Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall discovers how the people and animals of Dartmoor live alongside each other. He visits an ancient hill farm with nesting house martins and swallows.
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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's 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!
Oh, oh! Ants, oh!
There's one inside!
..with the help of a band of dedicated nature-lovers.
Some of the patterns on the feathers, they're beautiful.
-Good spot! Look, look, look, wonderful!
-Oh, it's so cool!
There's one in my hair now, Poppy.
I'll share the thrill of the chase...
-I heard something.
Yeah, they're in there.
..the sheer joy of the encounter...
Oh, 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.
-There she goes!
I can't believe that 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.
One of the most dramatic and challenging landscapes in Britain.
This treeless moorland, dotted with stark granite tors,
looks like a hostile place to call home.
But Dartmoor's unique mix of bog, moor,
valleys and woodland provide for an assortment of creatures,
each playing their part in the distinctive character of this place.
And as I live only half an hour from here,
I know how people also feel the powerful attraction of Dartmoor.
We tend to think of Dartmoor as one of the wildest places in Britain.
But it isn't a true wilderness.
And that's because people have lived here and farmed here
for thousands of years.
So this is a landscape not just made by weather,
wildlife and geology, but shaped by us.
I want to find out more about how the wildlife here
has been shaped by the presence of people,
as all the inhabitants of the moor confront its challenges
and share in its beauty.
Dartmoor is bang in the middle of South Devon.
34,000 people live inside the national park,
mostly in villages and towns, such as Chagford and Buckfastleigh.
Small hill farms, like the one at Challacombe,
are dotted all over the moor.
For thousands of years,
people have grazed their livestock and worked the soil here,
creating a network of hundreds of small farms
huddled into Dartmoor's valleys and hillsides.
But very few of them can be quite as beautiful or ancient
as this one here. It's called Challacombe Farm.
This valley has been farmed for the past 4,000 years.
Challacombe's current tenants are Mark Owen and Naomi Oakley.
Both grew up nearby, and have Dartmoor in their blood.
The thing I love about Dartmoor is it's just general wildness.
You know, I've been walking on the moor since I was a kid.
It's just a really, really lovely place.
Challacombe's really important,
because it's got an amazing array of wildlife.
And, actually, the livestock help with that.
You know, the cattle produce this amazing diversity for butterflies
and for birds.
And it's that whole mixture of the farm working together
with nature that I find so compelling.
Mark and Naomi are farmers after my own heart,
working in a way that allows the farm and the wildlife to coexist
side by side, as they have for centuries.
Today, they've invited me to see something that typifies
Challacombe's positive role in the life of the valley,
two thriving colonies of birds that herald the arrival of summer -
swallows and housemartins.
-They're everywhere, aren't they?
This is the busiest place for swallows and housemartins I've seen.
I think we're very lucky, we've got great conditions for them.
We've had a bit of warm sunshine early,
and enough warmth through the spring and early summer.
-I've just noticed that, actually,
there are battens up on the wall, just supporting the nest.
Did you put those there?
Yes, basically because it gives the housemartins something to grip onto.
Because it's starting to nest off on the plaster on itself, the render.
You know, we had problems with them being washed off in the past.
A bit of a lip gives them something to start the building process.
These birds are so fast,
it's not always easy to tell, when they're on the wing,
which is the housemartin and which is the swallow.
Are there any sure-fire clues?
The easy way to tell is the swallows have got long, thin tails
with little feathers that come out the end as streamers.
-The more trailing tail?
Whereas the housemartins have got a lot more blunter tales.
-Yes, the way I can tell exactly where they're coming
out from is, if they're coming out of the stable, they're a swallow.
If they're coming from there, they're a housemartin.
So, yeah, it's totally different.
Each spring, barn swallows and housemartins travel
nearly 10,000km from Africa
to come back to raise their young in the same place that they were born.
They time their arrival for the spring.
But as everyone who lives here knows very well,
the Dartmoor weather can catch anybody off-guard.
This year, that's exactly what happened.
The first arrivals from Africa were greeted by bitter winds
and flurries of snow.
Quite probably the first these well travelled birds have ever known.
And then, following the snow, lashings of lovely spring rain.
But swallows and housemartins have been nesting here
at Challacombe Farm since the Middle Ages,
so a little bit of English weather isn't going to stop them now.
As soon as the weather clears, it's full steam ahead with nest building.
Both birds visit the farm's pond to collect beakfuls of mud,
an ideal building material that they use to do some restoration on nests
from previous years.
The housemartins tend to pack in together under the farmhouse eaves.
It takes around 1,000 lumps of clay to build each domed nest.
The swallows prefer the shelter of the barns,
where they build a cup-like nest of mud and grass on the wooden beams.
