Documentary series about birds that live in the UK. The British have always had a passion for waterbirds but our destruction of wetlands meant their possible extinction.
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Of all Britain's birds, surely the most charismatic,
beautiful and fascinating are our waterbirds.
From the jewel-like kingfisher
to the cryptically camouflaged bittern,
and from the tiny teal to majestic wild swans,
geese, and cranes,
waterbirds have always had a special place in our hearts...
..and our stomachs. Plump and juicy ducks, geese and swans,
thin and stringy herons and cranes
have all featured on the British menu since we learned to shoot,
catch and cook them many centuries ago.
But our love of waterbirds is not purely gastronomic.
We've always had a passion for the wild and lonely places
where they choose to live.
Anyone who has really any interest in birds at all
becomes enthusiastic about waterbirds,
partly because they come in very big numbers and they're very colourful,
but also because they tend to come to such wild, wilderness places,
the sort of places that we all love.
It was when we started to covet these vast wetlands
and drain the lifeblood out of them
that these birds began their long decline.
One by one, the crane and the avocet,
the osprey and the white-tailed eagle,
the bittern and the great crested grebe
all slid towards extinction.
But at the 11th hour, the tide turned.
Compassion finally triumphed over greed,
and instead of exploiting these birds, we chose to
protect them and their watery homes.
How we came to do so is the story of Britain's waterbirds.
The story begins more than 1,000 years ago,
with a holy man who just wanted to keep warm at night,
and his relationship with a very special kind of duck.
The eider is our largest, heaviest and fastest-flying duck,
with one of the most bizarre sounds of any British bird.
An eider duck,
which is a very masculine, butch bird, I always think,
because they have a big chest,
you know - they come out with this absurd noise,
which sounds like a cross between a shocked lady, a posh lady, I always think,
who's heard something a bit naughty, and Frankie Howerd.
They sort of sit on the water and go "Ooh! Ooh!"
It wasn't the sound which made the eider world-famous, but its plumage.
To line her nest,
the female plucks soft feathers from her own breast.
These are, ounce for ounce,
the warmest natural material known to man, and gave their name to
a household object once found in every home in Britain -
People don't put that together sometimes - an eiderdown,
thing you put on your bed, yeah, it's eider duck.
One of the first people to appreciate the benefits
of getting close to eider ducks was a seventh-century monk, St Cuthbert.
Cuthbert and his fellow monks
had chosen a life of devotion and austerity
in one of the more remote and chilliest places in Britain -
Holy Island, off the Northumberland coast.
They shared their home with a large population of nesting eider ducks.
I think Cuthbert
gained notoriety for his relationship with the eider duck.
And people who went to visit him were amazed that these ducks
followed him around, and it kind of gave him a saintly appearance.
What they didn't realise was that all ducks have this propensity
to imprint onto the first thing they see when they hatch out of the egg.
So he must have had some eider duck eggs,
and the chick emerged from the shell, saw him,
and thought, "You must be my mum,"
because that would be the natural situation.
Cuthbert was so fond of his eider ducks that he passed strict laws
forbidding anyone from killing them or stealing their eggs or down.
This was the very first time any British bird
had been given official protection.
But did this saintly man have another, more selfish motive
for offering sanctuary to the eiders?
I mean, it's possible that it was
for his own warmth, basically,
that "I don't want anybody else taking these eider ducks,
"because I'm going to... I want a very, very, very big eiderdown."
I think St Cuthbert was looking after an economic asset,
but was also, in that classic Christian tradition,
seen as somehow transcending
our own ideas of animals being fearful of Man the Hunter.
Today, the saintly Cuthbert is commemorated
in the local name for the eider,
affectionately known as "Cuddy's duck".
And he deserves to be remembered -
by protecting the eider ducks, he was way ahead of his time.
Britain's waterbirds would not be truly safe for another 1,200 years.
In the centuries following Cuthbert's death,
Britain's waterbirds continued to thrive.
And they had plenty of space in which to do so -
vast areas of the country, from the Somerset Levels in the west
to the Norfolk Broads in the east, were permanently flooded,
providing mile after mile of ideal habitat.
But the greatest wetland of all was that huge, marshy area
covering much of East Anglia known as the Fens.
Wild fenland in the past
would have been a remarkably diverse and busy place.
It would have been a wonderful place for the modern naturalist to enjoy.
It would have been full of pools with ducks and other waterfowl,
there would have been reed beds full of warblers,
there would have been herons and egrets staking out the edges of pools.
The water itself would have been full of fish and eels,
and it would have been just a very dynamic, vibrant, functioning ecosystem.
It was a vast wilderness, and must have been
one of the most important wetlands in the whole of Europe.
For the human inhabitants of this watery wilderness,
these vast gatherings of waterbirds were like manna falling from heaven.
They would go out onto the water with these walls of netting,
and in a single drive, they would catch up to 5,000 mallard.
