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For me, watching wildlife is one of life's greatest pleasures.
And my favourite place to do it
is right here, in my beloved West Country.
This captivating corner of the British Isles...
There's six right underneath us.
..has a cast of creatures that is as awe-inspiring,
extraordinary and magical as any.
Oh, come on, no way!
I'm hoping to get as close as I can to as many as I can...
Right, I'm ready.
This is great, this is measuring an eel. Whoa, oh,
Ants! Off, off! There's one inside.
..with the help of a band of dedicated nature lovers.
Some of the patterns on the feathers, they're beautiful!
-Look, look, look!
-That's so cool.
There's one in my hair now, Poppy.
I'll share the thrill of the chase...
-Do you hear them?
-I heard something.
Yeah, they're in there.
The sheer joy of the encounter...
-She's so golden.
-She's fast asleep.
And I'll pitch in to help these local heroes
safeguard the future of our precious animals.
Bye-bye. There she goes.
I can't believe I've been living in the West Country for so many years
and I've never done this before.
This will be a year-round adventure...
..as we explore the natural wonders of the UK's very own Wild West.
This is the Wye Valley.
From its gently gurgling shady streams,
to its dramatic ravines with their thickly forested slopes...
This dappled and diverse landscape is the perfect hideaway
for some rather particular species of British wildlife.
Catching up with them isn't always easy.
But simply being in these tranquil, secluded surroundings
is always a pleasure.
As soon as you arrive in this part of the Wye Valley,
you know you've found somewhere really special.
It feels like one of nature's secret gardens,
and I just can't wait to uncover some of those secrets.
The Wye Valley straddles the border
between England and Wales.
To the east of the river
is the wooded wonderland
of the Forest of Dean.
The scenery here inspired an
18th-century tourist boom,
with spots like Tintern Abbey
among its star attractions.
In the sun-dappled woodland around Tintern, this torrent of clean,
clear water is typical of the tributaries of the Lower Wye.
These fast-flowing woodland streams are a really special habitat.
The combination of dense vegetation and clear, pure water
makes for an abundance of invertebrate life in the stream.
And that's an opportunity for all kinds of creatures.
But for one special bird, this place is pretty much paradise.
This is the dipper.
At first sight, it doesn't look that unusual.
A brown bird about the size of a thrush, with a tell-tale white bib.
But the understated appearance hides a remarkable talent.
Its ability to dive and swim in fast-flowing water singles out
the unassuming dipper as a total one-off.
It's Britain's only aquatic songbird.
In many parts of the UK, dipper numbers are falling sharply,
so the Lower Wye really is a very precious stronghold.
Although the dipper's doing well here,
it's such a specialised bird that needs a really pristine habitat,
and that means its success
is not something we can ever take for granted.
It needs all the help it can get.
So, it's great news that, round here,
the dippers have a remarkable champion - a lady whose devotion
to this little bird knows no bounds.
It's April in the lower reaches of the Wye Valley.
Stephanie Tyler is the dippers' local hero,
and she's fast becoming one of mine.
Every spring for the past four decades, she has been out on her
regular rounds with her ladder and waders checking on dozens of
dipper nests along the streams of the Lower Wye.
It started off like a dipper nest,
but it's now a lovely little wren nest, but nothing in it.
I'm going to check some of the other holes.
Just getting to each nest site puts this grandmother of five through an
aquatic assault course.
I've been prancing up and down the rivers for nigh on 40 years now.
So I started as a young woman.
Some of the sites are quite difficult to get to.
I've got to scramble down tree roots...
..climb up ladders in tunnels and hoist the ladder up after me.
And check the nest in the tunnel.
You just have to be careful.
Don't fall in deep water in waders.
I've done that, and it's not much fun.
I do it for the pure joy of doing it and the fun of doing it.
But also, to collect the data.
Because over the 40 years, I have seen changes,
you know, the dipper population has declined somewhat.
I've got the data on occupancy of about 50 territories, give or take.
Clearly, there's no stopping Steph.
I'm pretty sure there isn't a single nest in this part of the Wye
that she can't find a way to reach.
I've just climbed down to the nest,
and it's a beautiful big mossy dome hidden in all the moss.
So nobody would see it, it's just so beautifully camouflaged.
Long-term studies like this are the only way to get a grip on how the
dipper is doing.
I've got a licence to do this, not everybody should.
She's one I'm familiar with, she's an old bird.
And that lovely chestnut eye.
And these strong grippy legs and a lovely white breast,
hence the white-breasted dipper.
Just to weigh her.
Despite being unfunded,
Steph's study has provided a wealth of information on the dipper.
Steph has measured, weighed and ringed around 9,000 of these
little birds over the years.
Right, I think we'll let her go now and she can get back to her eggs.
