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Birds Britannia

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Stephen Moss Stephen Moss | 13:03 UK time, Friday, 22 October 2010

I've just spent one of the most enjoyable years of my long BBC career, making a new series, Birds Britannia, coming soon to BBC Four. It's not a conventional natural history series - though it does contain some of the very best footage of British birds ever assembled in one place. Nor is it a history series - at least not in the way you might imagine. Instead we have chosen to tell four very different but intimately connected stories about the relationship between the British people and our birdlife, through our garden birds, waterbirds, seabirds and birds of the countryside.

To say that the British are more obsessed with birds than any other nation on earth is something of an understatement! From feeding ducks in the park to listening for the first cuckoo in spring, from inspiring some of our best loved poetry to filling our stomachs, and from boosting the economy to providing comfort during times of crisis, birds have long been at the centre of our nation's history.

This unique relationship between the British and our birds reveals as much about us as it does about the birds themselves. As a lifelong birder, I have long been fascinated by the incredible stories of how birds have influenced our lives - both individually and in terms of our nation's history.

Stories featured in the series include:

  • The amazing saga of how blue tits learned to break into milk bottles by pecking through the foil tops to get at the cream - and why they eventually stopped doing so...
  • How a group of 'posh women' in 19th century Manchester managed to stop the grisly trade in bird plumage and skins, and in doing so changed the face of bird protection forever...
  • How the 'bird people' of the remote island group of St Kilda lived almost entirely on birds for hundreds of years, right up to their final evacuation in 1930...
  • How, during the Second World War, birds were seen as a symbol of the Britain we were fighting for; evoked in wartime propaganda films and through the amazing studies of birds by British prisoners-of-war...

The series doesn't have a presenter, but is narrated by the wonderful Scottish actor Bill Paterson, whose voice perfectly captures the drama, humour and excitement of the stories we are telling. We have also interviewed a wide range of experts and bird enthusiasts, including David Attenborough, Mark Cocker, Jeremy Mynott, Tim Birkhead, Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, Christopher Frayling, Kate Humble, Rob Lambert, Desmond Morris, David Lindo, Helen Macdonald, Andrew Motion, Tony Soper, and of course our very own incomparable birdman Bill Oddie. They have all given us incredible insights into the nature of this very special relationship between the British and their birds.

Birds Britannia tells of how, for centuries, we regarded birds purely as objects to be used for our benefit - for food and fuel, sport and recreation. And how gradually, over time, we came to value them, cherish them, and finally to understand what they truly mean to us. I hope you enjoy it - and look forward to reading your thoughts and comments here on the blog...

Wednesday 3 November: Garden Birds
Wednesday 10 November: Waterbirds
Wednesday 17 November: Seabirds
Wednesday 24 November: Countryside Birds

Stephen Moss is a series producer at the BBC Natural History Unit and author, with a special interest in British wildlife.


  • Comment number 1.

    I can't wait for this series to start and will undoubtedly buy the book which is out next year ;) by the way Stephen I just happen to be reading both of your books 'This Birding Life' and 'A Sky Full of Starlings' which are proving to be a delightful escapism while the rain lashes on outside. Do you have any plans for a third book?

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks Nicola - hope you enjoy the series. It's a very different style from Autumnwatch - although it does feature both Kate and Bill as interviewees! And thanks for your kind comments on my books - for some time now I have been writing a new book about the natural history of an English village - my own, here in Somerset. Should be out later in 2011. In the meantime keep watching out for the autumn birds arriving!

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Stephen, I posted the following on a part of the Autumnwatch are, but am not sure that that is where it should have been - I do not visit the site a lot [sadly]. Not even sure if this is the place to put it either for that matter, but since you are the 'bird' person...

    I'm British, currently living in Cape Town on the West Coast of South Africa. I love Spring and Autumn Watch. I know that some of the nature shows with Kate Humble have been about overseas projects as I have transcribed some of them, and so I thought I would raise the topic of encouraging the use of owls, raptors and bats in farming instead of pesticides.

    I was on the phone to my mother on Friday, telling her about my visit, along with other member of a conservation area I belong to, to a farm known as the Owl Farm, up at Cloeteskraal, near Hopeville, a bit further up the coast from Langebaan.

    Since the 80s this farmer, Quartus Laubscher, has been putting up owl boxes all over his farm, to use as rodent control. He farms in an area where the main crops are grain crops and there had been plagues of rodents way back then and he was not happy about using chemical pest controls etc. Over the years he has got other farmers interested and now, if you drive in this area you will see posts in the middle and edge of fields with houses on the posts. I have pictures from my visit two weeks ago and can post these if anyone is interested, but my reason for telling you about this gentleman and his owl boxes is because it works so well, cuts down on chemical pest control and obviously is a great environment/conservation project that can be used in the UK too.

