As we all sit glued to our screens watching the latest bird-related dramas unfold on BBC TV’s Springwatch, Adam Rowlands, RSPB Senior Sites Manager for North Suffolk Reserves, recalls the highs and lows of hosting the popular series at RSPB Minsmere for the last two years.
Adam says: “Before the Springwatch cameras rolled into Minsmere, few visitors paid much attention to the reserve’s fish, unless they were being eaten by a bittern or little egret. All that changed in June 2015 as the saga of Spineless Si unfolded on our screens, and visitors began taking selfies as they watched his antics live from the boardwalk into Island Mere Hide.
The popularity of this two-inch long stickleback took even the producers by surprise, but also highlighted how much there is to learn about behaviour of even our commonest wildlife.
A great example of this was what became known as “Badger-geddon” when, during the first series from Minsmere in 2014, a badger was filmed swimming out to islands on the Scrape and devouring nest after nest of gull and avocet eggs.
Armed with this new evidence, we set about replacing the aging anti-predator fence around the Scrape with a higher specification fence the following winter.
The results were instant, with 2015 the most successful breeding season for avocets for more than 30 years. After the low of 2014, it was heart-warming to see so many avocet chicks feeding close to the Scrape hides.
There was another positive side to the badger predation too, as we teamed up with the BBC and Dawn Scott from the University of Brighton to understand more about Minsmere’s badgers by fitting some with radio collars.
Adders, too, became the subject of a tracking programme with tiny transmitters fitted to some of them to give an insight into their movements.
In fact, adders have become a star attraction at Minsmere during the spring, with many visitors being lucky enough to watch them dancing as courtship reaches full swing in early April.
Their popularity with visitors could have presented a problem as adders are very prone to disturbance. But we spoke to some experienced adder surveyors within our volunteer team and quickly identified an effective way to allow visitors, including families, to spot these sometimes elusive snakes without disturbing them.
Our temporary adder trail was a great success, and coupled with the BBC data, our volunteer guides were able to build up a good knowledge of individual snakes.
Volunteers, of course, are a key to helping to ensuring that Minsmere works as both a leading visitor attraction in Suffolk on one of the best homes for nature in the UK. Once we knew that Springwatch would be moving to Minsmere we recruited an additional team of volunteers to assist with all aspects of the reserve operations.
Recruiting volunteers before the first series was a test of our imagination. Until the official BBC announcement about three weeks before broadcast, we had to deny that Springwatch were even coming to Minsmere, so the adverts asked for “secret keepers”.
Of course, it was obvious that something was happening as the BBC had constructed a new studio close to the Whin Hill watchpoint, as well as two filming hides on the Scrape, so you could say this was the worst kept secret in the world.
As secrets go, though, this one was a long time in the planning. Much longer than many people realised.
We first met with Springwatch film maker Nigel Bean way back in 2008 when they were looking for a new home for the series after deciding to leave their original Devon Farm. At the time, Minsmere’s technical restrictions meant that they chose to set up at Pensthorpe in Norfolk instead.
(Photos by Rupert Masefield and John Chapman)
Although disappointing, this proved to be a blessing in disguise. By the time we spoke to Nigel again in July 2013, we had upgraded our visitor facilities and infrastructure and felt much more confident that we could facilitate the anticipated increase in visitors should Springwatch set up base at Minsmere.
Nigel quickly realised the potential for Minsmere to provide footage of the best of the UK’s wildlife within easy reach of a central base, but while the communication issue was easier to address this time, there was one big question to answer: where would the studio be?
We had no suitable building, so a purpose-built studio was commissioned – once approved by the BBC bosses, of course.
This was only the start of the planning though. We had to plan carefully to accommodate both the BBC and the expected extra visitors to ensure that everyone continued to enjoy their visits to Minsmere – and to improve the visitor experience throughout the year.
As well as extra volunteers, our planning meant bringing in a temporary pop up cafe in the woods to supplement our own cafe, providing extra toilets and overflow car parking, producing extra signage, and training our new volunteers.
The BBC had logistical issues to address too, as this was the first time Springwatch had been based at a site with high public access.
Temporary Springwatch village
A temporary village for 120 staff was built in two weeks prior to broadcast, and dismantled again in just 48 hours. There were 12 fixed cameras erected around the reserve, and three mobile cameramen ready to record the action, as well as a team of engineers, story-editors and even their own catering team, all working shift patterns around the clock to bring footage, not just for the live programmes, but the via the red button too.
Cables had to be laid to minimise disturbance, and wherever possible cameras were checked or moved at first light, before many visitors were around. It is no small feat to lay 32 km of cabling around a nature reserve without disturbing visitors or wildlife, but the BBC’s expertise ensured that this was done successfully, ready for broadcast.
In that first year, we were surprised to hear that much of that cabling came direct to Minsmere from the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. Even more surprisingly, within an hour of the final programme finishing, some cables were on route to the football World Cup in Brazil, with the rest soon packed off to Glastonbury.
I’m sure that Bert Axell, Minsmere’s famous warden from the 1950s and ‘60s, and creator of the Scrape, would have been chuckling at that thought, as his ambition was always to make Minsmere’s Scrape the “Wembley of birdwatching”, even if the thought of thousands of visitors might make him turn in his grave!
Bringing wildlife to our TV screens
Finally, everything was ready for the cameras to roll and the presenters to bring Minsmere’s amazing wildlife to TV screens across the UK. Fittingly, 2014 was the 25th anniversary of the BBC’s Live Birdwatch programmes presented by Tony Soper from Minsmere, while this year will mark 35 years since the first of those broadcasts in 1981. Both the scale and technology involved in live broadcast have changed a lot in the intervening years.
Talking of scale, the planning that went in before the shows even aired meant regular 15-hour days for our Site Manager, Robin Harvey, and me as we worked with the BBC to identify filming locations and reduce any impact on the wildlife.
But the rewards were worth it. I can vividly recall the excitement of stumbling upon a bittern nest with eggs still being incubated whilst looking for another known nest. This new nest went on to steal the show in year one as viewers were captivated by the growing bittern chicks eager to watch them “semi-fledge.”
Our bitterns proved popular with visitors too, with the females’ regular feeding flights ensuring that most visitors had the chance to see these often elusive birds. Some visitors were brought to tears by these bittern encounters.
We’ve also learned a lot from working alongside the BBC’s expert nest finder, Steve Roberts, as his skills proved invaluable when locating nests. We feel more confident in our abilities to find nests now, too.
After the bitterns and tawny owls in year one, and the avocet chicks, adders and sticklebacks in year two, which species will be the stars of the current BBC show? However much we plan, the unpredictability of wildlife means that until the cameras roll once more, we really couldn’t guess.”