Summer of Wildlife: Discovering nature on our doorstep

Head of Commissioning, BBC Learning

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The morning of Saturday June 15th I was running late. I live in Manchester but had trains to catch for Cardiff for the first of the BBC’s big Summer of Wildlife events. The children, not yet dressed, were complaining they were hungry as I jumped on my bike for the station. One of those mornings! (Don’t worry their Dad was home, they got fed).

The back roads to Piccadilly were very quiet at that hour and my mind was on breakfast and train times when I turned a corner and there in the middle of the road was a large magpie. Magpies are hardly uncommon in the city and I wouldn’t have noticed but the bird stood quite still for a fraction longer than you’d expect with a bike speeding down. I saw it up close, the dark feathers glinting an oil-spill blue, its motionless live eye and questioning head, and suddenly I felt the thrill when something ordinary becomes extraordinary. I paused to watch the bird on its flight and wonder where it might have found to nest.

This is what the BBC’s Summer of Wildlife season is all about; through established favourites like BBC Two’s Springwatch, and major new TV commissions, through radio, online and public events and with the help of many partners, we hope to raise awareness of the amazing richness and diversity of the UK’s wildlife, and to encourage to find out more about it, whether it’s a rare butterfly or a common magpie. 

The season began with an idea from Natural History Unit in Bristol well over a year ago. As commissioner for BBC Learning, I looked for ways to support the ambition and with BBC One we have co-commissioned a major new series Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival that will start in August, and with Children’s a new live Saturday morning show Wild! just started on CBBC.  

We hope all audiences, whether or not they’re already into wildlife, will enjoy the broadcast content and that millions will do more than that: they’ll go online and find out more; they’ll go outside and see more. The season website has everything from tips on feeding hedgehogs to advice on improving your wildlife photographs. You can download the Summer of Wildlife Handbook in which BBC wildlife presenters introduce a whole range of activities, and you can use Things To Do to find out about thousands of wildlife events being run by partners around the UK this summer.    

Which brings me back to the Saturday before last and the first of the Summer of Wildlife events BBC Learning is hosting. This was the department’s first large-scale outdoor event of the 2013 season so of course the rain tipped down in the morning, but that didn’t seem to put anyone off coming to our wonderful site, directly in front of the National Museum. As well as giving people a chance to get up close to animals we had a host of partners presenting fresh insights into our wildlife.

At this time of year, I learnt from the Cardiff University team, the undergrowth is throbbing with love duets… though you’ll need a laser vibrometer to hear them. In their display you had to match the amplified sounds to their insect creators. It’s important for all BBC Learning events that people get a chance to learn by doing and discussing rather than simply watching.

Inside the museum we ran family quizzes through the day with some of the presenters involved in the season: Nick Baker, Iolo Williams, Miranda Krestovnikoff and Mike Dilger. "I’m not sure I’ve been so excited in my whole life," I overheard from one otherwise normal looking man. Clearly we had a serious TV wildlife fan in the audience as he added that if Chris Packham also joined the line-up, he would explode. When later I ran into the presenters outside chatting and taking every kind of wildlife question from children and adults, I shared his admiration for their passion, knowledge and desire to share.

It was appropriate our first public event was at the heart of a busy city because the season is as much about the wildlife of urban environments as it is about the countryside. Though I’ve lived in cities my entire adult life I was lucky enough to grow up in Gloucestershire, so know a country childhood is no guarantee of expertise. I was pretty good on the main breeds of cow, hard not to pick that up, but I’ve only recently begun to appreciate the wonder of birds and my recognition remains very limited - good on magpies, not so good on small brownish ones.   

I remember very clearly though the summer my mother unexpectedly decided my brothers and I should all learn the names of wild flowers. We were tested light-heartedly each week, rewarded by ice-creams - two flavours if all correct, only one flavour if not. Even today I recognise those flowers as old friends. Being able to name something brings you closer and I’ve set myself my own summer challenge to learn some more birds with my children. 

One of the decisions we thought very carefully about was how much focus to put in the season on the many very serious issues around conservation. We don’t want to harangue audiences but we do aim to help people make informed decisions. Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival will highlight just how many species are endangered but it will also follow success stories and show what we can do to help the endangered.  

A few weekends ago I had spent a lively afternoon with my children enjoying a sudden burst of sunshine in the garden: late sunflower seed planting, water pistol fights… exhausted later, my daughter and I sat in shade under a tree. A bird was singing and we looked up through leaves to try and see it. We couldn’t see the bird but I spotted a small spider and began to talk about the tree and all the life on it. My ever chatty five-year-old fell quiet and for a few minutes we gazed up into branches.

In The Summer of Wildlife Handbook, Chris Packham introduces the first challenge, simply to start taking notice of the wildlife around us, whether it’s on the journey to work or school or, I’d add, sitting for a rare quiet moment on a weekend afternoon. It’s the simplest but most important challenge of all and if the Summer of Wildlife inspires people to enjoy taking more notice of our extraordinary wild neighbours it will be a success, for at its heart the Summer of Wildlife is about looking at the world around us in a different way.

Abigail Appleton is Head of Commissioning, BBC Learning.

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