I've finally caught up with Steph, which is clearly a feat in itself.
I've jumped at the chance to help her ring some of the season's
newly hatched chicks.
So, where is this nest you're after?
Well, that tunnel there,
it's about seven or eight metres into the tunnel.
-We'll have to crawl up that.
-Oh, really? It looks dark in there.
It is a bit, but you get a bit of light as you come through.
So, I'm going to use this...
..little mini cam, see if I can get some pictures of you
-getting the chick from the nest.
Dippers like to nest in concealed spots where their chicks are safe
from the hungry eyes of predators like sparrowhawks or jays.
-Right, I'm ready.
-OK, watch your head, it's quite low.
Normally I'd do this with waders on
because the water's normally pouring down.
That's OK. I can get wet.
It's your knees, your knees will get wet.
You're quicker than I am in here, Steph, I can tell you that.
Oh, well, I've spent a lot of my life crawling up tunnels.
I can see the nest. I might be able to get a shot of it.
Get a bit of light on it there.
So, there's you, Steph.
Beautiful structures, aren't they?
And here's the nest.
Right here. You can see the opening.
In you go.
Yep, there is still chicks in here.
I'll just bring one out, there's only or two.
Ooh, let's have a look! Let's have a look.
-Oh! Big beaks.
Well, they need that big flange, don't they?
Really impressive big beak.
The parents can see where to pop the food.
And so, that's what sort of age?
-That's about seven days old now.
They haven't grown very well.
In fact, they started off as four, and there's only two now.
Oh, dear. So you really want to...
-You're really hoping that these two will...
-Will survive, yes.
The other one, let's see...
Yes, that's roughly the same.
It's slightly bigger, that one.
Are you going to bring them both out?
No, because if the parent comes back from there and finds the nest empty,
I hate the thought of that.
So we'll leave one in, and then I'll come back for it.
HE CHUCKLES This is quite something.
You found another way of travelling through this.
-I'm like a crab.
-Yeah, I quite like it!
Different technique to exit the cave.
-That was brilliant.
-OK. It's a nice nest, isn't it?
-Nice and safe.
-I'm the intrepid cameraman, me!
Ooh, he's got an enormous gob on him, hasn't he?
And they've also got these very strong legs.
You see, even at this age, they can grip onto things.
And that's for gripping onto the rocks underwater while they are
-hunting for insects and invertebrate?
And it might look brutal,
but it doesn't touch the leg at all, it just rounds it up.
You can press as much as you like
and you're not going to impinge on the leg.
-That's big enough to stay on even as it's an adult?
I mean, they often have a bit of puppy fat at this age,
so the legs of the adults get slightly longer, but not any wider.
So it's the right ring size for the whole of its life.
Anyway, I'll pop this one back and go and get the other one.
That's a slightly bigger one.
Yes, stronger legs.
-Does that look to you to be a pretty healthy chick?
It's just getting towards the end of the season now for dippers.
And this is timed with the explosion
of insect life and larvae in the water itself?
In the water before all the mayflies and caddisfly emerge.
They're that much earlier cos
they want to get the larval stage in the water?
The larvae and the nymphs, that's right, yes.
Once they are adults, the dippers can't catch them.
Wagtails can, but not dippers.
-You really love these birds.
-I love them, and I can't stop.
My husband's really keen that I stop, you know?
But when you've got a long-term monitoring programme and you know
each individual site so well,
I can't resist to go back to see what's happening each year.
If your husband's trying to persuade you to stop,
I think he's got a job on his hands.
-It's not going to happen, is it?
-He knows that.
-He knows that, yes.
-It's not going to happen any time soon.
I don't think so.
With apologies to Steph's husband,
I'll be stealing her away for a little bit longer today,
to see what more I can find out about the delightful dipper.
On the English side of the River Wye is a majestic treescape.
The Forest of Dean.
Once the private hunting ground of Norman kings, it's home
to some of England's last surviving patches of ancient woodland.
And it provides plenty of cover and hiding places for some
very special British wildlife.
It's a late February morning and spring hasn't quite arrived.
This is a good time to see another winged wonder of the region.
If you know where to look, that is.
There's one main way in and out, really.
And that's the way we go.
The Clearwell Caves were formed naturally, then extended by
the ancient Britons, who mined them for iron over hundreds of years.
This is my playground, really, this is where I grew up.
It was a great place to bring friends and have a look round.
Jonathan Wright's family owns these caves, and still mines them,
not for iron, but for one of its by-products.
This red mineral makes a powerful dye,
which has been used by artists for millennia.
We get lots of different shades, you can just rub it off.
And if you rub it on your hand, you get quite a nice colour immediately.
And you can see why the ancient Britons would have used this.
And pigment from this mine has been used by people like Michelangelo.
Which I find mind-boggling, really.