But the housemartins and swallows
don't have Challacombe's best locations all to themselves.
This year, one little impostor has eyes on this prime piece
of real estate.
We have a very cheeky little sparrow.
-So, he's moved into a housemartin, then?
Is he raising a brood in there?
Well, he's actually raising his second brood in there.
And we're not sure if it's with the same female sparrow.
But he was up there well before the housemartins came.
And he was up on the gutter with a feather,
which made him look big and made him look very impressive,
and when the housemartins came and they were bringing little pieces
of nest material to re-line their nest and make it nice again,
he would wait until they'd flown off,
and then he would pop into their nests and he would steal pieces
and put them into his own nest.
-That's the sort of cheek you expect from sparrows, isn't it?
Living up to the sparrows' reputation!
-It is, living up to it, exactly!
-There he is!
-There he is, yes.
-He has got...
-He's got something.
-He's got something in his mouth.
This beautiful building behind us is swallow central at the moment.
I've seen dozens.
And they're coming and going so fast,
I guess just off-loading a big fill of insects
-and giving them to the young and going to get more.
And all the time, the babies, it seems,
no matter how much they feed them, they still want more and more.
And then in three weeks' time, they're big enough to fledge.
Everything about swallows and martins is fast, isn't it?
Yes. And they live fast and they have a huge requirement for energy,
which is why it's important to have lots of, you know,
suitable land management close, so that the birds aren't having to fly
a long way and use a lot of energy to go and collect food,
and then bring it back.
In the end, it boils down to diversity,
and that's what you have with this incredibly rich and varied habitat.
That's why we need... We need the habitat,
but we also need the animals that graze.
Because the waste from the animals is great as a food source
and place for insects to have their young themselves.
They need the action of the animals' hooves as well to create little
pools for lots of little flying insects like midges and mosquitoes.
Yes, you get those tiny footprint pools, don't you?
Just a dimple of a footprint and a little bit of water,
just enough to hatch a few bugs.
Yes, just enough, and that's just a snack for a martin, isn't it?
It's heartening to see a continuity in nature that is actually man-made.
Over generations, these farm buildings
have become a vital feature of a great annual event.
And the thing that keeps the birds coming back, of course,
is that it's the perfect place to rear their precious chicks.
So, this is swallow central.
-How many nests have you got in here, do you know?
Oh, I think we've got six that are active at the moment.
-One, two, three...
-They're all occupied?
They have been at various stages.
I can see some chicks in that one.
Shall we put some light on them?
Oh, fantastic. They're so sweet!
-Is it three or four?
There's one round the corner. Four.
Yes, there's just one hiding at the back there.
The only thing we've done, just to sort of help them again,
is to give them that start-off, and just put some nails in the beams,
so they've got something to stick the mud to to start with.
Oh, so that helps them build nests.
Yes, because it's very slippery.
You can see where they've found little natural shelves,
-it gives them a bit more variety.
I think they're telling us that they want to feed the chicks.
Shall we take that as our cue to leave them in peace?
-I think so.
-Yes, leave them in peace, get their tea.
It's brilliant to see these nests bursting with chicks.
Challacombe Farm is a giant bird nursery,
home to hundreds of hungry mouths.
The parent birds need to work throughout the day
to feed their growing young.
And here, finding and catching their prey is rarely a problem.
The farm is swarming with flying insects.
The adults hunt tirelessly,
skimming the wild flower meadows in search of treats,
and taking midges and even the odd sip of water from the pond.
Each chick is fed a ball of around 10-100 insects,
sometimes over 30 times an hour,
so the work never stops.
The life of the barn swallow and housemartin
seems totally intertwined with ours.
But all this raises a big question.
What happened before there were barns and houses?
Where did they build their nests then?
An answer can be found on the Devon coast,
a mere 40km from Challacombe, as the swallow flies.
At this beach near Brixham,
licensed bird-ringer Mark Lawrence is out doing what he loves best.
It's a passion, you know?
Some people call it an obsession.
And I suppose there isn't much difference there.
Today, Mark's checking on a solitary nest with a splendid sea view.
There's a pair here. And it's here every year, without fail.
This pair of swallows has chosen to nest high up in an isolated cave.
This is how all swallows would once have nested
before they moved in with our human ancestors.
Today, though, cave-nesting swallows are an incredibly rare find.
This is an ideal nesting site, you know?
It's dry, it's obviously from the weather.
And easy access, which is perfect for nesting swallows.
Their waterfront residence clearly suits these swallows.
And for Mark, it adds variety to the task of fitting leg rings
to the young chicks. All in a day's work for a licensed bird-ringer.
I think it was six eggs.
So there could well be six chicks.
Here's a baby swallow.
The pins are coming through, which will grow into feathers.
The ringing gives us...
..information on how far they've gone, and even how long they live.
