A popular BBC perennial returns for a week on UK TV screens. But will it do anything beyond providing some nature-themed light entertainment?
Winterwatch returns to the BBC tonight. For readers outside the UK, the BBC has been producing a programme called Springwatch, that uses cameras to follow the challenges, usually of birds, in the spring as they raise their young. It’s four nights a week for three weeks and has proven so popular that spin-off Autumnwatch and Winterwatch series have been made. In some ways, it fits a very middle-class niche with presenters in interesting knitwear gathering around a fire to appreciate the countryside. As with many nature programmes, there’s keen interest in what one botanist grouchily referred to as ‘fur and feathers’. The reason I’m pleased to see it’s back is that there’s a more to the programme than that.
For a start, during the spring series, there’s usually one good (5 minute or more) segment on plant life each week. That might not seem like much, but given the series is filmed around things you can see HAPPENING right NOW! that’s actually quite a challenge and an achievement.
Another feature I like is that it’s not all dramatic highland scenery. Recent series have had a strong element of urban conservation. One segment showed how a small bush in Sheffield that might have simply been thought of as an aesthetic installation was providing a roost for hundreds of wagtails. In the past, they have also highlighted how there’s important scientific research in urban conservation contexts.
I think one of the key elements of the series is the presenting team. The onscreen chemistry is important, and nature is a bit more likeable if the people presenting the series are likeable. However, where they differ is that they’re both reflective and outspoken. Martin Hughes-Games was in the news recently following his criticisms of Planet Earth II, but it’s not specifically David Attenborough he’s targeting. In the past he’s said that wildlife television does nothing for conservation.
There’s been debate over his recent comments. An impression I get is that often nature documentaries are socially acceptable dog fights or at least deer versus wolf fights. For example, the clip of the iguana escaping the snakes on Planet Earth II got a lot of social shares, but for most people I don’t think the interest went further than whether or not the iguana survived – but that’s life rather than a serious criticism. I’m sure some people did watch the programme after seeing the clip. Of the people who came in to see the life and death struggle, a good chunk would have taken a deeper interest and moved a bit further down the nature marketing funnel. James Common has said that Planet Earth II alone is not enough to create a generation of conservationists but it would be foolish to ignore that the role they play in starting the process. I agree, with the proviso that it’s only going to help if there’s support to build on the interest you create.
How do you move that interest on into making a commitment? This Winterwatch Series will coincide with the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Again, not all viewers will participate, but many will who would not otherwise, and this will produce genuinely useful data for conservation. For a few this could be the next step down a path that leads to a career in conservation.
As this blog is paid for by the Annals of Botany Company and not the Annals of Birdwatching Company, I could sulk that it’s the birds getting the most attention tonight. Instead, I’m going to be watching to see if we can pick up where they leave off in some situations. The Winterwatch team are often happy to put out a quick graph to highlight how apparently random behaviour can have patterns. That’s could be an opportunity for a sensible scientific journal to provide a service by providing more information for people who are interested. Analysing this week may put us in a better position when the bigger series gets underway in the (probably late) Spring. If you’re in the UK and watching leave your comments below on what features in the show we should be supporting with blogposts. If you’re outside the UK then, because of European copyright laws, we can’t suggest using a VPN to watch the series on the iPlayer. Instead, we’ll have work to tracking similar events elsewhere.