Walk very carefully.
Today, these dedicated nature lovers
are looking for something else entirely.
A cave dwelling creature that's
found only in south-west England and Wales.
This is what's called the bear pits.
There are no bears here, obviously.
So we have five up in this chamber.
But there are a lot of bats.
Lesser horseshoe bats.
We've got several bats here...
The caves here in the Dean are the winter home to more than 1,000
of this highly endangered mammal.
Bats are considered by the miners
to actually be like canaries in the mine, so they actually...
If you see a bat, you know the air and the conditions are good.
It's a sign, an omen of good luck, really.
41 so far.
Jonathan and the team are from the Gloucestershire Bat Group.
They have a special licence to survey these caves, which make up
the largest lesser horseshoe hibernation site in Britain.
These little bats are about the size of a plum.
They feed mainly on flying insects
like midges, lacewings and caddisfly.
But they are themselves an important prey species for raptors like
sparrowhawks and barn owls.
With only 50,000 left in the UK,
it's good to know that these ones are carefully monitored.
David Priddis has collected bat data here since the 1970s.
I just got hooked!
Just because so many things about them seemed so strange.
One of those strange quirks is the bat strategy for saving energy
over winter, when there just aren't enough insects to eat.
They allow their body temperature to drop from a cosy 37 degrees -
about the same as ours - to a chilly seven centigrade.
This takes them to a state of semi-hibernation, known as torpor.
So, if we use this little thermal imaging camera at the rock,
you see it's not showing up an awful lot of very warm areas of rock.
But if I turn around to you,
then I'm getting a massive flare
of the heat coming through your caving suits, and your faces.
Very warm, glowing.
And if I put it up here where the bat is...
..there's a bat hanging there.
It's just glowing slightly warmer than the rock, but not very much.
But the contrast with my finger,
you can see how much hotter my finger is than the bat.
Every ten days or so,
they shiver their way out of the torpor to forage for food again.
And as the weather warms, those feeding forays become more regular.
And when spring arrives, it's time for the bats to break cover.
Horseshoe bats navigate their way out of the caves using echolocation.
Emitting high-pitched squawks from the horseshoe-shaped nose
that gives them their name.
They detect the reflected sound to locate their prey, too.
So effectively, they can snap a moth out of the air in mid-flight.
Their eyes are almost blind but their sonic skills give them sight.
A few miles away,
this lesser horseshoe has found a perfect spot to hang out and
devour its latest catch.
In the porch of a house.
A tell-tale sign of a bat perch are the mouse-like droppings underneath.
But not all homeowners know their bat poo as well as this one.
So you can tell bat poo because when you squeeze it like this,
it turns into dust.
When wildlife fanatic Gareth Jones realised he had bats roosting in his
porch, he jumped at the chance to get a close-up view.
The bats rest at the top here,
and I've got a camera and an infrared light here so it
doesn't disturb them or anything like that.
Now Gareth can indulge in some armchair wildlife watching,
while Horace the horseshoe bat goes about his nightly routine.
Here's Horace, our bat, he's a bit wet at the moment,
um, where he's been out hunting.
And what he's doing is cleaning his wings before he goes back out again.
So, it's amazing when you see them pushing through his wing,
and you can see his little mouth as he goes and cleans there.
There's another one that's just flown in there around the back.
And, also, he's holding on to nothing, really,
it's just the end of a bit of wood that keeps the light up.
It's incredible dexterity to do that.
The bat's powerful grip is down to an impressive adaptation.
It works the opposite way to our fingers and hands.
Bats flex their muscles to release their grip and their talons shut
when they relax.
So a resting bat's foot is in autolock,
with the tendons pulled taught by its own body weight,
enabling the bat to dangle by one leg almost effortlessly.
You see him doing everything.
You know, weeing, pooing, anything, really.
It's pretty clear that this continuing saga has a
dedicated viewer in Gareth.
It's his very own bat soap opera.
It's certainly more interesting than most of the TV around.
Which is why Gareth has taken things a bit further.
Bugging and rigging his garden
to see what other wildlife he can watch.
Gareth's garden is now chock-full of mini cams, CCTV and trail cams.
The ground is crisscrossed with buried data cables and his shed is
converted to a high-tech hub.
It's all way beyond my technical know-how.
But Gareth is in IT, so naturally,
he knows all the tricks of the trade.
Have you tried switching it off and then on again?
Yeah, that is the standard one!
With his own personal wildlife network,
Gareth has privileged access to some very special garden visitors.
You've got goshawks, you've got peregrines, you've got ravens,
you've got fallow deer, muntjac deer, roe deer, you've got the boar.
Badgers, foxes, you've got otters, you've got polecats,
you've got all sorts of things that really,
people don't really see unless they start looking.
