AS ANOTHER SERIES of Springwatch draws to an end, it is fitting to reflect on how a programme that features wild animals and birds going about their mainly “routine” business can command prime time viewing on a mainstream channel – and for four nights in a row in three consecutive weeks. The conclusion must be that there are a huge number of people out there who are genuinely interested in UK wildlife and are almost certainly keen to conserve it. That thought is of huge comfort to me and gives me real hope for the future of Britain’s diverse flora and fauna, if not for that of the world as a whole. One of the things I like about the way Springwatch has evolved over the years is that it is increasingly banging the drum for active measures to support UK wildlife rather than just putting it on our screens. It seeks to A spring in the step for wild animals explain some of the harsh realities of natural selection and pulls no punches on the effect that man is having on the environment for both good and bad. Much of that push for telling it how it is must be accredited to the forthright presentation of one of its lead presenters, Chris Packham. And while his style is probably not to everyone’s taste, his enthusiasm for and his knowledge of his subject is both impressive and infectious. Earlier this week he drew attention to the fact that the number of birds in Britain has declined by 44 million individuals since 1970. That decline has affected seabirds, woodland birds and most significantly of all, farmland birds, which have dropped in number by an astonishing 51%. Species like the linnet (down 57%); the corn bunting (down 90%); and the yellow hammer (down 55%). Much of this decline is blamed on the intensification of agriculture and the switch from spring-sown to autumnand winter-sown cereal crops. It is not all bad news, however. This year’s Springwatch has been based on an estate in the Cotswolds where some of the farmers have taken advantage of the Countryside Stewardship Schemes on offer. They have already seen an increase in the number of some of the birds mentioned above, which demonstrates that it is not too late to reverse the situation if the right action is taken.
For me, one of the highlights of the camera footage shown was of the young stoats playing in that way that only young mustelids can: movements that simply flow like quicksilver with beady black eyes full of mischief and life. It is many years since I’ve seen a stoat near where I live, but I remember it well. I was out with my kids close to our house when we heard a rabbit squealing and soon located it to find a stoat solidly attached to the nape of its neck. As we watched, the stoat became aware of our presence and dropped the now lifeless form before sprinting to the shelter of a nearby rabbit hole. Within minutes though it reappeared at the burrow entrance, allowing me to take some pictures, before it raced to the carcass of the rabbit and, taking firm hold, dragged
it back to the burrow and down out of sight. Catching sight of any wild mustelid is a real thrill, be it the glimpsed dash of a weasel crossing a busy road or the more dramatic account described above. Knowing that such animals continue to exist despite the pressures put on them by our own activities helps demonstrate what could really be achieved if just a little more thought and effort was given over to preserving them and their habitats.