcher and general naturalist, I am only too aware of the multitude of threats facing local wildlife and their many habitats. Programmes like Winterwatch focus on what some would call “honeypots”, which are special areas, often designated as nationally or internationally important nature sites. This is presumably down to production demand, because there’s always something happening in a rich wildlife environment, day and night, to provide what might be deemed by some as “light” entertainment. However that in itself is a good thing, which provokes a good general interest, albeit often in animals which have a high dose of the cuteness factor. Most countryside is just not like that, but if people take advantage of access rights everyone’s local area is worth searching for the occasional hidden gem of a site. Armed with a pair of binoculars, people could find nature where it might surprise them.
Planet Earth is about discovery, but the sort of exploration that is fantasy to most young people (and adults of course). What I feel is missing from both programmes, and perhaps requires a different new approach by the BBC, is the lack of inspiration to young people in particular to explore their own environment close to home. My own distant memory is of joining the “Junior Bird Recorders’ Club,” which was the forerunner of the Young Ornithologists’ Club (YOC), the youth branch of the RSPB. That was a marvellous discovery for me and a handful of young friends, because we met others who shared our interest, some of whom became lifelong friends, and we shared our enthusiasm among us. However, there is a big difference between then and the modern RSPB version, intriguingly called the “Wildllife Explorers.” Unfortunately, as far as I can see, the amount of exploring or discovery being experienced goes little further than the group’s name. My experience is from several years ago and may already be out of date, but the inspiration to observe, study and record wild birds just doesn’t seem to feature highly on the agenda. The meetings are more reminiscent of playgroups, with games, face painting and conservation tasks which involve relatively worthless projects like sweeping leaves off paths. Birdwatching seems almost secondary to building dens and making bows and arrows. Most of the young people seem to drift away from an interest in birdwatching, or in a few cases decide to pursue a career with RSPB (no bad thing). I suggest a review of education policy, but RSPB isn’t interested in my opinion..
One thing the RSPB and BBC have in common is that they are frightened of controversy. The RSPB takes a lot of stick from hunting and shooting interests, despite the fact that they sit on the fence when it comes to the question of killing birds for fun. A home truth is that the RSPB is not allowed by its Royal Charter to criticise “legitimate field sports,” no matter how unethical such an activity happens to be. The BBC on the other hand is under extreme political pressure to be “impartial”, which prevents our public broadcasting service form openly questioning the morality of similar activities. As a result they come across as frightened to discuss anything remotely controversial unless there is a frivolous or quirky aspect to it. They even get lambasted when Chris Packham makes a personal statement or writes an article highlighting the cruelty involved in shooting or fox hunting, even the illegal persecution which amounts to a national slaughter of protected birds of prey like Buzzards, Golden Eagles and Hen Harriers. The BBC receives demands that they sack Chris for speaking his mind and expressing his personal views off medium. So far they have defended Chris’s right to express his own opinion outside of their programmes, but unfortunately they succumb to pressure from the bullies of the shooting scene and show “impartiality” by bringing on post-truth spokespersons who contradict Chris Packham and most ecologists, thereby only serving to confuse the public.