But the arrival of a tawny owl
family could give Gareth's garden gogglebox
its most gripping story of the year.
Meanwhile, I'm back on the river to learn more about Britain's only
aquatic songbird, the dipper.
And I'm with one of the most devoted wildlife watchers I've ever met.
40 years of research have made Steph a world authority on dippers,
so I'm thrilled to be spending a bit of time with her.
What's the net for, Steph?
Well, I was going to do some kick sampling.
So, put the net downriver and then kick amongst these stones,
and see what invertebrates we can dislodge.
-Kick sampling, yes.
-That's a thing, is it?
-Want me to hold the net?
If you could hold the net and I'll
just try and move some of these stones.
So, it is quite literally...
Kicking the stones and getting them into the net.
Right, let's see what we've got.
Oh, lots of big stones.
Let's put these out into a tray.
Quite a lot of critters coming out.
What we're looking for are some mayfly nymphs,
and they're funny little invertebrates, flattened,
and they've got three tail prongs, and they have gills.
Is that there...?
-Yep. Yes, that's one.
Freshwater shrimps, would they be food for the dipper?
They'd certainly be food for the dipper,
and it eats a lot of freshwater shrimps.
Particularly in the winter months.
And it will also eat small fish as well in the winter months.
Presumably, anything in here that wriggles...
-Is dipper food.
-..is dipper food.
I think we've got a caddisfly larvae still in its casing there.
-Do you see, with its antennae coming out?
It's amazing just how much invertebrate life there is
in this stream.
This lot really did turn up after just a few kicks along riverbed.
These streams are the perfect dipper habitat.
Clean, rocky, fast-flowing stretches of water
with plenty of shallow ripples.
All containing an abundance of good dipper grub.
So we must have at least four species here.
We've got mayflies, we've got freshwater shrimps,
we've got case caddis and we've got the web-spinning caddis.
But they're tiny little things. The dipper's got to catch
quite a few of these to feed those hungry chicks.
It has got to catch a lot, but it can take nine or ten.
And it can provision, you know, 30 times an hour if it wants to.
-So, it can get the food into them.
But don't forget, at this time of the year, a lot of the bigger caddis
and the bigger mayflies are already on the wing,
so it's lost that food source.
The natural bounty in the stream doesn't last long.
So female dippers have to time their brood carefully,
then forage tirelessly.
They're just superbly adapted.
I mean, they've got very short wings for a bird of their size.
And very, very strong musculature,
so they can use them like little flippers to stay down.
-Almost like penguins.
-Like penguins, yes.
And then they've got the very strong legs and strong claws
to help them stay down.
They've got the good eyesight and they don't get wet.
They've got a very large preen gland and they're forever preening,
as you've probably seen.
And they just keep the feathers beautifully waterproof.
The dipper's famed underwater agility is something I'd love
to catch on camera.
That won't be easy.
But I've heard about another local dipper obsessive who has a better
chance than most of filming it.
Wildlife cameraman Robin Smith makes his living filming animals
all over the world.
But he lives right here in the Wye Valley,
and today his filming location is just a short stroll from home.
-Just scooch in.
It's a little bit snug, I'm afraid.
-Perfect! How are you doing?
-Great to see you.
What a brilliant spot.
Yes, it's pretty special, really.
Robin's expert eye has honed in on a dipper with what must be the
most picturesque nest site in the country.
I just get them in the frame for you. We're about there somewhere.
So, just behind that plume on the weir there,
there's a nest just up in the little culvert.
The nest is literally in there?
Literally in there, yes.
This is an ingenious place to keep the chicks safe from predators.
Robin's been watching the parents fly food into the chicks,
straight through the middle of the waterfall.
Now I'm hoping to see a repeat performance.
But first, our dipper needs to find some food.
And that little stick out of the water, that's the perch?
Yes, she'll come up on that perch,
and then when she's happy the coast is clear,
she'll just fly up into the weir there
and just go behind the waterfall. There she goes.
And that little rock, is that a favourite perch, too?
Yes, she seems to stop on that, not that often -
she was there this morning, actually.
I love those white eyelids when they flutter those.
Can you just see that white eyelid?
When she blinks, yes, that's amazing.
She's got to move soon, hasn't she?
Yes. She's preparing herself for a flight or a swim.
Come on. She's thinking about it.
Here she goes, here she goes.
So, from here, there will be a dive through the waterfall?
Yeah, pretty much.
You'll hear the chicks.
Oh, brilliant. And out again.
-Did she deliver the goods there?
-That was quick.
-Yeah, oh, yeah.
She doesn't hang about.
Absolutely brilliant, Robin, that's made my day.
And you've seen a tonne of that, basically?
Quite a bit.
-My first time.
-It never gets old.
-It's always good.