I mean, 5,000 mallard caught in a single drive,
tells you that the overall population was multiples of that,
was absolutely gargantuan.
And this bountiful natural harvest was seen as theirs by divine right -
literally a gift from God.
It was the general assumption, wasn't it,
until very, very recently indeed, that the whole of creation,
apart from us, was put there for our benefit -
that the plants and animals are separate from people,
that the relationship is one of subjugation, really.
If they were hungry, they saw them as something to eat.
The height of this conspicuous consumption
came during the 14th and 15th centuries,
with the mediaeval equivalent of a celebrity wedding - the royal feast.
These medieval feasts were very much about
how wealthy the person giving the feast was.
How many birds I can have on my table tells you how powerful I am.
And the number and diversity of birds that were eaten
at these feasts is absolutely incredible.
The feast which for me is most extraordinary
is a 1465 feast by Lord Neville,
when he was enthroned as Archbishop of York.
And they gathered together I think it was something like,
something between 14,000 and 16,000 wild birds.
And that included 200 herons, 200 bitterns.
I mean, 200 bitterns is the entire British population in one meal.
There were said to be 200 cranes,
there would have been huge numbers of swans.
And all these birds would have been an expression of your ability
to access wild protein
in the most exalted kind of feast that you could imagine.
Yet surprisingly, the killing and eating of these birds
on this gargantuan scale had very little effect on their numbers.
So long as there were still large areas of fenland
where they could live and breed,
Britain's waterbirds continued to thrive.
But as the modern age dawned,
their world was about to be turned upside down.
In one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in our history,
this marshy landscape was drained of its very lifeblood - water.
There were three big attempts to drain the Fens -
the Romans tried, the monasteries tried,
there were drainage attempts in the 13th century.
But it was the 17th century
that saw what you might describe as the industrial drainage of the Fens.
We can certainly admire the dedication and ingenuity of the men
who carried out the Herculean task of turning water into land.
But from the point of view of the wildlife that lived there,
especially the waterbirds, the loss of the fens was a total disaster.
Wild fenland has in the modern era
been replaced by a much more impoverished landscape,
a landscape dominated by agriculture and by farming,
a landscape dominated by profit.
And what we have now is much bleaker,
it's much less rich, it's much less complex.
And most importantly, there are far fewer species of bird
in that landscape.
The loss of the Fens is a catastrophic decline,
which was slow and incremental
as the intensification of agriculture proceeded, until today,
when 99% of all the Fens has gone.
It was an environmental treasure
of international importance, and we've lost it.
By the middle of the 19th century,
200 years after the draining of the Fens began,
Britain's waterbirds had reached an all-time low.
The population of once-widespread wetland species
such as the bittern had plummeted.
And the most iconic British waterbird of all, the crane,
had vanished altogether.
The draining of the Fens started us off on a rather familiar track,
whereby some of the displaced birds first became local,
then they became scarce,
then they became rare, then endangered,
and finally extinct.
Because these birds are specialists, they live in these waterlands,
they can't just relocate to woodland or agricultural land.
They depend on the Fens and the reed beds
both for nesting sites and for food.
For one bird, things were about to get even worse.
The great crested grebe would be driven to the brink of extinction
before playing a vital part in the renaissance of Britain's waterbirds.
It is so beautiful. There is something just astonishing
about watching a pair of grebes getting together
at the beginning of the breeding season, and saying,
"Are you the one for me? Go on, prove it."
And they'll come up, rise up out of the water,
going, "Look how magnificent I am, aren't I just beautiful?"
"Yeah, you're not bad."
And then just to sort of carry on the courtship -
"it's OK, I'm going to do a little bit of dance with some weed
"hung beautifully over my bill, you won't be able to resist me."
But it doesn't look like slimy old pond weed when they're doing it -
it could be a tango with a rose between their teeth,
it's almost that.
But by the middle of the 19th century,
the great crested grebe was in big trouble.
With fewer than 100 breeding pairs in the whole of Britain,
it was on the verge of following the crane into oblivion.
Its downfall was due to high society ladies -
the fashion victims of their day.
In the streets of London, Paris and New York, the plumage of birds
was becoming the latest must-have fashion accessory.
Society women strove to outdo each other
with the extravagance of their headgear -
first with birds' feathers, then their skins,
and eventually the whole bird itself.
Some women looked like exhibits from the Natural History Museum.
Vast numbers - tens of thousands of birds -
were killed every year for their plumage.
People thought, you know, "I must have feathers in my hat,
"I must have a feather boa, I must have ruffs, I must have,"
you know, "things on my cape that basically should be on a bird."
For the great crested grebe, the way it had evolved to suit its aquatic lifestyle
turned out to be its Achilles heel.
Grebes spend their entire lives on water - courting, feeding and even building a floating nest.
