Wild Isles: episode three – what's it all about?
A bee on a ‘broomstick’, mating adders and feisty herds of Konik horses: what was it like filming Wild Isles ? And what can you expect to see? Producer Nicholas Gates reveals how the crew captured the lifecycle of a large blue butterfly for the first time.
Wild Isles is a five-part BBC series exploring how our woodland, grassland, freshwater and ocean habitats support wildlife of all kinds.
In episode three, Grassland, Sir David Attenborough explores our grasslands and the creatures, great and small, that inhabit them. Whether flower-rich or farmed, chalk or scree, the grassy stage is set for awe-inspiring spectacles.
Expect to see the lifecycle of the large blue butterfly (the first time it has ever been filmed in full), boxing hares and discover how field voles reshape the grassland underground.
When I was a boy, back in the 1930s, growing up in Leicester, I spent days on my bicycle exploring the local countryside. Back then, it was easy to find hay meadows rich with wildflowers and swarming with butterflies and insects of all kinds. But since then, we have lost more than 95% of these wonderful habitats. In this episode, we will show why our wildlife needs rich wild grasslands, and take you on a journey from the rare coastal flower meadows of the Scottish Hebrides right up to the heather moorlands in the high mountains.
When does Wild Isles air?
Episode two, Grassland, airs on BBC One and iPlayer on Sunday 26th March at 7pm.
What are the key stories in episode three?
Owl and field vole, Hebrides
The short-eared owl was filmed hunting over grasslands where field voles make up the bulk of its prey. But it’s the remarkable behaviour of the voles that has been filmed for the first time. Tunnelling among the tussocks and roots, voles reshape the grassland underground. Despite the dense cover, a female vole seeking the best food for her young is often exposed and this is when a waiting owl can pounce. The vole’s only hope is to freeze, which can pay off, as four out of five swoops are unsuccessful.
Mason bee, Dorset
On the meadows of Cerne Abbas, the maternal devotion of a solitary bicoloured bee is taken to incredible lengths. First she searches for an empty snail shell to create the perfect home in which to rear a family. The team used a macro lens to film inside the shell as the bee builds a nest, deposits pollen for her larva to feed on, then lays an egg and seals the shell. She finally hides this nursery-and-larder under twigs, flying them in as if riding a broomstick. No wonder she is known as the ‘witch bee’.
As the spring sun warms the heather on the moors of northern England, the male adder is the first to emerge from hibernation. He basks, ripening his sperm and preparing for the start of the breeding season, when he sloughs his skin. Drawn by the female adder’s pheromones, the mating begins. In a filming first, in Northumberland, male adders were captured being dragged around by their penises by females, bound together by the dozens of penis barbs that have evolved for this purpose.
To get the super low angle shots at the same level as the snakes, we underslung the rig so the camera and lens could slide almost touching the floor – at some points I even had snakes on the equipment and on my boots!
Where is Wild Isles episode three filmed?
Boxing hares and golden eagle: Islay
Machair: Hebrides; North Uist
Vole nest and owl: Hebrides
Bee snail: Dorset
Rabbits, foxes and buzzard: Suffolk; Dorset
Wild horses: Cambridgeshire; Salisbury Plain
Large blue butterfly: Gloucestershire
Black grouse: Cairngorms
Hen harrier: Cairngorms
Red deer: Killarney National Park
Check out more Wild Isles filming locations
Meet Wild Isles episode three producer Nicholas Gates
Nicholas Gates is a lifelong British naturalist who wants the audience to see the extraordinary side of some of our most familiar creatures. “For me personally, it was hugely eye opening to visit some of our most remote and important wilder places,” he says. “Travelling to so many of these over the course of three years filming allowed me to see the different approaches to conservation being taken throughout our isles and meet the exceptional people dedicating their lives to protecting some of our rarest species.”
How did you film the lifecycle of the large blue butterfly?
The lifecycle of the large blue butterfly is extremely complex, with many intricate steps required for the egg to successfully make it through to an adult butterfly. Filming each of these steps was only possible by working closely with a team of three expert scientists (Professor Jeremy Thomas, David Simcox and Sarah Meredith) who were responsible for reintroducing the large blue butterfly at a number of locations throughout Somerset and Gloucestershire. We split the filming into many different shoots and just worked on one stage of the butterflies’ lifecycle at a time. The hardest step of all to film was the exact moment when the caterpillar successfully tricked a worker ant into picking it up and carrying it back to the nest.
Why did the ‘witch bee’ stand out?
There are more than 250 different species of bee in Britain and Ireland, which live in a wide mix of places, from woodworm holes in deadwood for our smallest species, the tiny scissor bee, to old vole nests for our largest bumblebees. But of all these species, we felt there was one which really stood out for her persistence in finding just the right nest for her youngsters. The two-coloured mason bee, our ‘witch bee’, whizzes around chalk grasslands looking for empty snail shells of the exact right size. Like Goldilocks with her porridge testing, the female two-coloured mason bee will check lots of empty shells in the grassland, some are too big, some are too small or damaged, until she finds just the right one within which to lay her egg. She is nicknamed the ‘witch bee’ as after laying each egg she seals up the shell and then hides it under a pile of tiny sticks. She collects each stick individually and carries it, as she flies, under her body and looks like she is riding a tiny broom!
How did you capture the footage of adders mating?
Filming this number of adders mating has never been filmed before; in some of our mating balls we filmed six adders, a behaviour that is exceptionally rare to see, let alone to film. Across the three weeks filming for this sequence, we found at least 52 different individual adders, guided by the expert identification skills of herpetologist Nigel Hand. By closely and carefully following the individuals as they emerged from hibernation, and particularly by following the males which sometimes moved hundreds of metres following the scent of a female, we were able to pinpoint the exact locations where mating was taking place to capture the extraordinary footage of this moment. We had a camera team of three people, and an additional field team of four people, who were all assigned spotting duties to follow individual adders that we expected to mate or battle. Everyone was in radio communication ensuring that as soon as any behaviour looked likely, the nearest member of the camera team could be called in to quickly relocate and film the action.
Main image: A free-roaming herd of Konik horses grazes in the evening light at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, UK. © BBC/©Silverback Films/Hamza Yassin
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