This fantastic feeding-flight shows how at home the dipper is
in this watery world.
But it's only whetted my appetite.
Now I really want to see how it moves and swims under the water.
It almost looks like they fly under water,
so they use their wings,
and they, literally, they go negatively buoyant,
they get right under the surface. They've got really strong claws,
they can grip onto the rocks underneath the surface.
They can almost...
The rumour used to be that they could walk on the bottom.
I think that's a bit of a myth.
Actually, it's more like they are flying.
So, is there any way of getting shots of them
doing this amazing swimming action?
Yes, I mean, that's the Holy Grail, really.
Well, that's a challenge.
And it's pretty obvious that Robin can't resist taking it on.
Our best chance to capture the dipper's underwater flight
on camera is right now.
The chicks are due to leave the nest any day.
So the parents are at their busiest, diving over and over again
to find enough food for their hungry brood.
So the hotspot is just the other side of the waterfall.
So, as soon as Mum delivers
another beak full of dinner and moves upstream,
we leap into action to set up some of Robin's kit.
The little waterproof mini camera.
With a bit of luck, this could give us the perfect view
of a dipper dive.
So what we will do, Hugh, if you just want to plonk it down,
you have to sort of go into the river.
But only if we can entice them to this precise spot.
For that, we need to use a wildlife cameraman's trick of the trade.
Mealworms. A favourite bird table food
that also happens to work underwater.
Now, just think of the start you're giving those chicks,
the calorific content in those mealworms for a small chick...
-It's a real boost, isn't it?
-It's a real boost.
It's a great start to life, those things.
I'm very excited that I actually got to place the camera
because if we get this shot,
which, as far as we know, has never happened before,
I actually get some of the credit!
So, the stage is set, and now, for Robin, it's a waiting game.
But these wildlife cameramen are used to that.
Dippers are one good sign of a healthy river.
And as we've seen,
that health begins with the small stuff
that's food for everything else.
With that in mind, I'm off to look for a tiny fish
that's very close to my heart.
It's pretty much at the bottom of the fishy food chain,
but it's been delighting me ever since I first caught one as a boy.
Local fishing guide, the appropriately named Adam Fisher,
knows just the place to look.
A stunning spot, Alan.
-It's great, isn't it?
-And the fish.
-Oh, look. I can see...
..tons of little guys.
These are the small fry that play a big part in the life of a river,
and the one we're after is the minnow.
I've come prepared, with the kit I've used to catch them for decades.
-So, I brought this...
..for that old-school minnow trap,
where you cut the top off and turn it round.
I haven't done that for a while.
-If you can you remember the right way round to do it...
They get in, they can't get back out. Yeah?
What have you got there? That looks a bit fancy to me.
This is a slightly more modern version, off-the-shelf.
This is an off-the-shelf minnow trap?
-It is off-the-shelf, yeah.
-I didn't know those things existed.
Nor did I.
So, we're going to have a bit of a minnow-off.
I think so. What bait have you got?
Classic. Somewhere, I've got a bread roll.
Have you got something more fancy for your bait as well?
Well, of course. More modern bait to match the modern trap.
I'm not sure if they like brown bread, but...
Oh, you think they prefer sliced white?
Yeah, I think they do!
-What have you got?
-Well, a bit of a secret.
That's some kind of proprietary trout-pellety type thing?
It is, it's oily, and they love the oil, and they just swarm round it.
There could be some skill involved too,
and that's picking the location.
We'll get to that, but first I need to engineer my trap.
So, it's as simple as that.
That's the theory. Minnow swims in here...
..a little bit of food in there,
stone to anchor it to the bottom.
Minnow swims in, swims around, can't really find its way out.
It's the lobster-pot principle,
a kind of funnel taking it into the trap,
but it's not to say he'll never get out, but it will take a bit of time,
and hopefully while he's in there, I can pick up the trap
and we'll have ourselves a minnow
to get a really close look at.
I'm telling you, they don't like brown bread.
Stop it! Stop it!
It's mind tricks, isn't it, Adam?
You're just trying to dent my confidence, get the upper hand!
Yeah, well, it's a competition of sorts, isn't it?
Apparently you've made it one!
Are they carnivorous or are they vegetarian?
I think, like most fish, they are omnivores,
they'll eat a bit of everything.
They're opportunist, there's weed there, there's going to be larvae,
there's going to be insects washed in.
-There is all sorts. So, yeah, they'll eat everything.
-Apart from brown bread.
I'm pretty sure Adam's pulling my leg,
but there's only one way to find out.
So, the opening facing downstream?
-You've got it.
-OK, here we go.
Right, well, I'm ahead of the game, Adam.
Yeah, I think so. I'm itching, if I'm honest.
You just don't want to get your feet wet, is that it?
Well, if I don't have to...