To keep themselves warm, they have developed unusually dense feathering.
What was known as grebe fur, the kind of really downy, dense feathers
that were so important to the bird, to keep them waterproof,
could be made into material for hats, or again used as a sort of edging,
or, you know, a flourish on some sort of frippery.
As the demand for feathers and plumes grew, so more and more birds were slaughtered
to supply this grisly trade.
But not everyone was happy with the exploitation of birds in the name of fashion,
and one group of women, in the Manchester suburb of Didsbury, decided to take a stand.
The RSPB initially was a society of fairly posh women,
the kind of women who otherwise would be wearing the hats.
It was a small group of women who went, "Hang on a second, there's something not right about this."
We don't like what's going on.
It is a hat worth it? No, it's not.
They were imbued with a humanitarianism that captured and brought along a lot of people,
and they pointed out the suffering of animals,
and said that something had to be done about it.
These "ornithological suffragettes" went about their campaign in an unusual but highly effective way.
The strategies that these Victorian ladies used
to campaign against the plumage trade were actually incredibly visionary.
They held promotional afternoons, they went to church,
and they noted down the names of ladies who were sitting in pews
with these feathers in their hats, and then on a Monday,
these ladies would receive a hectoring letter,
pointing out the suffering of the bird that had died to simply adorn the lady's hat.
Imagine receiving a letter that said, you know,
"Do you realise there are 15 species of bird in your hat,
"and you have, in effect, killed them?"
By 1889, they had enough supporters
to form their own Society for the Protection of Birds, charging tuppence a time for membership.
15 years later, they received the royal seal of approval
and became the RSPB.
But in their concern for the birds' welfare,
might these women also have been thinking about their own domestic repression?
A lot of the things they were saying were about the effects on female birds.
So, for example, the horrible photographs
of Australian egret colonies being slaughtered during the nesting season,
the great piles of adults on the ground were always described as female birds
that had been killed at the nest,
when in fact it probably would have been almost equal male and female.
There is a reading of this great desire to protect birds
from the horrible shooting and depredations of men
that might point to a displacement of women's own anxieties
about their inability to control cruelty in the domestic sphere.
I think it was part of an emancipation of women as adornment.
Women saw the elaborate hat on their head as in some way
a metaphor for their own social uselessness,
and they didn't want to be useless -
they were incredibly gifted, capable,
all the things that women are being empowered to achieve today.
They protested and fought against the exploitation of birds
before anyone fought against the fact that women didn't have the vote.
This is astonishing!
Thanks to the efforts of the pioneering founders of the RSPB,
the great crested grebe had been saved - just in the nick of time.
This was a crucial turning point in our relationship with all Britain's birds.
I think all those of us in the modern era who cherish wild birds
owe these Victorian radicals who came together to form the RSPB
an absolutely enormous debt of gratitude.
During the following century, Britain's waterbirds would still face threats, but from now on,
our attitudes would shift from exploiting them to offering them protection.
Before we could do so, however, we needed to learn more about them.
As the 20th century dawned,
Britain began to throw off many of the outdated customs of the Victorian era.
But one area proved stubbornly resistant to change -
the way we studied birds.
Professional ornithology at that time was museum ornithology -
it was understanding the relationships of birds,
understanding their anatomy, and how that fed into classification.
So the idea that anybody would go out and study wild birds
was anathema to these museum people.
Scientists thought that science was what you did in a laboratory,
where you could control all the circumstances,
and you could make worthwhile observations
because you could control elements,
and so you could then vary particular ones and see which was significant and so on.
And science was not going out watching dickie birds -
I mean, in the scientists' view.
One young scientist, Julian Huxley, was deeply frustrated
with the status quo and decided to do something about it.
So in the spring of 1912, he took a fortnight's holiday
in the peaceful surroundings of Tring Reservoirs in Hertfordshire.
His plan was to take a close look at one particular waterbird -
the great crested grebe, which, thanks to the good ladies of the RSPB,
had made something of a comeback.
"A notebook, some patience, and a spare fortnight in the spring.
"With these I not only managed to discover
"many unknown facts about the crested grebe,
"but also had the pleasantest of holidays.
"Go thou and do likewise."
I remember as an undergraduate been told that Julian Huxley
had done this amazing, ground-breaking study
on the courtship behaviour of great crested grebes,
simply in his Easter holiday with his brother.
And the idea that you could do something worthwhile in two weeks
just by being organised and focused was a tremendous inspiration.
But just like the women behind the RSPB,
there may have been a hidden side to Huxley's motives.
Despite his rigorous scientific training,
he couldn't help getting deeply involved in the more intimate details of the grebes' behaviour.
"The hen swam to the nest, leapt on to it, and sank down in the passive attitude once more.
"Upon this, the cock came up to the nest, jumped on to the hen's back,
"and they apparently paired successfully -
"both birds meanwhile uttering a special shrill, screaming cry."