    But let me take you one step further - Quartus does not just have owl houses on posts. He discovered that the empty boxes attracted bees who quite happily set about making them into hives, so the owls would not use them. He got around this by designing and building flat bees hives that could be attached to the poles lower down and into which the bees were very happy to set up home. When a hive is settled he takes it away and puts back an empty one, moving the full hive to another place that he needs bees in. Over the years the poles got taller and on the top, above the large owl boxes, is a bar for raptors to settle on. The raptors prey are the large sand moles. Then, he was contacted by farmers who had problems with bugs and they wanted to know if it would be possible to do something similar to encourage bats. Quartus does not profess to be knowledgable about birds or anything, but he is prepared to try things out, and the result is that the back of all his owl houses now have two panels with slots where the bats now go and tuck themselves away in the day, coming out at night. How wonderful is this?

    Recently Quartus won an award from WESSA and came through to Kirstenbosch to the WESSA AGM to receive it. I would have to say a well deserved award too.

    On top of all this he welcomes interest in what he does, and is always available for groups and schools to come out and listen to what he has to say about this project, and he takes people out to see the boxes. The day we went we saw 8 owlets in one box, 3 in another and 5 in another, and another box with a pair sitting on eggs. These boxes were not near trees - this area is very flat and has little in the way of tree life, yet the owl population is obviously thriving, along with bees for polination, bats for bug control and raptors for mole control. He is available for contact from any interested person or persons. He has a passion for this.

    I just felt that you might be interested in what he is doing, and that it is something that can be applied in the UK - or anywhere actually, and that you might even want to do an insert on his project even though it is not in the UK.

    I realise that I cannot put a link here or anything but if you are interested in doing an insert or article or knowing anything further please feel free to contact me via here.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great idea for a series Stephen, should appeal to birders of all ages/ experience as well as inquisitive 'average' viewers.


  • Comment number 5.

    im really looking forward to this starting

  • Comment number 6.

    My children got a lot of pleasure from watching me as a 10 year old alongside my father, David Lack, who, sadly, they never met. The programme mentions the work my father did exposing the nature of robins. It does not mention his research into literature about the robin that has emerged over the last 900 years to became his second robin book - "Redbreast". I am disappointed about this because I recently published an update of this book which has sold remarkably well considering it is mostly a poetry book. The programme portrayed well the ambivalent relationship we have with various birds. One of the earliest recorded was that of Gilbert White who complained that they come into houses and spoil the furniture. They were probably tolerated for their pesticide qualities and because we loved them.
    Andrew Lack

  • Comment number 7.

    I have just watched the first prog on iplayer and although the pics are gteat and some of the info fascinating, it was spoilt by the rather overbearing and patronising attitude of some of the contributors. We are the experts and is'nt Jo Public stupid. Do they not think that after so many popular progs about nature on the BBC, including Life of Birds that we are not able to learn anything? Of course there is some sentimentality about birds, but actually some of us enjoy robins knowing how ferocious they can be. Likewise we know that magpies should be taken for all they are and we love its luminescence anyway. There are plenty of other examples. Please stop treating us all as fools. But anyway, the shots showing the 'experts' could better have been used to focus on more birds. That is a tired format. It's because you set the world standard that I expect more. So come on, be a little more thoughtful and creative.

  • Comment number 8.

    Although I'm not a huge bird fan I am so enjoying this wonderful series particularly the historical content. Someone may have asked this already but will it be available on DVD?

  • Comment number 9.

    Three episodes in and it's proving to be a wonderful series. It is a shame that the series is coming to an end this week and think I'll be buying them on Blu-ray as soon as they are released. It's the quality of programmes such as these that makes me consider the BBC a national treasure. Congratulations for a job very well done.

  • Comment number 10.

    I have enjoyed this series on iPlayer immensely especially with regard to the difference between the old versus the modern camera work, I have though one cavil; much of the series dealt with our past treatment of the wild birds but no mention is made of the plight of domesticated and table birds. Whilst being fully aware that the focus was originally regarding wild birds, I can remember farmyards full of scuttling hens, pullets, ducks and very aggressive geese, what of their fate? And what of cage birds?, common in lots of households were canaries and budgerigars, cockatoos and macaws in pubs, has that changed and if so how, and a history of caged birds however distressing for some would I believe completed the picture


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