“Humankind,’ said wildlife photographer Paul Oxton ‘must begin to learn that the life of an animal is in no way less precious than our own.”
So, when the British run out of things to do, we run for the hilly refuge of natural history documentaries, and then we binge watch them into submission. This connects us to our planetary neighbours in an agreeable and unchallenging way, where we don’t need to see what extinction really looks like on the ground, or worry over much about the things we eat. So we watch them to the point that we know infinitely more about the mating rituals of the Paradise Flycatcher than we do about the fat Chaffinch sitting on the bird table outside our kitchen windows; we thrill to that little iguana being chased by racer snakes on an island 6500 miles away, and yet we know nothing of the nightly drama involving mammals in our own streets and back gardens. Others scream out for more of their favourite rock bands and religions, while we just tuck ourselves up on the sofa and wait for the re-appearance of a 92 year old messiah on a windswept beach in Namibia.
When I was a boy, there was basically one wildlife programme. It was called The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and featured a Frenchman with a comedy accent sitting on a boat in the Indian Ocean explaining to us in black and white how, when and why sharks would eat us if our airplane crashed into their neighbourhood.
Fast forward to now, and you can choose between 100 things on any one night, and if you are very, very lucky, none of them will have Chris Packham in them. Just last night you could find Kate Humble wandering around Yellowstone, someone else cutting horns off rhinos in South Africa to save them from being poached and a thing about the crocodile caves of Tanzania. They are all wonderful examples of the film makers’ art, but, to a certain extent, they are on an endless loop of messages about the baleful effect of man on his planet. Oh, and by the way, you always know if the apex predator chasing that sweet furry thing got lucky: when the film suddenly cuts to another scene, it means the sweet furry thing became lunch.
Meanwhile, down the bottom of our garden, the bees are stirring in the unseasonal warmth; up in the dead oak of the park over the wall, a Great-spotted woodpecker is drumming notice of his presence. Moles are creating havoc on my lawn, and rabbits being taken out by stoats at the dead of night in the field across the road. At last light, bats are commuting up and down the bat super-highway of our village street, as they have been for hundreds of years. Down in a vineyard that no one had even thought of even 30 years ago, the cock pheasants get drunk on the fallen, shriveled grapes. When we first moved here twenty-four years ago, there was a richness of birds some of whom we don’t see any more, but they have been replaced by others, buzzards, peregrines, ravens, cormorants and –in particular- a bird that my father never once saw in his 67 year bird-watching life, the red kite. OK, we take our little bird table seriously, but it regularly hosts over twenty species in a single hour. Since we came here, 76 different birds have visited our garden or its airspace. Sure, we’re very lucky to be in the countryside, but cities are full of parks, canal banks and wild spaces, and wildlife encroaches into every branch of the tree, or crack in the concrete there, too.
To be fair, Springwatchand Autumnwatchhighlight what is available in our own back yard, but nothing beats seeking it out for yourself. It may show a tragic lack of ambition, but each dog walk I do in these lengthening, strengthening days, I count how many species I see out there, and take note of the changing bird song, and which hedgerow tree has produced a tiny vermillion shoot overnight. And if I don’t recognize something, I go back home and look it up, so that my knowledge base slowly deepens.
It doesn’t make me any new friends, or earn me any money, but in giving me an actual physical walk-on part in the show, it beats Brexit and is wonderfully exciting.