..then I won't.
It's as simple as that, is it?
I think so, I think that's bang on.
I hate to tell you this, but they're already going in there.
You think you've... Go on, prove that,
if you really think in ten seconds...
Come on, let's see it right now. In ten seconds, you've caught a fish.
-There you go.
I think there's two in there.
-One's definitely a minnow,
I'm not sure what the other one is.
-It's the fisherman in me, sorry.
I think my old-school trap might need a little more time to work.
But there are worse places to wait.
Look at this, Alan, look who's coming down the river.
I know, magnificent, aren't they?
They own the river, don't they?
Yeah, they certainly do.
They certainly do, they've got a presence, for sure.
Above the water, all is calm,
but beneath the surface it's a different story.
I have lured them all over here.
So there is literally a feeding frenzy going on.
Pete, see if you can pick this up because it's quite interesting.
They are on a pellet, that's why.
Can you see the grey that they are on?
-That's one pellet.
-That's one of your pellets?
It's literally caused a feeding frenzy.
Well, enough's enough.
Time to show Adam how it's done old school.
If you can get two in ten seconds,
surely I can get a couple in ten minutes.
They can't hate brown bread that much!
-I shouldn't laugh.
-There is not a single minnow in here.
Hiding under the stone? No.
Let's have a look what your magic pellets can do in a few minutes.
There's that many fish down there,
I can't really see the minnow trap.
Stop it! ALAN LAUGHS
-Yeah, proper ones, eh?
Proper grown-up minnows, and maybe seven or eight of them,
and a few little ones, too.
I have to say, that is stunning.
I mean, look at this guy there.
That golden line, there's a luminous golden line
just above the lateral line.
Lovely silver belly, little black spots down the tail.
I mean, almost any fish, when you look at it close-up,
-just reveals its beauty, doesn't it?
Any fish is admirable close-up, as you say.
But these guys, you know, you catch them when you're young as kids,
and then you look at them now, and they are awesome.
And of course they are a massively important food source.
Yeah, they are a massive part of the food chain,
they're really important.
They are there for other fish to feed on,
they are there for avian predators,
fish-wise we're looking at perch and pike,
avian predators, kingfisher,
cormorants, although they like larger fish,
they are going to eat these, too.
The fact that everybody wants to eat these guys,
and there are still thousands or millions of them in the river,
that's pretty good news as far as the ecology of the river goes.
Well, I think so. It's sustainable, isn't it?
If there is that many of them,
you can just see that lots and lots of minnows, you know,
is the sign of a good, healthy river.
And it's time for this mob of minnows to get back to the shoal,
and their precious but precarious position
at the bottom of the fishy food chain.
There is little doubt that the River Wye
is absolutely teeming with life.
And so too is the forest around it.
In Roman times, this place was prized for its wild game,
and in the Middle Ages,
it was protected by the Royal Court as a hunting ground.
This is some of Britain's best-preserved ancient woodland.
So it's no surprise in this rare and very special forest
that a complex variety of life has found a place to flourish.
The mature deciduous woodland isn't just a habitat,
it's an amazing diversity of different habitats,
each of which provides for an extraordinary array of wildlife.
The tree tops here in the Forest of Dean
are a stronghold for the elusive goshawk, the phantom of the forest.
And above our heads, squirrels and woodland birds
make good use of branches and tree holes.
But an equally vital sign of a healthy forest
is what happens beneath the canopy.
The rich forest floor is a world of its own,
where creatures of all shapes and sizes forage for food.
Embedded in the rich mulch of decaying leaves
is new plant life, too -
seedlings and saplings that support all kinds of bugs and invertebrates.
Including over 30 species of butterfly.
Like this one, the critically endangered Wood White.
Its slow lumbering flight makes it stand out from a distance
from any other species of white butterfly.
In spring, a carpet of bluebells are an early source of nectar
for burgeoning insect life.
And a sure sign of a woodland that has stood for hundreds of years.
Of all the animals that prosper in this timeless woodland world,
one in particular stands out.
Not least for its size.
A big and beautiful herbivore.
And a great success story of our woodland habitat.
Just a glimpse can be electrifying.
It's the fallow deer.
Their coats vary from reddish-brown
with distinctive white spots to a more muted grey.
The antlers are flattened out like the palm of a hand.
Not a native species, it was brought here after 1066 by the Normans,
who stocked the forest for hunting.
And with no natural predators
since the wolf's demise soon after the fallow arrived here,
browsing freely on the fresh vegetation to be found
among the taller trees.
A recent estimate has put the number of deer
in the Forest of Dean at over 1,000.
We're really entering a state that hasn't existed before.
The numbers of deer we have in the British Isles now
are higher than probably they've ever been.
Dr Markus Eichhorn has been investigating
the impact on the forest of all these deer.
