Springwatch has become an essential date in the TV nature-viewing diary, with its seasonal spinoffs Autumnwatch and Winterwatch shifting the colour palette but continuing the natural drama.
The BBC stalwart reminds us that the natural world is an ever evolving spectacle right on our doorsteps. It prompts us to look up and look out, so that we too can witness the unfolding drama first hand, whether waiting for elusive birds to arrive after a transcontinental journey, following the unfolding story of a family of stoats or sharing the experiences of its loyal viewers.
And the Springwatch presenters are the hosts of this drama. They invite us to join them as they get up close with our great British wildlife and the people who look after it. And they champion the voice of the many curious viewers who want to share their experiences, and explore what their role in it all is.
I recently sat down with Springwatch Unsprung – Springwatch’s interactive sister show – presenter Lindsey Chapman, to talk about our shared love of the natural world, our role in it, and some of the challenges that we now face. I started off by asking Lindsey about her own relationship with nature, and how this has evolved.
“I grew up outside, playing in the lanes, fields and streams of East Yorkshire. Along with my older sister, I explored the natural world around me, creating records of birds and wild flowers. I relished the changing of the seasons and the opportunities in my own back garden. Once, I found an injured shrew, so I took it home in my bike basket and gave it earthworms to eat!
“But like all relationships, a connection with the natural world needs space and time to develop. You can nurture or neglect it. Like many others, I moved away from the outdoors in my teenage years, finding a love for theatre and literature, which I went on to study. But it was always the projects about nature in which I flourished. A poetry performance of ‘Hawk Roosting’ by Ted Hughes, in which my imagination allowed me to become the bird, is a poignant memory.
Plastic in the sea
- 300 million – tons of plastic produced globally each year. At least 10% of that will end up in the oceans.
- 12 per cent – proportion of plastic that is recycled
- Five trillion – pieces of microplastic in ocean, with one rubbish truckload added each minute
- 11,000 – pieces of microplastic ingested by humans each year from seafood
- 780,000 – microplastics humans will ingest by the end of the century if trends continue
- 8.5 billion – plastic bags used in English supermarkets annually before 5p charge
- 6 billion – estimated bags removed from circulation annually at last count, an 80 per cent reduction.
- 12 minutes – useful lifespan of average plastic bag
- Scientists have found evidence of microplastics in deep-sea sediments in the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.
“My connection to landscape and wildlife rejuvenated in my mid-twenties, and continues to grow. You don’t have to be an expert to have a meaningful relationship with the world around you. Chris Packham is the expert on Springwatch Unsprung. I know my stuff, but it’s my role to try and connect experts like Chris with the rest of us, and help make the natural world more accessible.
“An emotional connection with nature is just as important as an academic one, probably even more so. If we can find the time and space to find a connection with the natural world around us, which will evolve and change over time, then the benefits can be very far reaching. That passion can also drive us to take action where it is needed.”
Lindsey and I then explored the TV presenter’s role as a connector and conduit for the detail of the natural world. “My favourite element of working on Springwatch Unsprung is going through the incredible photos, videos and comments we receive from viewers across the UK.
“This is how we build the show each day. As presenters, it is our job to bring in the audience in a meaningful way, whether sharing and making sense of scientific data, live action, pre-recorded footage or campaigns.
“Unsprung reflects what the viewers are experiencing on their own patch, so we get to see what spring looks like right across the whole country, in real time. And we learn from it too – Unsprung is a two-way conversation!”
Lindsey co-presented BBC One’s Big Blue UK alongside Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. In the programme, they delved into the diverse waters around our islands, and shared glimpses of the marine life that inhabits our coastline, including seals, whales, sharks and seabirds. We talked about how to connect the experience of beauty and diversity with action needed to protect it.
“Working on Big Blue UK is a real career highlight. The seas around Britain are beautiful and rich in biodiversity, but they’re also under threat. I was privileged enough to solar tag northern gannets on a rock in the English Channel.
Share and engage
“The birds were magnificent but the amount of plastic and waste they’d used to build their nests was devastating. This is sadly nothing new – we know our polluted seas affect seabirds, mammals and other marine life [see end of article for facts and stats about plastic in our oceans].
“David Attenborough is one of the world’s best-loved communicators and connectors – and no doubt many of us sat down to watch the awe-inspiring cinematography of Blue Planet II. But, whether seeing the impact of plastics in the ocean – or crying at footage of the Walrus who can’t find an iceberg to rest on with her pup – how do we respond?
“We must join the dots, and make our love of the environment – and the issues that affect it – an important conversation at all levels. We can work to change perceptions, making people understand the problem and the idea that they can play an important role in the solution. As Professor Richard Thompson, Director of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit says, ‘We need behavioural change right along the supply chain’.”
She added: “And so connectors and communicators are important. Let’s talk about the facts and the issues, but then let’s share big and small ways to act. This really makes a difference.