I mean, these swallows, like all European swallows,
winter in South Africa.
They cross the Sahara Desert, which is an incredible feat,
twice a year.
Let's get these back in the nest.
British bird enthusiasts
first put leg rings on birds over 100 years ago.
It's a simple system that's continued
to produce vital information about the life of our birds ever since.
This work enables me to get close to the birds,
and I'm adding valuable data to conservation,
and understanding what is happening with our breeding birds.
In 1912, a swallow ringed in England the previous year
was spotted in South Africa -
a breakthrough that finally solved the mystery
of where swallows go in winter.
Before then, there was a popular myth that swallows and housemartins
hibernated in burrows around muddy ponds.
And back at Challacombe's pond, I think I can see why.
From the moment they arrive in spring,
the pond is a hub of activity for the birds.
As they collect the mud for their nests,
small holes are formed in the bank.
And at times, it can indeed look as though the birds
are emerging from the bog.
What keeps these birds coming back in such numbers
is largely down to the way that Mark and Naomi manage their farm,
encouraging an abundance of bugs for the birds to eat.
They clearly get a lot of pleasure from these annual visitors.
So, I'm hoping to show them the aerobatic talents of the birds
they love in a way that they've never seen before.
Wildlife cameraman Simon Lewis has spent a day training his lens
on these high-speed hunters to create a slow motion film show
for Mark and Naomi.
OK, what have you got for us, Si?
Well, this is a prime example of some of the skimming...
-You have a look.
-..that we've had going on.
If you just look in the corner of the frame,
this is where it's going to come out from.
They're so tiny and so fast.
We just about managed to get this guy coming through.
-Oh, that's impressive.
Yes, so this was filmed at about 1,500 frames per second.
Which is approximately 60 times faster
than your conventional 25 frames per second camera.
-So, we are seeing it at 1/60th of full speed now?
What do you think of that, Naomi?
I think it's beautiful. I love how the light catches the wing,
and how the feathers flex as the wings beat.
It's so beautiful.
It's very graceful, and you can see the reflection in the water, too.
This clip here is a demonstration, I think, quite nicely,
of how they can adapt their body shapes
for different types of flights.
-So, you'll see it tucks the wing in there.
-It's almost like a small little bullet, or a teardrop.
You don't expect that kind of hunching right in, streamlined.
-It's almost like a high-speed dive, isn't it?
To pick up speed, you tuck everything in and go for it.
So, this is one of them coming in.
-And aborting at the last moment.
I don't know why they changed their mind.
But you see quite a nice example of them putting on the brakes.
And he just throws his wings forward and does an about-face.
A little air braking with his tail.
-It's that amount of control they've got, isn't it?
-It's that mastery.
-I think it's absolutely enchanting, actually.
I'm really blown away by...
You see them so fast, and moving so quickly through the landscape,
but actually, to see them like that,
it just brings an extra dimension to them.
Especially seeing that one, flying through the tiny slit in the window.
I'd always wondered if they turned on their sides, or what they did.
But to actually see that,
they just tuck their wings in and shoot through.
-Yes, it's just beautiful.
It's a fantastic thing to see.
Swallows and martins are one of the great sights of a British summer.
And their dependence on our farms,
barns and homes as a place to lodge while they raise their young
rewards us with the simple summery joy of just having them around.
A few months later, cameraman Simon is on another seasonal mission
for his amazing slow motion camera.
He's sought out these sheltered ponds
on the southern edge of the moor...
..where he hopes to catch an intriguing event
in the life of some of his favourite insects.
But Simon's not counting his chickens quite yet.
Anything that's small and that flies really fast
is always going to be a challenge.
The pools here are home to 21 species of dragonfly,
so this place is a honeypot for anyone with a passion
for these vibrantly coloured insects.
And when dragonfly devotee Dave Smallshire
heard what Si was up to, he was more than happy to come and help.
I started bird-watching when I was a teenager.
I very soon realised that there were other things with wings
that drew my attention.
So, butterflies, and then dragonflies.
And that sparked an interest that's lasted,
well, getting on for 50 years now.
Dave has led dragonfly-watching trips all over the world.
But as a Devon local, he's often to be found in summer right here.
Dragonflies spend most of their lives underwater as nymphs
before emerging in summer for their final flourish.
A month or so of life on the wing,
and their chance to reproduce before they die.
It's September, and perhaps one of the last warm spells of the season.
And one of the last chances to film dragonflies this year.
Dave's a handy photographer.
I've taken to trying to video dragonflies.
I think the art of getting dragonflies in flight
is one I'm never going to master.
They're far, far too quick.
The key to success today will be teamwork, as well as technology.