So, that's clear deer damage.
That one there has very clearly been nibbled.
And you can see here on this tree,
you can see where something has shredded the leaves off.
The signs are easy to spot.
But without an accurate measurement,
it's impossible to assess the extent of the problem.
That calls for a more scientific approach,
and a modern piece of kit being pioneered
by Markus and his colleague, Joe Ryding.
Basically, what this does,
it's going to project a laser all the way round the forest.
So, if you think of it like taking a panoramic photo.
Is it a dangerous laser?
No, no, it's not going to cut anybody's parts off, no.
This is where we have to keep up with the scanner
so we don't get a laser in the face.
This is the first time this technique
has been used for conservation.
Marcus and Joe have scanned 40 locations in total,
and thanks to their work, the bigger picture is now becoming clear.
So, we've got the animation here.
It hasn't snowed.
You can see very clearly that there is no foliage on the trees
below a certain level.
Their data has revealed a startling fact.
Two-thirds of the foliage has gone from the lower part of the forest,
that's below head height.
The area that you actually see as you walk around,
the stuff that you're picking your way through in the forest.
When there's lots of deer,
two-thirds of those leaves have gone.
The fallow deer's true impact on the forest is starting to emerge.
You can see the level at which the deer are browsing.
Because they can only reach so high.
They'll reach up with their necks,
and some of them will walk up the side of a tree,
and will bite off the foliage that they can reach,
but they can only reach so far,
and that gives you this characteristic line
in the understorey of the forest.
The scale of the impact is leading to concern
for the very future of the forest.
In a healthy woodland,
these smaller shrubs and saplings
are not only an important habitat for wildlife...
..they are also the nursery for the new canopy trees,
the forest's precious next generation.
Right now, all of that has been eaten away, it's been stripped away,
so there's no habitat left at ground level.
You could walk through this without hitting a bush or a plant
or getting your feet tangled,
in fact, you could drive a car through this.
Markus's data makes clear that the density of the deer population here
is a threat to this ancient forest's survival.
The question now is what's to be done?
Fencing out the deer would mean enclosing forest
that people have had access to for centuries.
One suggestion is indeed the reintroduction
of the deer's natural predators, the lynx and the wolf.
But in such a populated and visited forest,
that is going to be a hard sell.
So Markus favours a more practical way
to deal with the UK's booming population of deer.
So, I've got a much simpler alternative
that I'm trying to encourage people to do,
and that's to eat them.
We should be eating wild-caught British deer.
It's free-range, they are widely available, they are easy to catch,
and if we found those in our butchers and restaurants,
and if those became a characteristic feature
of the British diet once again,
then I think that we collectively could do a great deal of good
for conservation just by changing what we eat and eating British deer.
In fact, here in the Forest of Dean,
this idea is already being implemented.
A controlled annual cull by trained marksmen
aims to bring down the fallow deer population
to reduce the impact on young trees
and allow the forest to regenerate.
The resulting venison is being sold in local butchers,
which in turn helps finance the cull.
Wildlife enthusiasts living near the Forest of Dean
don't have to travel far to get their fix.
But local IT specialist Gareth Jones has elevated the art
of stay-at-home wildlife watching to a whole new level.
Probably a bit excessive sometimes,
and probably takes up too much of my time.
A great variety of the Forest of Dean's animals
pass through his garden,
and Gareth encourages quite a few of them to stick around to be filmed.
So, we have a nest box down in that tree over there.
I put up a new nest box just here.
The box next to that, I have tree bumblebees in.
Quite often, we feed the badgers just down there.
We can have all different sorts of birds.
We also sometimes find harvest mice nests.
Great tits, blue tits, long-tailed tits.
This is my latest camera.
We get glow-worms as well.
We have around about three pairs of bullfinches.
We get through 25 kilos of sunflower seed in about three weeks,
so it can become an expensive thing.
This year, Gareth's owl box
gave him a rare peek into the family life of the tawny owl,
one of our most captivating raptors.
It's a saga I'm ready to get stuck into.
So, these are my cameras here.
So, at the moment, I've got pictures of the tawny owl up.
Tawnies are our most common owl,
and they've adapted well to living close to people.
Gareth's cameras recorded pictures and sound
of this nocturnal predator around the clock.
The story begins when the tawny owl pair decide to set up home
in Gareth's nest box.
I think the noises that tawnies make are just so much more
than the too-wit, too-woo that everyone thinks.
The warbling and all that courtship type of noises
that they make are really different,
and something that you just don't know unless you have a nest box
with sound in it.
Once her courtship calls have successfully attracted a mate,
the female bird gives the nest box a makeover
and scrapes a hollow for her eggs to rest in.
She's been incubating her first egg for a week
when she lays a second one.
