‘Try not to step on any toads!’: David Attenborough’s camera wizards on how to film Britain’s wildlife

They have shot previously extinct butterflies, soaring white-tailed eagles and the lesser spotted David Attenborough. Now the team behind some of the BBC’s best nature docs are training their lenses closer to home

Ferocious oceanic storms. Biting ants. Venomous snakes coiling round camera equipment. Weeks sat in icy water. But mostly weather. British weather. Gloom, hailstones, mud and rain; sometimes for weeks on end.

Wildlife film-makers work with forbearance in hostile environments all around the world. So three years at home filming domestic wildlife for the new nature documentary Wild Isles must have sounded like a comfortable assignment for many. But those tasked with creating a blue-chip natural history series that would make the landscapes of the UK and Ireland as exciting, epic and beautiful as Sir David Attenborough’s usual globe-trotting excursions soon realised it was their most challenging assignment yet.

Wild Isles, broadcast on BBC One this month, may turn out to be the final time that Attenborough presents a big wildlife series from the field. While the 96-year-old remains a prolific narrator of natural history programmes, he is rarely seen on location these days, in part because most series of this kind are made without presenters so they can be renarrated in different languages and sold around the world. Wild Isles, however, is a series about local wildlife Attenborough has never made before and was particularly keen to do.

Wild Isles film-maker Katie Mayhew shooting fungi.
Wild Isles film-maker Katie Mayhew shooting fungi. Photograph: Sam Duckerin Rein/Silverback Films/BBC

Getting the star presenter to clamber up steep steps from a jetty and walk a mile to reach the clifftops of the Welsh island of Skomer and also interact with puffins and Manx shearwaters during a time of avian flu was one hazard that required intensive risk assessments (Attenborough got fit by climbing the three flights of stairs at his home). But that was not the only unseen struggle that went into turning Britain’s wildlife into a Sunday night spectacle to rival Living Planet.

Light itself was one of the biggest problems, according to Katie Mayhew, who filmed everything from adders to wood ants for the series. “We rely on light to make everything look gorgeous. If the light’s not there, you have to think fast about how you’re going to make it look as lush without it,” she says. Britain and Ireland lack the dazzling light of less northerly latitudes and the weather, of course, is notoriously unreliable. The veteran cameraman Alastair MacEwen, whose first credit was for Attenborough’s Life on Earth in 1979, set up a two-week summer shoot on the River Isle in Somerset to capture the life cycle of the banded demoiselle, a graceful damselfly that only flies in sunshine. “Three weeks later you’re still waiting for the clouds to break,” he says.

Mayhew could cope with snow when they were filming the adders “sunbathing” in early spring in Northumberland – and enjoyed them coiling round her camera equipment – but her toughest gig was capturing the migration of the not-exactly-rapid common toad.

“It was a weather disaster,” she says. The first year her crew filmed, there were the fewest migrating toads on record because of an extremely cold, dry spring. “The second year it was warm enough to migrate but it was absolutely torrential rain for the whole shoot. The kit got soaked and completely caked in mud. Things became increasingly difficult because we were filming at night. Everything is covered in mud, you can’t even get clean hands to operate anything, and you’re trying not to step on any toads.”

Mayhew was operating a camera that virtually scraped the ground to capture an intimate, toad’s-eye view of the world (a perspective demanded by modern natural history series). “We’d do one shot, the lens would be caked in mud and the toad would’ve gone off in the wrong direction. I thought it would be easy filming toads because they’re slow but actually it was rather difficult.”

Mayhew touches on another challenge experienced by Wild Isles film-makers: filming native wildlife is tricky because there is not much of it left. “We didn’t have vast ranges to find these species. They would be in one place and the numbers there were very small. So that reduced our chances of getting those gorgeous shots,” she says.

From Wild Isles, a rare sighting of a white-tailed eagle hunting a barnacle goose.
From Wild Isles, a rare sighting of a white-tailed eagle hunting a barnacle goose. Photograph: BBC/Silverback Films/Jessie Wilkinson

British wildlife has been well served by Springwatch and its seasonal sisters over the years but has never been given the lavish, Attenborough-style treatment because a series on our wildlife does not have much international appeal. But executive producer Alastair Fothergill, a longtime Attenborough collaborator, convinced the BBC that wildlife in a country that has driven its megafauna to extinction could still be thrilling, and found additional financing by securing the RSPB and WWF as co-producers.

In the early stages of the project it was feared that BBC executives didn’t have the stomach for strong environmental messages on Sunday night primetime. But the film-makers were determined that their portrayal, for all its sweeping showcasing of natural glories, would not pull its punches. Across five episodes, Attenborough delivers plangent reminders of these isles’ global importance for some species (particularly seabird populations), as well as its recent losses – of ancient woodland, of wildflower meadows – and how biodiversity must and can be restored.