I think it conformed to his mental image of the way birds ought to be,
which was monogamous.
This was very clearly a set of displays between a male and a female
working together, in what he called a harmonious relationship.
I find it very bizarre that Huxley's private life was anything but monogamous, anything but harmonious,
yet he kind of imposed those values on the birds that he studied.
Julian Huxley went to Eton, where, like most...
well, not most,
but a few Eton schoolboys, he would have great crushes on other schoolboys,
and he used to follow them around at a distance, worshipping them,
and then he left Eton and came up to Cambridge,
and at that time was engaged in a kind of engagement with a woman.
And he was finding it all a little bit weird and strange.
He was very attracted to this woman,
but found the actual mechanics of getting to grips with her quite off-putting
and a little unfortunate, and he...he blamed all this on his Edwardian upbringing.
So, he went off and hid in reed beds at Tring and watched great crested grebes having sex,
which he described as being as exciting to the birds as it is to the watcher.
Huxley's peculiar obsession with the sex life of grebes had far-reaching consequences.
Without intending to, he had created a whole new branch of science -
ethology, or the study of animal behaviour.
What was novel about Julian Huxley's study of great crested grebes
wasn't anything to do with technology.
All he had was a pair of binoculars and a notebook.
But what he had that other bird-watchers didn't have
was training in zoology and understanding of evolutionary processes.
"A pair of birds, cock and hen,
"suddenly approached each other,
"raising their necks and ruffs as they did so.
"Then, they both began shaking their heads at each other
"in a peculiar and formal-looking manner."
He analyses the behaviour of these waterbirds.
He doesn't just say, "Isn't that extraordinary?
"Look at those wonderful movements."
What he does is, he asks about the origin and evolution of those movements,
and the significance of each of the actions made by the birds.
Huxley's eureka moment came when he began to analyse
exactly what these peculiar movements really meant.
It was clearly preening
and cleaning and shaking,
but they didn't look like ordinary shaking movements -
they'd become stylised, they'd become modified and they had become display patterns.
When, at a moment of high stress, you do something which...
to discharge that stress, which is a normal piece of activity,
in the same way as I might pull my ear if I'm getting rather nervous about something.
That was one of the early things that Julian established.
Julian Huxley would go on to become one of the century's
leading scientists, statesmen and broadcasters,
as well as launching Pets' Corner at London Zoo.
We intend to allow people to get a more intimate contact with animals
than they can do in the ordinary cages...
But his greatest legacy
was that he had found a way of allowing ordinary people
to take part in genuine scientific study.
And ultimately, by understanding our birds, we would be better able to protect them.
He was one of those who turned bird-watching into a science,
and who recognised that in bird-watchers -
passionate, dedicated, amateur bird-watchers -
you had a huge scientific resource,
that if you could mobilise it and organise it,
here was a huge source of data.
By the early 1930s, thanks to Huxley's pioneering work,
amateur bird-watchers had begun to make a real contribution to science.
Throughout the spring and summer, they would be out and about
carrying out detailed surveys of Britain's breeding birds.
One of the earliest of these was a nationwide count of nesting great crested grebes.
And for the third time in this story,
this humble waterbird would make a major contribution to our own history,
this time in the field of social science.
One of the people involved was a chap called Tom Harrisson,
who had an extraordinary career - he makes Lawrence of Arabia look a bit tame.
And he had enough enemies, because he specialised in making enemies.
I mean, that was what he really enjoyed doing -
making a good couple of enemies today, and the day was well spent, I would think!
But initially, he started off censusing grebes with a friend of his,
and what's great about their grebe census is that they recruited thousands of people,
and they did so with a sort of media blitz.
They put articles in all the newspapers, they wrote to vicars and landowners, and they trespassed.
They ended up having about 1,300 responses.
As he travelled around the country counting grebes, Harrisson had a flash of inspiration.
He would take the methods he used to study birds
and apply them to investigating the behaviour of another species - his own.
He called this new approach mass observation.
A mass observation
was an attempt to map mass behaviour.
I mean, the great word for the people in the 1930s - mass, mass culture,
So, to observe ordinary people and to understand what makes them tick
at leisure, at work, at home, in a whole series of categories.
So it was a kind of live sociological survey,
not just looking at statistics, but actually going out and observing people.
One was greatly struck working in these contexts
in a place like Bolton with the complete discrepancy
between what all the sort of people I was working with thought
and talked about and what was being reported in the newspapers,
and even, if I may say so, in the BBC of those days.
There were in fact, in those years, two different languages,
almost, being spoken in England - two different languages of thought.
At a time when you've got a very stratified society,
where classes are concerned, and a lot of snobbery,
it was quite a breakthrough
to say ordinary people's lives are worth studying in this way.
It seems now absolutely obvious that you should study human beings
in that kind of cold, detached, objective way.