It's a deliberate strategy.
The second will only survive if the food supply is good.
And the 28-day incubation period isn't without distractions.
We've seen a mandarin duck try to take over the nest box.
You can just see the beak pointing in there.
And then going in. That's the female mandarin.
And it's sent packing by the tawny.
Then one evening in April, the first chick begins to hatch.
Here is the female...
..and she is helping to break the egg open.
You can actually see the chick coming out.
Trying to work its way out of the egg.
Mum just helping her, really.
You know, it's a privilege for you to see that sort of thing, really.
But this intimate view of the owl family
takes a less heart-warming turn.
The first chick grew quite quickly,
and the second chick didn't grow so quickly, so in the end,
unfortunately, what happened was that the second chick perished.
The harsh reality is that tawny owls often hatch two chicks,
but only rarely do both of them survive.
The mother's priority now is to get her remaining chick to adulthood.
And she hunts tirelessly to feed its growing appetite.
At four weeks old,
the chick's almost ready to emerge from the nest.
As it got bigger,
it moved out and onto the platform and onto the little perch.
And in the end, it made the big jump to jump up onto the top of the box.
And the first time that Mum came back, she dived into the box,
looked around and thought, "Where has my chick gone?"
And then the chick was calling on top and she hopped up and fed it.
I think it was the second day, it was around there,
made the big flight,
the first flight, and disappeared into the undergrowth.
Tawny owl chicks don't simply fledge and leave the nest.
Like most raptors,
they continue to rely on their parents for food
and for hunting lessons
for a good couple of months after they can fly.
But before long, this tawny youngster will have to go it alone.
The parent birds will protect their territory
and drive the young owl away if needs be.
So, it's goodbye from Gareth to these tawnies for now.
Let's hope this family, or another, uses the nest box next year,
and keeps Gareth's wildlife show on the road.
I am back with dipper expert Steph and cameraman Robin,
to see if our mission to film these lovely birds diving underwater
has come good.
We've rigged some of Robin's special camera kit
in a prime spot in the stream.
And with a bit of luck, we'll have captured a dipper-cam first.
So, the moment of truth.
Right. I need my glasses for this.
-Robin's playing his cards close to his chest,
but I think he's looking pretty pleased with himself.
Ready? There we go.
-Oh, come on, no way!
-There he is.
-That is brilliant.
And it's the male, yeah.
That is just brilliant.
Steph, have you ever seen any footage like this before?
Not like this, not like this, no.
Something about the way it's using its wings...
-..it's just a brilliant swimmer.
-Oh, they are incredible.
The way he's using his feet to steer.
Yeah, it's not using its tail much, is it?
Rudders. No, it's the wings and the feet.
It's the wings and the feet, yeah.
A little turn away to just come up again with a flick of the feet.
Yeah, the tail might be important.
Look at that little foot, one on the rock.
It is beating the tail there a bit.
-Just a little.
-Yeah, just using it as a rudder.
These rare shots show the effect of some very special adaptations
that make the dipper so well suited to these underwater stunts.
Special flaps of skin protect its nose and eyes from the rush of water
as it dives.
And unlike most birds, the dipper's bones aren't hollow, but solid,
making them less buoyant,
and allowing the bird to stay submerged for longer.
Does this footage tell you anything you didn't know
or confirm what you were thinking?
Well, it confirms, I mean,
the brilliant eyesight and the brilliant ability
to dive and find prey.
When Robin told me about trying to get it,
I had my doubts that he would.
-That's OK, I had my doubts, as well!
Well, the two of you are both incredibly good at what you do,
and for me, it's been such a treat.
-Look at that.
But these dippers haven't revealed all their secrets just yet.
Early the next morning, Robin witnesses a very special moment.
Just starting to see the first little sign
of a beak at the waterfall.
Just a little...
..head looking out. Just trying to gauge what...
..the outside world is all about, I guess.
So, so close, come on, you can do it.
Then, for the very first time in their life,
two brave little dipper chicks take a leap into the unknown.
Finally, the youngsters our dipper parents
have been working so hard to feed are off their hands.
The chicks will rely on their parents to provide their meals
for another week or two, quivering their wings to beg for food.
And it will be another month or so before they moult
into their glossy waterproof adult plumage.
These birds have had an incredible start to their lives,
and within hours of fledging,
they are already demonstrating the delightful behaviour
that gives the dipper its name.
But despite decades of research into this signature dipping movement,
there is no definitive theory as to why they do it.
All I can say is if they didn't dip, well,
they wouldn't be quite the fantastic little birds they are.
If you'd like to explore Britain's diverse landscapes in more detail
and find out how to create your own wildlife habitats,
the Open University has produced a free booklet with bookmarks.
Order your copy by calling...
Or go to...
..and follow the links to the Open University.