Only this column would persuade me to get up at 6.30 on a Sunday morning. Six-thirty! In my other life I pore over the collected works of the 18th-century writer Dr Johnson, who constantly struggled to persuade himself out of bed before noon. He liked the idea of early rising, and each New Year resolved that he would get out of bed by eight, but the bustle of life needed to be in full swing before he could face up to that ‘consciousness of being’ which mornings bring and he would very soon succumb to his incurable laggardliness. The powers that be at Radio Four will have none of that and, no doubt believing that all true nature-lovers must be of the cheerful, up-at-dawn variety, insist on scheduling one of my favourite programmes, Living World, first thing on Sunday. So it was kettles at dawn in my foxy south-west suburb as the lemony-pink light of a February morning crept across the back garden.
There’s something wonderful about wildlife programmes on radio, which the camera just cannot capture. It’s just so much more inspiring to follow in your imagination the voice of a presenter like Lionel Kelleway as he ventures out on location with an expert wildlife-watcher rather than to sit back and be stunned by a series of devastatingly beautiful TV pictures in hyper-realistic technicolour. Even the amazing David Attenborough is guilty of micromanaging his wildlife escapades so that everything looks a bit like a Hollywood movie. I don’t know about you but I’m always left by such programmes feeling a twinge of discontent, knowing that realistically I’ll never in my life climb up into the Himalayas to see for myself a snow leopard stalking a mountain goat. Wildlife radio does not have to look for camera shots and unbeatable locations; it can linger in bad weather and look for interest in the muddiest marsh and most boring hinterland. I would much rather know what’s out there in my backyard, and to see, to really see, the flawed beauty that can be found in even the most ordinary of landscapes.
This week we were looking for dippers on the banks of a fast-flowing river in the heart of Wales in the company of Kelleway and his sidekick Steve Ormerod, of the Cardiff School of Biosciences. Dippers, I discovered, are birds of craggy canyons and flashing, rushing water. You can recognise them from their white breasts and their dipping, bobbing flight as they swoop on to the rocks and shingle in the river looking for blackfly larvae. It’s really a songbird related to starlings and has the dumpy shape of a wren, a beautiful chocolate-brown colour with a pure-white breast, but it has adapted to its lifestyle on the river by having more feathers to insulate itself against the ice-cold water and a closeable nostril to prevent water going up its nose. ‘Oh, look! You little beauty,’ murmurs Kelleway, so as not to frighten it away.
What I should have been writing about, of course, is the BBC Natural History Unit’s big venture for 2008, World on the Move. But I’m in a sulk because it’s been scheduled at such an awkward time, 11 o’clock on Tuesday mornings, and I know that I’ll probably end up missing most of them. (I know, I know, I can always Listen Again, but who really has the time to catch up with missed programmes of an evening, or wants to wrestle with their laptop to do so?) Why, I wonder, can’t they cut short the Today programme by half an hour and give us instead 30 minutes of truly fascinating news every day? After all, an incredible amount of planning has gone into the series to set up links with experts and observatories around the world so that we can follow the seasonal migratory movements of animals as they happen throughout the year and around the globe, in the hope of finding out more about the awe-inspiring journeys of eels, albatrosses, godwits, toads…
Last week, for instance, we followed the flight of the willow warbler; a tiny summer migrant to the UK, just 10 cm in size, which each year in spring travels up from the dusty scrublands of the Gambia to nest within the leafy woods of Britain. Brett Westwood travelled south to the Gambia to find them in their natural habitat and to meet Solomon Jallow, one of that country’s best birders. Westwood found it strange looking for these little brown birds, olive-green and thin-billed to catch insects, among the acacia bushes of the sub-Sahara rather than hunting for grubs in the bluebell woods of Worcestershire. But as Jallow reminded him, ‘You cannot say that they are yours. They are ours!’ The warblers come from Africa, not the other way around. It was a lesson in humility, in understanding the bigger picture, in realising that there are things way beyond human imagination and capacity to control.
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