Watching Springwatch

Watching Springwatch

Springwatch is the annual BBC TV event which observes the progress of wildlife in the UK during the late spring. The programs were originally broadcast from the Fishleigh Estate Farm in Devon from 2005 to 2007 but owing to ownership of the farm changing hands Springwatch moved to Norfolk where it stayed until 2010. But in 2011 the program moved to mid Wales and has been broadcast live from the Dyfi Estuary ever since. Springwatch requires an on site crew of 100, many of whom arrive well before the broadcast event starts and stay on well after it ends. It uses 50 cameras, and is a major outside broadcast operation in the BBC calendar. Cameras have to be hidden and operated by remote control to record the natural behaviour of the wildlife. Hidden Springwatch cameras observe the birds in their nests and the comings and goings are transmitted live during the transmissions interspersed with footage recorded over the preceding 24 hours. Online viewers can also view the Springwatch wildlife stars 24 hours a day from webcams.

Springwatch on location

spring watch

The annual series of Springwatch transmissions begins on the Whitsun Bank holiday, and continues for four nights a week for three weeks. The BBC Springwatch outside broadcast unit is a familiar site in and around the small town of Machynlleth at the head of the Dyfi Estuary in Mid Wales where Springwatch encamps annually, and is a more than welcome presence. Springwatch has achieved much loved, almost iconic status amongst its many viewers who tune in every night to see the progress of the birds from egg stage right through to the time they are ready to fly the nest. Nowadays the Springwatch project is run by the BBC Natural History Unit. Although Springwatch was originally commissioned by BBC Learning with the worthy academic objective of encouraging viewers to actively participate in wildlife conservation it has blossomed into a peak viewing attraction. In many respects it’s a little like a real life soap opera. Over the years it became apparent that Springwatch had much wider appeal than just a nature show. In essence Springwatch is a type of reality show, but a far superior one than most. The participants (the wildlife) don’t play up to the cameras and so it’s a real window into the lives of the Springwatch wildlife characters.

Springwatch presenters

Between 2005 and 2008 Springwatch was presented by Simon King, Kate Humble and Bill Oddie. Bill Oddie left after Springwatch 2008 and was replaced by Chris Packham, but came back for one episode in 2010. Other regular participants include sound recordist Chris Watson who occasionally appears in the Springwatch transmissions to describe his working methods. Presenter and cameraman Gordon Buchanan sometimes appears. Martin Hughes Games previously a producer on Springwatch has also joined the presenting team. In September 2010 Simon King announced he would be leaving Springwatch to pursue other projects. But controversy surrounded Bill Oddie’s departure  The reason given by the BBC Springwatch producers at the time was that the former Goodie was suffering ill health, notably intermittent depression.  spring watch But Bill Oddie says that the real reason he left Springwatch was because he was being ‘frozen out’ by the BBC and that it was his departure from the show itself which aggravated his condition. There have also been rumors of a mysterious ‘incident’ in Dorset during the filming of a Springwatch episode in Brownsea Island in 2008. Mr Oddie claims that several weeks after the ‘incident’ he asked the Springwatch producer what was going on and she admitted that she and others had been instructed ‘not to talk’ to him. Later he was told by the BBC that he would not be invited to do any future Springwatch programs.  It is still not known what the ‘incident’ was but Oddie is thought of as a somewhat crotchety character and there have been personality clashes off camera between he and Springwatch and other BBC natural history presenters. Oddie’s final series in 2008 also attracted complaints from viewers about ‘smutty’ comments, which the comedian made on a number of occasions during the live Springwatch transmissions. For the most part these comments were mild even by pre watershed standards, but Springwatch viewers pointed out that the programs were popular with children and such remarks should have no part in project of this type. But Oddie’s general behaviour and demeanor towards co-presenters and crew on the Springwatch project also came in for criticism. In retrospect however and notwithstanding the ‘incident’ in Dorset these difficulties appear to have been as much a clash of senses of humour rather than anything else.

Springwatch location at Ynys Hir near Machynlleth

spring watch

Between 2005 and 2007 the BBC ran a Springwatch survey in cooperation with the Woodland Trust during which the show’s viewers were urged to note important events throughout the passing of spring. Events like the first appearance of frogspawn, the arrival of swifts, and the appearance of blossom on the hawthorn trees.  By comparing the results with earlier years, the researchers found that spring was arriving earlier than it used to. The BBC no longer participates in the survey itself but reports its findings on the Springwatch program and the survey remains the biggest assessment of phenology in the world. During Springwatch 2006, the ‘Breathing Spaces’ campaign was launched .Awards are given to small projects all over the country to encourage the creation of small areas of wildlife friendly habitats, with a particular focus directed on  the cities. In the first three phases of the initiative more than £8.5 million of National Lottery money was awarded. Local Wildlife Trusts and councils are also involved in the project.  ‘Breathing Spaces’ itself sprung from an previous initiative called ‘Make Space for Nature’, which had been launched in 2004 at the same time as the BBC ran ‘Britain Goes Wild with Bill Oddie’ The success of Springwatch has led to spin offs including ‘Springwatch in the Afternoon’, ‘Springwatch Nightshift’, ‘Springwatch Unsprung’ ‘Springwatch Specials’,’ Springwatch Christmas Special’, ‘Springwatch Guide to Seabirds’, ‘Springwatch Trackers (on Cbeebies)’, ‘Autumnwatch’, ‘Autumnwatch live’, ‘Autumnwatch Extra’, ‘Winterwatch’, ‘Winterwatch Unsprung’, and in 2013, ‘Winterwatch 1963- The Big Freeze’, which looked back to the big freeze 50 years earlier and the impact it had on wildlife.

Ynys Hir Nature Reserve

In 2011 the Springwatch project moved to the RSPB Ynys Hir Nature Reserve in Mid Wales located between the small town of Machynlleth and the even smaller town of Borth. Iolo Williams the iconic Welsh wildlife natural history broadcaster joined Springwatch as a kind of roving reporter to add features to the program which could not have been covered from Ynys Hir Springwatch venue itself. The 2011 series ended with the cast singing Tom Jones’ classic song ,‘Its Not Unusual’. The lyrics of the song had been intermittently secretly sneaked into the Springwatch script throughout its three week run.  The show has stayed at Ynys Hir ever since with Michaela Strachan replacing Kate Humble in 2012. Ynys Hir (long stand’ in English), is a deserving venue for the honour of hosting Springwatch. The location is an RSPB Nature Reserve occupying 700 Hectares and comprises a variety of habitats, including wet grassland, heathland, oak woodlands, red bed and freshwater. Ynys Hir is located on the Dyfi Estuary near Machynlleth on the Mid/North West Coast of Wales, and at the opposite side of the estuary to the small  seaside resort of Aberdyfi.  The Springwatch venue is a sanctuary for lapwings, redshanks, and various other wading birds and wildfowl, as well as being a the year round home to birds of prey like red kites, gos hawks, and peregrins. Wintering geese and ducks feed in large numbers on the saltmarshes and the heron varieties present at Ynys Hir include nesting little egrets and grey herons. The reserve also counts among its residents, grass snakes, hazel dormice, polecats, otters, over 400 species of moths, 26 species of butterfly, and 19 species of dragonfly.