But you try and find someone who did it before.
Harrisson's pioneering approach to studying human behaviour
owed a lot to the way he had honed his skills of observation through watching birds.
The notion that what human beings did,
in the way they danced - where they put their hands,
whether it was up between the shoulder blades
or whether it was lower down on the waist -
people's patterns of speech, all these things
were exactly the same curiosity of degree, of detail,
which he had when he was a boy, and he did birds.
It's social research as bird-watching.
You don't talk to them, you don't participate,
you stand aside and watch it through binoculars.
So, to some extent, it's interesting that he was a bird watcher,
because Mass Observation was a bit like that, I think.
Mass Observation revolutionised the way we look at ourselves for ever.
Its methods are still being used today,
in university departments of sociology, in market research,
and in fly-on-the-wall television documentaries.
In the years between the two world wars,
when Harrison and his fellow birdwatchers were counting grebes,
Britain's waterbirds continued their comeback
from the low point in their fortunes a century before.
Every autumn, vast flocks of ducks, geese and swans,
collectively known as wildfowl,
arrived in their millions, as they had done for centuries.
They came here from all over the northern hemisphere for one simple reason -
We might not always appreciate it, but Britain has a relatively mild winter climate,
with ice-free waters allowing birds to feed all season long.
But although they were no longer persecuted as they once had been,
they faced a new threat -
in this increasingly crowded island, would there be enough room for them to survive?
Fortunately they had a champion,
in the shape of a truly extraordinary man - Sir Peter Scott.
Peter Scott was...
a remarkable man. If the 20th century was to have
a patron saint of conservation,
then it would be Sir Peter Scott.
Peter was urbane,
a delight to be with, always generous.
Beneath, he had a will of iron,
a will of steel.
Scott's iron will owed much to his heritage
as the only son of Britain's great hero,
Captain Scott of the Antarctic.
And it was thanks to his father
that he became interested in birds in the first place.
My father really wanted me to be interested in natural history.
And he wrote a message to my mother in the tent where he died in the Antarctic
which got found the next spring, when they were there.
And it was a letter in which he said,
make the boy interested in natural history -
it is better than games, they teach it at some schools.
Peter carried his early life the burden of being Captain Scott's son.
And also, that knowledge, I think, that his father didn't get there
made him absolutely extraordinary competitive underneath.
This competitive spirit was reflected in every aspect of Scott's life.
Right from the very beginning,
he was regarded in a sort of heroic mould.
He was a figure-skating champion in the 1930s.
He was a dinghy sailing champion. So he was a top-class sailor.
On top of all that, he did paintings
which were very successful and very popular.
Despite this dazzling array of talents, Scott followed his father's dying wish
and devoted his life to conserving and protecting wild birds.
Yet before he could begin, he had a journey of his own to make,
for his early encounters with birds came not with a paintbrush or a pair of binoculars,
but down the barrel of a gun, shooting and killing the very birds
he later came to protect.
But I think that there is an instinct within us which goes back to our forefathers,
when we had to kill to eat. And I think it's still there.
And I'm bound to say that I passed through a period, and I don't...
I mean, I hate remembering it, but I don't want to cover it up,
because it's true, it was a time when I really took great delight
in successfully killing.
And this, I hate to think it was so, but it was so.
Peter Scott did start as a wildfowler, he was an incredibly keen wildfowler,
and he shot an awful lot of geese.
This was a very common upper-class pursuit at the time,
and there were a lot of stories of people
who decided for one reason or another
that they had to stop doing this.
And Peter Scott's came when he shot a goose one day
and it landed injured far out of shore, and he couldn't reach it.
And he saw the bird live, flutter down, crippled.
And he saw it struggling in the shallows,
and he couldn't get to it.
The mud was too deep and too thick and so on.
So he had to watch this poor beast, poor bird,
dying a very agonising death.
Scott, I think powerfully in his life story,
shows that journey from hunter into conservationist.
And it's a journey that actually more people than we would ever imagine have actually made.
To atone for his past life as a wildfowler,
Scott decided to study ducks, geese and swans
in order to protect them.
he founded his famous collection at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire,
where the public could for the first time get close to these birds.
It may not seem so today, but this was a truly revolutionary approach.
I think Peter pushed the boundary of how close
human beings and the wild world could be,
and how they could exist in harmony, absolutely cheek-by-jowl.
Now, of course, you can't do that, it's not easy to do that with lions,
but you can do it with wildfowl.
He built a whole zoo based purely on wildfowl.
And people said at the time, that won't last,
you can't expect people just to go and see wild fowl. But they did.
But Peter Scott did far more than simply establish a collection of waterbirds.
His lifelong passion had taught him a crucial lesson,
one which would change the way we regarded the natural world for ever.
He was one of the very first people to truly appreciate
the intimate connection between these birds
and the places where they live.