These epic series have in the past been criticised for creating false impressions of abundance and for screening out human impacts, but the anthropogenic world does intrude in Wild Isles. Wild horses are depicted against the power lines of Cambridgeshire. Farms, tractors, fences and bales of silage all pop into view at various points, as does, for instance, a cemetery where roe deer make their home.

“It was really difficult to frame things out because wild habitats are so small, but for certain sequences there was a conscious decision to include human structures,” says Mayhew. “For toads on roads, we had to feature humans because we were telling the story of them getting squashed and how it’s increasingly difficult for them to migrate through our human habitat.”

The reintroduced large blue butterfly at Green Down Somerset Wildlife Trust Reserve.
The reintroduced large blue butterfly at Green Down Somerset Wildlife Trust Reserve. Photograph: David Woodfall/naturepl.com

Wildlife series have also run into controversy in the past for “fake” scenes, using animals in zoos, for instance. Deploying falconers’ birds to capture birds of prey sequences has been a commonplace tactic but Wild Isles had a firm rule: wild birds only. Its cameras have captured the first ever comprehensive footage of wild buzzards taking rabbits, golden eagles hunting hares, and white-tailed eagles learning to capture a new kind of prey.

But its makers are also open about deploying “studios” to capture wild animal behaviour. MacEwen has become a macro (closeup) specialist and, when it is impossible to capture the behaviour of a small animal in its natural habitat, he will build elaborate sets. For instance, obtaining a vole’s eye view of another vole running through a grassy tunnel is impossible in the wild; the vole has dozens of routes and simply avoids the cameras. “To say that doing a few things in the studio is faking it is missing the point,” he says. “Bringing animals into a studio is not desirable but if we do it, we do it because we need to get at the animal’s level to see what is happening.”

To film the miraculous life cycle of the large blue butterfly, whose caterpillar tricks ants into looking after it all winter, MacEwen had to film inside an ants’ nest. Keeping wild ants in captivity was difficult, and to do this without endangering the animals, he worked with butterfly experts including Prof Jeremy Thomas, who reintroduced the large blue after its extinction in Britain. This was a happy experience for MacEwen, who last filmed Thomas in 1979. “I remember doing some filming on the very year that the large blue went extinct and the sadness I felt when that happened. So coming back and filming the large blue story many years later, and showing how successful his reintroduction has been was a joyous event – despite the fact that the project was so darn difficult it very nearly broke me.” He also filmed the ants and the large blue in wild meadows where one obstacle was that the biscuit bait Thomas laid for the ants kept being snaffled by passing dogs.

The most surprising episode is the finale, which shows the wonders found in reputedly grey and turbid British seas. Sitting on a large continental shelf of shallow, nutrient-rich seas, Britain actually possesses a stunning array of colourful marine life in rippling green seagrass meadows and waving forests of kelp, from tiny, characterful clingfish to unexpectedly beautiful sea slugs.

Doug Anderson filming in the seas round Britain.
Doug Anderson filming in the seas round Britain. Photograph: Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback Films/BBC

Despite this often-overlooked wealth of marine life, it was capturing the losses – in order to kickstart effective marine conservation – that motivated Doug Anderson. A marine specialist, he spent much of his childhood around Lamlash Bay, where his uncle co-founded the Community of Arran Seabed Trust, which established one of the first marine protected areas in Britain to actually stop fishing.

When Anderson began filming awesome marine spectacles, capturing images of orca hunting seals in Shetland and a “bait-ball” of bluefin tuna attacking fish shoals off the Cornish coast, “I couldn’t quite work out whether it was glass half full or glass half empty,” he says. “I felt an enormous sense of responsibility for all the people I know who have been campaigning for greater protection of British seas over the last two and a half decades. My family included. And that was a heavy burden. I really didn’t want to let people down.”

When Anderson set out from north Devon to film the courtship of the cuttlefish, an extraordinarily intelligent and interesting animal, he was puzzled to find none in their usual haunts. Then he discovered about 30 creels – pots to trap cuttlefish – set across the bay. The creels were legal but hadn’t been checked for weeks, and were crammed with dead and dying cuttlefish. “Those that were still alive were very gently eating one another in a very hard-to-watch way,” he says. “I was filming a female inside the creel, and a young male came up outside the net and started courting with her. I’ve got quite a strong stomach but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever filmed. She was surrounded by these cuttlefish in an awful state of repair and he was reaching through the net to court her. I’m sure he would’ve ended up in the creel.”

Across the series, the film-makers are delighted that their images are accompanied by an uncompromising plea to save and restore wild nature. “All the researchers and producers were really behind that,” says Mayhew. “In the past, most natural history programmes didn’t touch on that; they didn’t think audiences wanted to hear it. But now times are changing, people are engaged and want to know about climate change and habitat and species loss. I’m proud it is part of the series.”

Wild Isles is broadcast on BBC One from 12 March. A book accompanying the series by Patrick Barkham and Alastair Fothergill is published by HarperCollins.


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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