With Simon's camera skills, and Dave's in-depth knowledge,
they're hoping to capture some slow-mo footage that can reveal
the intricacies of these intimate moments
of the dragonfly's last hurrah.
I think one of the main bits of behaviour that I would really
love to capture today would be the dragonflies mating.
As a bonus, if we can get egg laying,
then that's just going to be mega, and it will really make the day.
As the day starts to warm up,
Dave senses that dragonfly passions are on the rise.
Look, we've got some activity in the corner here.
There's a couple of males sparring here, a bit of a dogfight.
-Oh, yeah. A bit of a scrap.
When that sun comes out, all of a sudden...
It doesn't take them long to get going again.
It just shows you what a nice, sunny day can do for insects
at this time of year.
We're getting our last glimpses of these jewels of the air.
-Jewels of the air, I like that.
-Yes, they're lovely, aren't they?
Picked out in the sunlight in slow-motion,
we can see these curious, stick-bodied insects
are, in fact, supreme flyers.
Each of their four wings moves independently,
enabling them to hover, reverse,
or even go sideways.
I can see how they've earned the name, "the darter".
Yes, it does what it says on the tin.
And, of course, we have skimmers that skim and flow over the water.
We have chasers that chase, they do a lot of chasing.
We have the big hawkers that hawk around for long periods.
-They've definitely earned those names.
-They have indeed, yes.
Among the various dragonflies revelling in the sun,
Dave's on the lookout for one in particular.
Here we go, going across the pond over the other side now.
So, this is a female southern hawker.
She's looking to lay into some moss or rotting vegetation
around the water line.
Hawkers are the largest and fastest flying British dragonfly.
And, even for Dave, this sighting is a rare treat.
It's a real privilege to be so close
to one of our most brightly-coloured dragonflies.
This lovely lime green and chocolate brown dragonfly.
And she has a very curved, sickle-like egg depositor.
She's injecting that into
the moss, or possibly some other organic debris there.
And laying really quite a lot of eggs, I think.
She's been there for several minutes now.
She obviously likes that spot.
For Si and Dave, there's just one thing left to see,
and hopefully film, that could top that.
There we go, look. There's a pair in tandem.
Mating in dragonflies is a unique affair.
Each male patrols a patch of water and tries to attract a female.
If successful, the male grasps her head
with special rear-end appendages called claspers.
In some species, mating can last just a few seconds.
In others, it goes on for six hours.
This is a pair of common darters.
They often stay locked together and fly in tandem while the female lays.
The male co-pilot manoeuvres her into position
as she delicately drops her eggs beneath the water's surface
with a dip of her tail.
Joined like this, it's impossible for another male to muscle in.
And for the female southern hawker laying her eggs alone,
the male often hovers nearby,
guarding her from any unwanted attention.
It's really quite beautiful to watch, isn't it?
It's great. It's really balletic.
With all this lovely late summer sun,
the dragonflies have been extremely obliging.
And Si has high hopes that he's captured some clips
of their mating frenzy that might even impress an old hand like Dave.
So, this clip here, this is from quite early on
when we were getting into the swing of things.
Wow, they're in tandem there. Brilliant.
You can see, I think, the tip of the female there just dipping in.
The pale of eggs, a little egg mass.
So, are the eggs contained within a fluid, or anything like that,
or are they just clumped together?
Yes, they're just a little bit sticky, I think.
They come out a few at a time.
That was quite nice, kind of from behind in there.
-They're kind of going off that way.
Oh, that's fantastic to see them in slow motion, egg laying like that.
It's something I've never seen before.
-And it's a particular pleasure to be able to see it filmed
at one of my favourite sites.
These intimate shots provide a chance to truly appreciate
the underlying grace of a life lived at high speed,
and to marvel at the sheer mastery
of the dragonfly's four-winged flight.
I'm taking a diversion on my Dartmoor safari to duck into town.
As we've seen with the local swallows,
some animals find ways to take advantage of human habitation.
On the south-west fringes of the moor is Buckfastleigh.
And a building here is home to one of the most important bat colonies
in the country.
The precise location of the roost is under wraps,
but I've heard that just off the high street there is a great spot
to watch them as they head out on their nightly forays.
Doubly exciting for me, I'm getting a special reception.
Not just from the usual Dartmoor drizzle,
but from Buckfastleigh's Mayor, Pam Barrett.
She's an avid bat enthusiasts.
I'm hoping she can put me on the best spot to view the nightly show.
So, we're right in the middle of the town.
There's a busy road there, the river running by, houses all around.
A car park just here.
We're on the green here, and this is where the action is?
Yes, this is where it all takes place at night.
So, just after sunset, the bats come out of their roost.
A good third of the colony will move through this park later on.
Me and my husband come out and count them maybe 20 or 30 times
-during the summer.
What might I expect to see?