Peter learnt very early on that the environment,
and the animal, were actually indissolubly linked.
He realised that actually taking a bird
and putting it out of its environment
was actually, it wasn't that bird any more,
and it could only exist, in the real sense of the word,
in its proper circumstances.
What that taught people was that actually,
there was no use protecting just the species -
you needed to protect the habitat in which the species lived,
because the habitat and the species were incredibly interlinked.
Scott put his theory into practice
by establishing a network of wetland sites all over the UK.
The last of these, the London Wetland Centre at Barn Elms,
was only created after his death in 1989.
Crucially, it brought waterbirds into the lives of a whole new audience - urban Londoners.
He painted, his last picture - and this is quite poignant -
was his vision of what Barn Elms could be,
with the city skyline, with the skyscrapers at the back,
and at the front, wild fowl.
And that's come about, and it's come about because of Peter.
And the most poetic thing which I treasure is that there are birds in Siberia,
if birds could talk, who will say,
"Oh, well, it's getting on, you know, getting out of water,
"I think the place to go is Barn Elms."
And birds all over the north, in the autumn,
and the south, in the spring, head for Barn Elms,
voluntarily go to the middle of the biggest conurbation of human beings in Western Europe,
and say, that's the place to be. I think that's wonderful.
To the general public, Peter Scott's greatest fame
came via the new medium of television,
with the BBC series Look.
One episode, broadcast in the late 1950s,
told the story of how a rare waterbird had come back from the dead.
The avocet - Avoceto recurvirostra -
black-and-white wader with a turned-up bill.
This is a bird which used to breed in Britain,
and then disappeared as a breeding species for about 100 years,
and then, quite unexpectedly, returned,
and has dramatically increased in numbers during the last 10 years.
The avocet is one of the most beautiful yet bizarre-looking of all our waterbirds.
They're British birds, but have a touch of the exotic about them,
which gives them a little something extra, I think.
They're very public birds, in that you can easily observe their behaviour.
You can see them on the nest, you can see their courtship.
But its elegant demeanour conceals some pretty anti-social habits.
Avocets are another of those birds which appear to be the epitome
of grace and elegance, and have a really nasty side to them.
They are so belligerent.
They will drive away anything else.
Today, almost 1,000 pairs of avocets breed in Britain,
with even more wintering on our south-coast estuaries.
The avocet's success is, without question, the jewel in the RSPB's crown.
But they might not be here at all had it not been for Adolf Hitler
and his plans to invade Britain.
Avocets made a dramatic return to this country.
It was in the late 1940s,
in the aftermath of the war,
when they returned to the habitat of flooded marshlands on the Suffolk coast,
which ironically had been created as a consequence of the war.
To counter the threat of a Nazi invasion,
land had been flooded at a little place called Minsmere.
Soon afterwards, a wayward bomb from a firing range
blew a hole in the sea wall at nearby Havergate Island.
Water from the tidal river flooded in, creating the ideal habitat for avocets.
In the spring of 1947, they returned to Suffolk
and began to breed - much to the delight of a war-weary nation.
# We'll meet again
# Don't know where
# Don't know when... #
Interestingly, the avocet was not seen as a refugee.
It was seen as a returning Briton.
And if you think of it in terms of the waves
of returning servicemen from overseas, British serviceman,
it was kind of seen in those sorts of terms.
People would have responded to this return with a great sense of excitement,
and also, I think, with a sense of restitution of the natural order,
and at a deeper level, perhaps, the repelling of an invader.
The RSPB bought the land,
and turned Minsmere into their showpiece reserve.
Today, more than 100,000 visitors come here each year
to enjoy over 100 species of breeding bird,
including, of course, the avocet.
So when it came to choosing a logo for the RSPB,
what could be more appropriate than this beautiful bird,
which by then had become an icon of the bird protection movement?
And I'm very proud to be a vice-president of the society.
In fact, I'm wearing the society's tie here,
which, appropriately enough,
has a large number of avocets all over it.
And I think The RSPB's choice of the avocet as a symbol was very clever.
It was strange, it was glamorous, it was a bird that most people hadn't seen, but it was a bird
most people wanted to see. And it was a bird you could really only see
if you joined the RSPB and went to the reserves.
And as a logo, the avocet had one other great advantage -
in the days before colour printing, it was black and white!
500 miles to the north,
in the forests of Speyside in the Highlands of Scotland,
another waterbird was also about to make a dramatic comeback.
By the early 20th century, the osprey had been driven to the very edge of extinction
as a British breeding bird.
And it all came down to its diet of choice - fish.
The osprey was a problem for fish farmers in the Middle Ages,
when Britain was a Catholic country, like the near Continent,
and eating a fish on Fridays was extremely important.
And every big house or abbey or castle, whatever,
throughout the whole of England and Wales, would have had a fish pond.
