The coastal landscapes of Suffolk are home to RSPB Minsmere, one of our best nature reserves and this June it is yet again a base for the Springwatch team for the third year running as they gear up for a show which has been called ‘the Olympics of the natural world’.
At the official launch of this year’s series, speculation about whether the show would return for an unprecedented fourth year was rife.
I went along to meet two of the three presenters, Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan, plus the series producer Adam White and Minsmere’s Senior Site Manager Adam Rowlands to discover what is in store.
The biggest change to the BBC Springwatch schedule sees Unsprung moved forward to become a pre-show celebration, starting at 6.30pm on BBC Two, with shows every Monday to Friday until June 17.
The main show will also start on the same day, between 8pm to 9pm Monday to Thursday.
Along with the tried and tested show format, this year will see Strachan and Hughes-Games take on some volunteering of their own at an RSPCA centre and with Minsmere’s own work crews.
I asked Packham what he found special about Suffolk and what he might miss should Springwatch move to a new location.
“Suffolk and East Anglia is a magnet for many species and a great number of rarities and its proximity to the continent means it has species that other parts of the UK does not,” he said.
“It is drier and there’s a very particular and peculiar fauna here. I’ve been travelling to the area since I was first able to, when my first girlfriend got a car.
“I would encourage people to come and explore Suffolk, even if Springwatch has to leave here, although this is not a foregone conclusion.”
Alongside Packham’s remarkable ability to retain and regale with facts and insights there will also be the storytelling acumen of Strachan and Hughes-Games.
Last year viewers were spellbound by the plucky antics of Spineless Simon, a stickleback whose attempts to defend his nest were thwarted by otters and captured by an underwater camera.
During the press morning, Packham broke the news that Spineless Si is no more but on our visit to Minsmere we leaned against the railings of one of the boardwalks and witnessed several sticklebacks fanning their underwater nests with their tails. So, it seems, there is potential for Son of Si to have his turn in the limelight.
Strachan’s storytelling is an art and one which very much depends upon her ability to react to unpredictable events which may be broadcast live.
“The bit I look forward to most is the bit that isn’t researched, the bit that is unplanned,” Strachan smiles.
“Chris does all the scientific stuff and I join in a little bit but that’s his speciality. My speciality is telling stories, so with that, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Although Strachan says she doesn’t research in the same way as her co-presenters, her knowledge of wildlife and ecology is extensive and the result of considerable lived experience.
“Sometimes the real detail that interests Chris doesn’t interest me and that’s why the programme works because if you have two people that loved every single detail it’d be quite hideous. It balances well.”
Although Springwatch is based in Suffolk, Packham reminds us that the BBC is charged with representing the entirety of British wildlife.
It’s not as easy as you might think to find a suitable home base from which to present the show. The site has to be large and accessible, the local people and businesses have to be welcoming and the infrastructure needs to be appropriate in order to cope with such a large outside broadcast.
Despite the national wildlife remit, I was keen to talk to Packham about West Suffolk wildlife and the challenges facing the rabbit population of the Brecklands where rabbit numbers are in decline.
“Well rabbits are a non-native species as we know and they have been brought in twice and established and like so many other non-natives they are now part and parcel of the ecology and the rest of our ecology is dependant upon it,” he replies,
“The rabbit is an important organism in the UK and in the past people have, of course, called them pests and done all kinds of insidious things to try and get rid of them.
“We have to see the bigger picture and its a question of seeing and manage that balance.”
Packham was interested in hearing about the joint conservation work by Breckland farmers and organisations like the RSPB, which has helped increase our local stone curlew population by conserving the very specific environments required for successful breeding.
The rabbit is a vital element in maintaining a Breckland landscape which is hospitable to stone curlews and other flora and fauna because its digging and foraging helps keep out the more vigorous plants that would otherwise crowd out the drought-tolerant local plants.
As Packham commented: “Well if you haven’t got rabbits coming and strimming that area for free then you’ve got a problem. If the rabbits are declining, then that is something that needs looking into.”
The discussion about stone curlew conservation and the Brecklands led onto the thorny issue of the EU and the referendum. I asked him about where he thinks the environment fits into the referendum debate.
“Well the example of the stone curlews might show how European legislation has been a tremendous asset when it comes to protecting species and habitats in the UK but the Common Agricultural Policy has done the compete reverse,” he says.
“We need these things explained and put in the public domain so we can look at them but that’s not happening and time is running out.
“I have got to ask why some of the organisations like the RSPB aren’t doing this because nobody else is doing it either. Someone has got to say ‘before you make a decision, think about the environment.
“The referendum is a debate which is going to have far reaching consequences in our lives and the lives of our families so it’s important. What saddens me at the moment is that the principle points of discussion are all the usual suspects - immigration, the economy, but hold on, what about the environment?”
Although Packham holds emphatic views about the referendum he won’t be drawn on how he intends to vote, preferring instead to talk about the ways in which the debate has been conducted.
“There are pros to being in Europe and cons to being in Europe but when it comes to the environment I would like to see all of these in the public domain so we can make our decisions,” he said.
“I fear that at the moment people’s decisions will be made by abiotic factors not environmental ones at all. If you ask the average person on the street what he thinks about the EU and immigration, then they will probably have an opinion but if you ask them about the environment they don’t really know.”