Right, we'll definitely see greater horseshoe bats,
lots of greater horseshoe bats.
Amongst those, we should get some lesser horseshoe bats.
There's also pipistrelles and Nathusius' pipistrelle,
and some fantastic Daubenton's bats,
which will all be here in this park shortly.
And, of course, the greater and lesser horseshoe are both species
that are in decline, and this is a really important haven for them.
This is a massive spot for the greater horseshoes especially.
This is the biggest maternity roost in Europe by some considerable way.
Really? I'd love you to show me the best possible place to be
-to see the action.
-Well, let's do that.
The secret roost is monitored by a webcam.
At nightfall, the adults will start to leave their young behind,
and head for their feeding grounds in search of insect prey.
-Where do you want to be?
-I think just here, by the gate.
So, the bats will come out of the trees over there on the far right.
A huge number of them will cross just ahead of us on the path here,
and then either move towards the path and straight towards us,
or through the green here and cross in front of us.
And they all cross here, drop down into the river,
and go under the road.
You've got it completely sussed!
I can't wait. I'm going to have to wait a little bit, anyway.
There's a lovely old Devon name for bats - flittermouse -
and my heart is certainly fluttering in anticipation of seeing them.
As we lose the light even further,
we're going to switch to night-vision mode on this camera,
and that should mean you can still see the bats,
and you can still see me.
I've just seen a bat...
..flying in front of the streetlight there.
I've seen three or four now.
Time to take up my position at the gate.
Oh, did you see that?
Right in front of my face.
That was a big one. Here's another one.
Here they are. It's all happening. They're coming down the path here.
They seem completely unbothered by the busy road, or spectators.
Some of them are coming within a couple of feet.
Whoa! They're so fast.
Soon, the bats are streaming past,
using their echo location to weave around any obstacles, including me.
To see these elusive flying mammals right in the middle of town
But unless you're on the lookout, they're almost invisible.
People walking down the street, hunched under their umbrellas,
maybe on the way to the pub.
Traffic whizzing past, this way and that.
There's another one. And there's another one.
And in the middle of all this, these amazing bats.
What an extraordinary evening.
The bats of Buckfastleigh include 10 of our 17 British species.
And they have a busy night ahead.
Some individuals will eat 2,000 or 3,000 insects
before they return to the roost.
Old houses and barns,
even in built-up areas, can become vital roosts.
In the 1960s and '70s,
the renovation and demolition of such sites became a huge problem
for the bats.
Now the roosts, including the greater horseshoes,
are protected by law.
But before you can protect a roost, you have to find it.
A few miles from Buckfastleigh,
a group of Devon's bat lovers is trying to solve a mystery.
They know that this spot is being used as a feeding ground
by significant numbers of greater horseshoes.
But they're not quite sure where they're roosting.
Bats breed in female-only maternity roosts.
And if there is one nearby undiscovered,
then protecting it is a huge priority.
Almost the only way to find it is to be led there
by a nursing female bat.
And for that, you'll have to catch one.
These bats are just so good at evading capture.
Fiona Mathews is a researcher with a special licence to catch bats.
She's hoping a female greater horseshoe
will fly into these delicate mist nets.
Then a team can attach a tiny radio tag
and try to track her all the way back to the roost.
At this time of year...
..most of the baby bats have finished feeding.
But the mothers are still together in the maternity colony,
and the babies have just started to fly.
And once we get later into the year,
the colonies will start to disperse.
What we'd like to do is tag them and track them back to the roost
before the colony starts to break up.
Greater horseshoe bats are named after the strange horseshoe-shaped
flaps of skin on their faces
that help focus their echo-location calls.
In spring, when the bats leave their hibernation roost,
the females establish a kind of bat mother and baby unit.
This is the maternity roost,
where they give birth and raise their young.
There are less than 10,000 greater horseshoe bats in the UK,
restricted to the south-west of England and Wales,
so protecting every maternity roost is crucial to the bats' future.
The team have just a few weeks to find this mystery roost
before the mothers and babies disperse.
Tonight, they have a vital clue to help their hunt,
thanks to the detective work of bat enthusiast Ed Parr Ferris.
After spotting bats visiting his orchard,
Ed volunteered to help test some bat detectors for Fiona's group.
I thought, OK, I'll just stick it out in my orchard,
because it's a place to stick them out, and just see if they work,
how easy they are to use.
And put it out, left it for a week,
and suddenly we had 800 greater horseshoe passes in a week,
which was unbelievable,
bearing in mind you normally get about ten passes in a week,
and that would be a good hit.
This is a known path on the regular feeding round of the local bats.
So, as night falls, the team keep a close eye on the nets.
OK, so, no bats, but...
..we do have two things they really like to eat.
So, that's a dorbeetle...