And if you provide a fish pond,
whether you did it in the Middle Ages or you do it now,
all the ospreys go straight to it.
And so those people had killed out ospreys.
Later, ospreys went the way of all birds with hooked beaks and sharp claws.
There were also shot as sporting trophies,
and they also suffered through the Victorian and later Edwardian fascination
for collecting eggs, particularly the eggs of rare bird species.
Then, in 1954, a pair of ospreys
returned to nest at a secret site in the Highlands.
These birds were incredibly vulnerable,
and the RSPB's George Waterston took drastic steps
to guard against the continued threat of nest-robbers.
They set up what has become known as Operation Osprey,
but was in effect, if you like, the militarisation of a natural landscape.
Waterston had been a prisoner of war,
and when he was charged to look after the osprey nest in Speyside,
he spent a lot of time creating a prisoner of war camp around it.
He had barbed wire, he had watchers
who would peer down the sights of .22 rifles at the nest,
just in case anyone came to steal the eggs.
He recapitulated his wartime experiences in Scotland, protecting these birds.
He had a point - the nest kept getting robbed.
Waterston revealed his fears for the ospreys
in an interview with Peter Scott.
I suppose there are still the odd egg collectors who go after them?
Yes, oh, it was a perfectly scandalous thing, Peter.
At about 2.30 in the morning, under cover of darkness,
a raider climbed the tree,
and although our chaps rushed out immediately to intercept him,
he was able to get up into the tree,
take out the osprey eggs, and in order to escape our clutches,
he jumped from the top of the tree
and made off into the bushes under cover of darkness.
And what annoyed us - of course, we were furious about the whole thing -
but I think it was dreadful to think that these birds were halfway through the incubation period.
It's incredible to think in this day and age that people can do that sort of dreadful act.
It was then that Waterston made a brave and far-reaching decision.
Instead of keeping the nest site secret,
he would not only tell the public where it was,
but invite them to come and visit.
There was absolute horror in the mainstream conservation movement at the time.
The nests of any rare breeding bird had to be kept secret.
Waterston was essentially saying exactly the opposite.
People thought he was mad.
People thought it was just crazy.
As it turned out, the sceptics were wrong,
and Waterston absolutely right.
In that first summer of 1959, no fewer than 14,000 visitors
made the long trek north to see the birds.
It was then that the method behind Waterston's apparent madness became clear.
In a curious way, the public in some sense
did the job of the nest guardians,
because they were present day in, day out,
throughout the breeding season.
So therefore it was a clever bit of PR.
On the one hand, the bird became a celebrity,
and became a means of galvanising interest in birds.
But it also made it much more difficult
for those who might want to steal the eggs of the osprey,
because the public was always on hand.
It's the house you don't burgle because you know there are going to be people in.
That was the thinking - we'll tell the public it's there.
But not everyone was a fan of this new approach.
I went to see the Loch Garten ospreys
with a sense of great excitement in the early 1960s.
I'd never seen an osprey.
But my experience was probably untypical
in that I was terribly disappointed.
When I got near to the site, I walked down the boardwalk,
I entered a hide that was jammed with people,
I was pushed in front of a mighty telescope,
which was trained on a distant tree, that was swathed with barbed wire,
and all I saw was the top of a head.
It was rather like going into an armed camp,
or heavily-fortified zoo, and it was a complete anti-climax.
Even so, in the 50 years since Operation Osprey began,
more than 2 million visitors have made the trip to Loch Garten,
making these ospreys the most famous dynasty of birds anywhere in the world.
Very quickly, osprey became a trademark, really, an icon.
And villages would call themselves Osprey village, and Osprey hotels,
and osprey this and osprey that and osprey holidays...
In fact, the number of different companies that use ospreys as a logo
and a kind of trade mark is immense.
People still go to Loch Garten today,
despite the fact that there are many, many other pairs of ospreys!
I think it's for a very good reason, they get a bit of a show there.
They know they're going to have a video feed,
there will be people who'll tell them all about it, they can join the RSPB,
they can buy a fluffy osprey - which are very good, I recommend them,
you press them and they call -
you know, it's show business. And it works very, very well.
And once the RSPB realised just how successful
bringing birds and people together could be,
they rolled it out all over the country,
creating a whole new way of watching birds.
George opening up Loch Garten so that people could come
really was the person who invented eco-tourism.
The model that was born at Loch Garten in 1959,
and developed over subsequent decades, has been rolled out across Britain very successfully.
And just as we might identify Loch Garten with osprey tourism,
so we now look to the Isle of Mull for white-tailed eagle tourism.
For children all over Britain,
the Isle of Mull means just one thing - the TV series Balamory.
But it's also home to another major tourist attraction -
Britain's biggest bird of prey.
With a wingspan wider than a man's arms,
and standing as tall as a large dog,
the white-tailed sea eagle is the big daddy of British waterbirds.