“After TV mentions from the Springwatch team in 2017, the Great British Bee Count app recorded around 7,000 new sign-ups, which accounted for half of the total number of people who signed up since the app went live that year. And in terms of Twitter interactions for the programme, the Springwatch account has the highest programme figures across the BBC during the on air period. People clearly want to learn, share and engage.”
Desire to explore
There is mounting evidence that shows how physically being in the natural world is important for all of us for all sorts of reasons including in childhood development, improving mental health, and hastening healing. This goes far beyond immersing in nature vicariously, through TV programmes.
And supporting such evidence and reports, there’s the simple joy we all feel when we watch a sunset or hear a bird call. I ask Lindsey about our day-to-day connection with nature, and what barriers and opportunities there are to deepening this.
“Programmes like Springwatch and Blue Planet give us an intimate view of the natural world, as well as generating new scientific research. However, there is no doubt that being outside and experiencing raw nature for ourselves is a deeper, more holistic experience than watching a TV programme about it.
“The desire to explore our surroundings and learn is innate, and should be encouraged wherever possible. We know children aren’t free to roam as they were 50 or even 20 years ago and it’s perhaps harder to get out into nature than it used to be – but there is still space to discover. I live in inner city Manchester and my very small garden had long tailed tits for the first time this year. I love watching them!
“We talk about the ‘digital generation’ – people growing up addicted to being on their ‘devices’. But do we as adults set a better example? I love social media, it’s part of my job, but I also recognise it has many downsides.
“So when you head out to the wild or a local garden or green space, take your phone if you need to – but take pictures of nature. Download the British Tree ID app from the Woodland Trust or join in with the Great British Bee Count through Friends of the Earth, which happens in June. And if you can, why not leave your phone at home – it’s rather refreshing!
“In a wider context, we need to shift away from a culture of instant gratification. We are bombarded with short-form news, talent shows give the illusion that success is attained overnight, and government policy changes every time there is a cabinet reshuffle. But change is gradual — we need to empower people, plan for the future, take action, then give it time.”
When we’re not physically immersing in nature, there’s another way we can all experience it — through words and imagination. Hearteningly, our hunger for nature writing and poetry is growing.
In 2017, Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris’ launched their powerful new art and nature collaboration The Lost Words, and the AHRC-backed project Land Lines is currently looking at how literature reflects our changing relationship with the natural world.
Lindsey recently presented a Radio 4 show as part of the BBC’s Contains Strong Language spoken word festival. The show took us on a poetic tour of Hull (UK City of Culture 2017) through the voices and words of the poets who have lived, loved and experienced it. We talk about the importance of a sense of place, poetry and fiction in kindling a love of the natural world.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for exploring through imagination. It opens your eyes and mind to new ideas and opportunities. In his recent article for the RSPB, Simon Barnes wrote, ‘Learn more. Not just about issues but about everything. Read – pursue your interests…Understand more about the way life works’.
“Books like The Children of Cherry Tree Farm and Watership Down had a huge influence on me when I was younger. Why the Whales Came is a gorgeous book and one that I come back to time and time again to get lost in the landscape and wildlife of the Isles of Scilly. Literature, storytelling and imagination are powerful.
“Poems like The Trees by Philip Larkin illuminate the natural world whilst highlighting the fragility of human life. These are big ideas in small stanzas. The crossover between the natural world and our own artistic and cultural heritage is an area that I find hugely fascinating. From Shakespeare to the evocative language of Diane Ackerman, art and emotion open up a whole new perspective on the natural world.
Lindsey and I spent time talking about the unique perspective, strengths and challenges that come with being women in our 30s. And following on from the theme of nature writing and poetry, we discussed how creativity and the feminine voice are as vital as facts and statistics when it comes to tackling environmental degradation.
“One of the most fascinating things I’ve found as a wildlife presenter is the amazing stories that people share about their emotional connection to the natural world. If we’re going to make any kind of positive change we have to help people see themselves in the heart of nature.
“It’s no secret that emotive storytelling is powerful, but we need all kinds of voices telling these stories. When the eminent voice becomes too strongly any one thing – whether privileged, male, scholarly, political, or something else – it can switch off whole swathes of people who don’t recognise themselves in that voice. And we cannot afford for that to happen.
“As I grow into my 30s I’ve found that my feelings for the natural world have deepened. I believe that the expressive feminine voice is a powerful tool for protecting the environment, especially if we are to inspire other women and girls to do so too. Now is the time for a strengthening of the female voice – both the artist and the scientist.”
Elizabeth Wainwright is Nature Editor for The Ecologist. Elizabeth spends her time between Devon and London. She also co-leads a global community development charity, Arukah Network. She tweets at @LizWainwright.
You can hear more from Lindsey by listening to her recent Radio 4 show about the arts in Hull, 2017’s City of Culture, broadcast in December last year and available online here. She tweets at @Lindsey_Chapman.