..and, look at that! That's a beautiful moth.
Not only are they beautiful in their own right but, of course,
they're just fantastic bat food.
With this much insect life around,
it's easy to see why this is a popular place for feeding bats.
Right, so this is... a male long-eared bat.
So, these are moth feeders.
This is why they have these huge ears.
Because what they're trying to do is creep up on
the sorts of moths that have ears.
So, a lot of moths are called hearing moths.
So, what the moths do is they hear the bats coming,
because they're hearing their echo location cry.
And they just drop in the sky.
It's an evolutionary kind of counter-mechanism to that.
These ones, first of all, don't shout very loud.
They actually make a snorting noise.
And secondly, they have these big eyes and big ears.
That means they can just be really quiet and actually creep up
on the moths.
There we go.
It's great to see any bat,
but this is not the species that Fiona needs to find tonight.
But her luck is in.
What we've found is a greater horseshoe.
And it's a female, and she's been lactating recently.
So it's just what we want.
Yes, that's the noise a greater horseshoe makes.
So, they've got a really unique kind of call compared with our
other British bats.
It's brilliant for us as biologists because it means
we can also identify them really easily.
If you hear that characteristic call, you know you've got horseshoes.
With the horseshoe mum in hand,
phase two of the plan is to fit her with a tiny radio tracking device.
Here she is. And what I'm going to do is measure her forearm
and weigh her because we have to make sure that she is heavy enough
to be able to take the weight of the tag comfortably.
So, that's the...
A harmless dab of glue will keep the tab on the bat for just long enough.
So, ideally we want it to stay on until the battery life
is almost but not completely gone.
Because that way we can actually retrieve the radio tag.
Basically, what the tag is going to let us do is actually find
where the maternity colony is of these really rare bats.
Because around here, we don't know of any.
So, to find another one is actually really significant.
You know, we're talking handfuls of colonies known in the country.
So, what we need to do is let this lady go.
And ideally as quickly as possible,
because she's keen to get on with feeding.
And she's gone.
The whole operation now rests on the team's ability
to keep tracking the tagged bat.
We seem to have a very strong signal.
What time is it? 5 to 12.
OK, we're all wide awake and really pumped up
because we've just caught these bats.
Now we'll go treasure hunting to find out where the roost is.
You know, there is something slightly addictive about that.
And it's that feeling that, because not much is known about them,
we can really make a difference.
Keeping up with a flying bat in the dark on foot
is a near impossible task.
And for tonight, she's gone.
But the radio tag sends out a signal 24 hours a day,
so the team will get more chances to track her down.
A few weeks later, Ed the orchard owner has an update.
So, after that night of radio tracking when we first got started,
we didn't find the bat for quite a while.
We were out hunting in our local area,
each day going out to see if we could find it
in local farms or buildings.
We didn't have any luck.
So, after a few days, we decided to check local roosts.
We found it at this lovely roost here, which is 12km away,
as the bat flies.
We think the reason they might have to travel that far is, of course,
there are far fewer of those really ideal habitats
left in our landscapes.
So, when they know of a really good site
that's got those lovely big dorbeetles and nice hawk moths
that they can feed on, it's worth them travelling that far.
But I think they'd probably rather go shorter distances,
but they're being forced to travel further and further
to find these little pockets of really good feeding habitat.
Once again, these bats have kept one step ahead.
It's a big surprise to the team to discover just how far they are
travelling to find food.
If, indeed, that's what's happening.
Ed's not quite so sure.
The wonderful thing about nature
is that we could have tracked the only bat that goes from here...
..from here to my orchard.
it could be that all of these are moving over, or just a few of them.
It might be that there is another roost over there.
We really don't know.
It's only by trying to piece together the science and the data,
and what we can find out,
we can start to build a picture of what they're doing.
But that's the level that we really don't know.
This is the best time to hear the horseshoe bat's intriguing chatter.
The sound of a world about which we still have so much more to learn.
CHIRPING AND WARBLING
That... That warbling is really characteristic of a horseshoe bat.
They chatter like this all the time in the roost.
It especially gets really loud just before they leave the roost.
Oh, there goes one right over.
It is so exciting to think that these guys are flying out,
and normally you would never see them,
they're really fast.
It's nice to see an animal that you can't normally interact with.
And there it is.
They're big, and they're flapping about, and they're saying hello
to each other, you can listen to them.
Wildlife right here, in your face.
I can testify that there's something magical
in being around these secretive creatures.
And thanks to Ed and Fiona and their team,
there's hope that Devon's greater horseshoe bats
will continue intriguing us, and sometimes baffling us,
for years to come.
Dartmoor's windswept moor and secluded woodlands
are the domain of another aerial night-time hunter.
All five UK species of owl can be found here.
The barn owl.
The little owl.