The white-tailed eagle is the biggest of our eagles.
It's rather vulture-like in some ways.
It's got extremely big, broad wings,
10ft across, a huge bird.
When it's adult, it's got a white head,
brilliant yellow bill, and a pure white tail.
I can tell you
that the first time you see one, you will never forget it.
Probably like your first kiss.
They have a haughtiness.
There's something kind of...
well, kind of terrifying about the look of them, really.
It's a bird which was breeding throughout the whole of Britain,
but it was exterminated very early on, and finally
stopped breeding in the early parts of the 1900s in Britain.
Unlike the osprey, the white-tailed eagle
didn't manage to return to Britain on its own.
So it was given a helping hand by us,
with birds from Scandinavia released on the west coast of Scotland
from the 1970s onwards.
Today, the eagles attract thousands of visitors to Mull,
bringing more than £1 million a year into the local economy.
But not everyone is entirely comfortable with these birds
being turned into a tourist attraction.
It is still a way of using nature.
There's no escape from the fact that we are using ospreys to generate money,
we are using white-tailed eagles to generate money.
The fact that animals, and in this case birds, have a particular financial value
is something that sits ill with many people.
And recent proposals to release the eagles into parts of eastern England
have also provoked passionate views on both sides of the debate.
The disappointing thing was,
I think many people thought that as soon as we had
20 pairs breeding in the Hebrides, in Skye and Mull,
the job was done.
Whereas others of us felt, the job is not done
until we have them breeding back all the way from the Channel coast to Shetland.
I think, if we had big birds of prey - white-tailed eagles -
back in England, rather than just in Scotland,
it would be something that we could then feel really proud of.
That we have looked after our countryside well enough
to support a beast like that.
The sea eagle did indeed once exist in other parts of England,
many centuries ago, so there is a case for reintroducing it to those areas.
The cynical view is that this is done in the name of biodiversity,
but little attention is played to birds like, say,
the spotted flycatcher, the corn bunting, tree sparrow, willow tit,
all of which are equally endangered, but aren't such good box office.
So, one begins to wonder, are the societies promoting the interests of the sea eagle,
or is the sea eagle promoting the interests of the societies?
No doubt the debate over our role in these birds' comeback will continue.
But one thing can't be denied.
Just how far the bird protection movement has come
since the days when women spied on each other in church
to stop grebes being turned into fashion accessories.
Today, Britain's waterbirds are thriving.
From avocets to ospreys,
white-tailed eagles to bitterns, and great crested grebes,
their populations are on the rise.
Now, deep in the West Country,
another lost waterbird is being brought back from the dead.
It's one of the rarest
and most iconic British birds of all - the crane.
They're incredibly tall - they are our tallest bird.
They have a greater wingspan than even our eagles.
If you were trying to personify them, I think
Jarvis Cocker would be a good analogy -
kind of tall, rangy, a little bit quirky, elegant,
with an astonishing voice.
Yet for most of the past 300 years, since the draining of the Fens,
cranes have been missing from the British scene.
Now, they are set to return.
In an ambitious reintroduction scheme, these young cranes
are being released onto the Somerset Levels.
If they survive, they will soon be flying free
over the home of King Arthur, the ancient land of Avalon.
If we've got space for a bird
that stands as tall as many of our children,
if we've got room for a bird with a wingspan of over three metres,
in this intensely crowded island,
it's a symbol of hope for all of us, I think.
But welcome though the sight of cranes flying over the Somerset Levels will be,
they won't be the first to return to Britain.
For in a remote corner of Norfolk, 250 miles to the east,
the cranes have made their own comeback - without our help.
In 1980, a tiny nucleus of birds returned
to exactly the same location
that the last known wild breeding cranes came from.
A place in Norfolk called Hickling.
And from the 1980s, this tiny population has built up.
I think the wonderful thing about this
is those cranes did it on their own.
They surprised us by achieving a restoration in this country without ourselves.
And I think it's proof that we aren't in charge, necessarily.
I'm excited to see cranes
in the places I see them in East Anglia.
And I'm excited particularly because I know about the history of their return.
The fact that they found their own way back
seems to me a very important point.
The danger of conservation is that it reinforces that older idea
that we are always the ones that arbitrate what happens in our landscape.
And what the cranes are a symbol of is that
sometimes nature can do it without us.
We aren't really always that in control.
Next time in Birds Britannia,
we explore our rise and fall as a seafaring nation,
through our long and turbulent relationship
with the most spectacular of all Britain's birds - our seabirds.
It's a story of exploitation and conflict,
ranging from the ancient use of seabirds as food
to their very recent arrival in our modern, urban lives.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
The British have always had a passion for waterbirds and the wild and lonely places where they live, but by destroying these vast wetlands we drove them to the brink of extinction. At the eleventh hour the tide turned, and instead of exploiting these birds we chose to protect them.