Meat may be murder – but if you’re a sparrowhawk, it’s also natural. So what’s the problem?
So there I was in my local tea room, nibbling on a croissant, when in stormed this apoplectic American. “Mr Oddie! The swans are attacking the Canada geese!” I was taken aback: it’s not often that I meet anyone who feels sorry for Canada geese.
I explained that mute swans are very “territorial”, stressing the word with a gentle cadence that made it sound benevolent. I also used adjectives such as “protective” and “faithful”, which are admirable qualities, surely?
But she was not convinced. “They are killing the Canadas!” she protested.
I corrected her. “They are not killing them, they are deterring them.”
“By killing them!”
Yes, but no, but… Clearly, I was going to have to resort to the defence that cannot be refuted.
“What they are doing is entirely natural.”
For a moment, she fell silent. Then she announced: “It may be, but I don’t want to see it!”
As she stomped out, it struck me that she couldn’t have watched many natural-history shows.
Most of what wildlife documentary-makers call “animal behaviour” would be called “misbehaviour” in humans. Such content in a drama comes with a warning (or is it a promise?) that “The following programme contains scenes of a sexual nature, violence and bad language from the start.”
But you didn’t get a warning before Life because that’s exactly what we expected. Cameramen, directors and sound recordists will all kill for a ‘kill’, a chase, a battle or a lusty rut. It’s all natural and most people want to see it.
But maybe not everyone. The ultimate decisions are down to the producer or someone higher up the chain. They okay the final cut.
You don’t get to edit a live programme, however. There was adverse reaction to footage on Springwatch several times when I was on the sofa: the sparrows guilty of exhibitionist coupling, the blue tit that brandished the corpse of its chick and the famished teenage barn owl that gobbled up its baby brother.
On each occasion, neither the presenters nor producers knew what was coming. But if we had known, would it have been shown?
When we made Wild in Your Garden in 2003, cameramen were secreted all over Bristol. ‘Dave’ (not his real name) was so well hidden that everyone forgot he was there, until he joined the supper queue.
“I got some great footage,” he muttered. He was dying to show someone, so he switched his camera to playback.
The sequence showed a male sparrowhawk swooping towards a bird table where a group of starlings was feeding. Dave followed the hawk as it dipped, dived and grabbed one in mid-air.
He even anticipated the action by focusing on a fence post onto which the raptor pitched down with its prey, which was still very much alive.
He zoomed in as the hawk held the starling down, with one claw round its neck and the other containing its frantically fluttering wings.
And he carried on filming as it plunged its beak into the bird’s chest… Now, how did that lady put it? “It was natural, but I didn’t want to see it.”
Nobody did. It never went out.
Former Goodie Bill Oddie, OBE has presented natural-history programmes for the BBC for well over 10 years, some of them serious and some of them silly. This column may well be a bit of both.