The short-eared owl.
And the largest, and perhaps most commonly seen of all,
But like all Dartmoor's wildlife,
they share their habitat with humans.
And that presents many hazards.
Road accidents, flying into fences or pylons all take their toll.
And for species like tawny owls and barn owls,
this can be a real cause for concern.
The Barn Owl Trust, on the edge of the moor,
takes in injured owls with the aim of rehabilitating
and returning them to the wild as soon as possible.
Owls are the ultimate stealth predator.
Their large eyes detect movement, even in darkness.
Acute hearing can sense the smallest rustle.
And soft feathers silence their wings
as they prepare those deadly talons to dispatch their prey.
But any damage to these finely tuned senses, or perfectly adapted limbs,
can be a setback that threatens their survival.
Today, Dave Ramsden and Lexi New have just picked up a tawny owl
that became trapped in a chimney.
The feathers are a bit messed up.
OK, how long had it been in the chimney?
Its tail feather's possibly broken.
Left foot has got a bit of an abrasion.
It's probably been scrabbling around in the chimney.
Make a little flap.
OK, are we done?
-Yes, that's all done. Just the weight now.
Pop you in there for a moment.
365. Thank you.
So it's a little bit underweight.
The tawny's injuries don't seem too severe.
The real concern is that it's gone for three days with nothing to eat or drink.
The sensible thing to do is to release it with a full stomach.
When birds are starving, what actually kills them is dehydration.
So, this is a life-saver.
So, we'll go for 5mls of...
Can you see the bits of soot there?
-You can see that black inside.
I don't think it's going to hurt him.
He's swallowing now, look.
Perfect. OK, shall I take it?
-OK, I've got it.
A drink has bought the owl a bit of time.
The hope now is that after some rest
it can complete its recovery and eat.
I think what we need to do is monitor it during the day.
-Hopefully it'll eat something.
At 365g, it's just really borderline.
I'll make a decision at about 5pm.
-Yes, OK. Brilliant.
-We'll leave it in peace and quiet.
If this owl loses much more weight, it won't be strong enough to fly.
Birds of prey operate on tiny margins.
Flying uses so much energy,
they need to top up regularly with vital calories.
Five hours later, Dave's checking on the patient.
Well, it hasn't eaten voluntarily, which we're not surprised about.
Tawny owls, when they come in, very often don't eat quickly.
But it really needs to be out in the wild, feeding.
A rapid return to the wild is by far the tawny's best hope.
But that can only happen if it's strong enough to fly.
Any chance of a quick release rests on a simple flight test.
This is not normal.
-Oh, that's brilliant.
Despite initial fears, it passes with flying colours.
That's exactly what we want to see.
It's alert. Both wings working the same, coordinated.
It's going, "Freedom!
"Get me out!"
We've just got to catch it again now.
We'll see... We'll see if it goes.
-Off we go then.
Every flight saps vital energy.
So Dave wants to make sure the owl takes on some fuel
before it's released.
There we go. Perfect.
Now time is critical.
As soon as day turns to dusk, Lexi heads to the release site,
for the best part of her job.
OK, so this is perfect.
We've got a dry evening.
By some woodlands. A nice, high vantage point.
Perfect habitat. We know that that bird's going to go out there,
he's going to hunt, he's going to survive,
and that's a really good result for us.
Perfect. Straight flight, knew where it was going, straight off.
You know, it's so heartbreaking to see them when they come in.
We've had all sorts of casualties.
Broken wings, broken legs...
When we do get a successful release, it's just fantastic,
a real rush.
After meeting some of Dartmoor's great aerial adventurers,
I want to get back down to Earth
with one of its best-loved creatures of all.
The iconic Dartmoor pony.
Ponies have lived on Dartmoor for millennia.
Fossilised hoof prints found here date back 3,500 years.
This is an animal that lives out on the moor in all weathers,
all year round,
and for that alone it deserves some serious respect.
But since I've been brought up close to ponies and horses,
I have to admit, it's hard for me to think of them as wildlife.
One thing I'm really curious about is how wild are they, really?
And how do they survive in this incredibly tough
and demanding landscape?
Over centuries, they've been bred to be strong and sturdy enough
to transport granite from Dartmoor's quarries.
Their calm nature means they've long been popular as riding ponies.
Though they roam wild, by Dartmoor tradition,
every pony is owned by commoners,
local people who have grazing rights on the moor.
No longer in demand as working animals, pony numbers have fallen.
In 1950, there were around 30,000 ponies on the moor.
Today, there are just 1,500 purebred Dartmoor ponies left.
To find out what the future may hold for them,
I've tracked down one of their great champions.
Drew Butterfield runs the Dartmoor Heritage Pony Centre,
dedicated to conservation of the purebred Dartmoor pony.
