Change in the air as Springwatch returns

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‘WHAT sells a programme? Drama, science and a little bit of sex,” says a smiley Michaela Strachan. And there will be plenty of all that in store when Strachan and her Springwatch co-hosts, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games, return this month to present the flagship BBC 2 nature programme.

There will be snail sex. “They have ‘love darts’ in their heads,” enthuses Strachan on the common garden creatures who undergo seven-hour mating sessions.

Some drama. “We’ve had tremendous traumas with the ospreys,” says Hughes-Games, who is prone to wheezy blasts of the giggles. “We had Monty and Norma. Monty came back, Norma didn’t but another female did and they started getting it together. Then another female comes along and the two females have a massive punch-up. Feathers literally fly.”

And science. Take a common pondskater. How do they manage the Biblical task of walking on water? “They are covered in hydrophobic hairs. Thousands of them on every square millimetre of their body,” says Packham. “They rest on their hind legs, propel themselves with their centre legs and put down their four limbs on the surface of the water to detect any vibrations from prey that has fallen into the water.”

Packham is the resident joker. In 2009, he peppered his Springwatch dialogue with references to songs by The Smiths, which viewers picked up on. He used the same trick in subsequent years: The Cure in 2010, Manic Street Preachers in 2011, and David Bowie last year. In Winterwatch earlier this year, Madness was the next band to feature.

The mix of content has served well the Springwatch team, and their predecessors Bill Oddie, Kate Humble and Simon King, in the nine years that the show has been on air. Springwatch uncovers the secret world of wildlife by placing cameras around a nature reserve to film events like the arrivals of swifts to the UK and provide in-depth footage of nesting birds.

This year, roving reporter Iolo Williams will be filming underwater to glimpse gannets swooping to catch fish off the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth.

While Packham admits he wants to “skive off” to join Williams, he’s happy to be at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Ynys-hir reserve in Powys, Wales. The new series marks the start of the BBC’s Summer of Wildlife, which will include a new daytime series, Springwatch In The Afternoon, presented by Nick Baker; Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival, presented by Countryfile’s Ellie Harrison, plus as a mini-series, The Burrowers, presented by Packham, about the lives of badgers, moles and rabbits.

Busy as the presenters are, there is a constant trickle of laughter between them, but while larking around is par for the course, there is one thing that they are all serious about – encouraging a new generation of wildlife lovers.

“Steve Backshall does a great job on CBBC. He’s very popular with kids and he’s flying a flag [for wildlife],” says Packham, who worked with Strachan on BBC’s children’s programme The Really Wild Show in the 1990s. “I just hope the kids out there respond in the same way to him [as they did us], because you do meet people who say to you, ‘I saw you do this thing to a cuttlefish once in The Really Wild Show and I thought it was so good I started studying them’.”

For Packham, part of the problem is that there are not enough children digging around outdoors, examining the creatures living in the undergrowth. “Children buy the books but they don’t engage with the animals. I’m not saying there’s any diminishment of their enthusiasm but the contact isn’t there.”

Outside the classroom, 52-year-old Packham, who now lives in Norfolk with his partner, Charlotte, and two poodles Itchy and Scratchy, packed his childhood with plenty of animal capers. “We had a badger which I smuggled upstairs,” he says. “I would wait until there was something my parents wanted to watch on TV and sneak upstairs. The badger went to sleep under my bed, but then my dad came in and the badger completely kicked off. I had some Subbuteo stored under my bed and I remember my Man City team got completely trashed. Of course the badger was banished.”

Likewise, Hughes-Games, who was a producer on Springwatch before he started presenting in 2009, spent his childhood immersed in wildlife. “My father was the village doctor and people used to bring injured animals to him,” says Hughes-Games. “We had a magpie, Maggie – we were awful at naming – and we bought theatrical jewellery for her. We had a jackdaw, a crow, that lived in the garden. If you went ‘Crow’ at it, it would land on you.”

While Packham’s badger-smuggling put him in his dad’s bad books, the tables were turned in Hughes-Games’s house. “My father was keen on shooting, which I’m very much against,” he explains. “I remember he shot this pheasant and wounded it. It caught my father’s eye as he was about to dispatch it and all the doctoring instinct came back. So he left the shoot, went home, patched up the very animal he’d shot, using all of his medical skills to do that. The pheasant survived and became very aggressive.

“It was just awful,” recalls Hughes-Games, laughing. “It raped all the chickens and my father felt the pheasant wasn’t showing sufficient gratitude so he put it in a box and took it back out to the shoot!”

• Springwatch returns to BBC 2 today at 8pm, with Springwatch In The Afternoon on at the earlier time of 3pm

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