And she's offered to take me on my very own Dartmoor pony safari.
Welcome to Daisy.
-This is Daisy?
So, that cattle grid drum roll means we're on the moor?
Yeah. It means we're now on Dartmoor.
That's a special feeling, that moment, for you?
Every time I go over that cattle grid, my heart just lifts a moment,
because I know I've entered one of those incredibly special places.
I used to have a crossbred Dartmoor pony at home, but talking to Drew,
I'm beginning to realise how little I know
about her wild-roaming cousins.
They come in all shapes and sizes,
so it stands to reason that, to the informed eye,
there are some big differences between them.
My induction begins, as it does for many visitors to the moor,
with a special little herd that Drew knows exactly where to find.
In an asphalt lay-by.
How are you?
These guys are a type of Dartmoor pony
that's more closely related to the Shetland pony,
famous for its short legs and shaggy mane.
They're real kind of car park ponies.
Car park ponies! They hang around here quite a lot?
Yes, you know, it's warm, the sun's just come out,
and they're all very chilled.
Getting a bit of extra heat off the tarmac,
-they're getting their bellies warmed.
-Yeah, I think so.
And they look incredibly relaxed, and basically tame.
I haven't stroked this pony or patted it yet.
Is that, do you think, on balance, the right thing to do or not?
So, all we can do is ask visitors not to feed them,
and not to treat them like pets.
Because they aren't. They are semi-feral ponies.
I have to tell you,
right now I'm having to restrain my impulse to cuddle this pony!
-I know, no touching!
-It's almost unbearable!
I just want to reach out and pat her on the head.
-But you're saying you'd rather I didn't, basically?
-I can see it.
I can see you're fighting it.
I'm twitching, aren't I? I can't really cope!
Oh, that was interesting, I just moved my hand up there as a gesture,
and she reacted, and suddenly you get a sense that,
even though they're very approachable,
they're not completely tame.
Should someone come along with an ice cream and be feeding that pony,
because what happens, when they take the food away, they want more.
So you then get ponies mugging people.
-There's a sense here that...
-But that's been created.
-And this pony's looking for food.
So, the best thing to do is not interact.
We're probably interacting enough in what we're doing already.
These motley multicoloured coats are a product of the Dartmoor pony's
history, bred over centuries to meet the different and changing needs
of their owners, all whilst still being able to withstand
life on the moor.
It's a legacy of life here before car parks.
These are ponies that have evolved on Dartmoor through breeding,
through what the farmer has decided is their preference.
So, they've gone for colour,
which can be very attractive to potential buyers.
They've gone for a pony that's calm and quiet.
And they've gone for something that is smaller,
which may be more suitable to higher terrain.
Adorable as they are, with their shorter legs and rounded tummies,
this car park crew have come a long way from the original Dartmoor pony.
Drew tells me that the classic Dartmoor is still out there,
though much harder to find.
To have a chance, we'll have to venture a bit further from the road.
Drew has an idea where one of her favourite herds might be.
But tracking them down will take some real expertise.
Drew, are those ponies under the tree there?
You spotted them first!
I can't believe that!
-Now I feel...
-These are the ponies!
-I feel like I am on pony safari!
They look like lions in the long grass, don't they?
-Yes, and you spotted them before me! Well done, Hugh.
-This is such a beautiful spot.
-Yes, it's stunning.
This herd has an altogether more distinguished look about them
than their cousins at the car park.
These are the purebred Dartmoors.
Taller ponies, usually of a single colour.
Slightly shyer, too.
They prefer to find more secluded spots, away from the crowds.
I guess they are as wild as such a large mammal can be
in a national park where people are never far away.
-Do they come and say hello to you?
-Hello, my lovelies.
Tell me a little bit about how they function as a group.
Are there sort of bonding behaviours and friendships?
I've seen some grooming, which is lovely.
Are there more subtle things than that?
Just literally standing together and feeling comfortable.
So, you may see them resting under a tree together.
You may see them nose to tail.
You know, like, I've got a bit of an itch on my back,
you do me and I'll do you. You know? They're very, very
herd-orientated, and they do need those friendships and bonds.
Just looking at them now,
they're all pointing in slightly different ways.
Between them, they can probably see all around.
They've got eyes on the side of their head.
So, when they graze, they can see predators coming around.
But they do have blind spots.
So, if a predator was to come up behind them, in a group,
you're far more likely for someone to be alerted.
Because they're covering your blind spot.
If a pony was suddenly alarmed,
it would go from one side of this site to another, literally calling.
And they will neigh and whinny, and call and call and call
to identify each other.
Do you think it's fair to say
they're not properly wild, but they're definitely not domesticated?
What they are, in a sense, is free.
Here, we see them leading a very wild existence,
and they live a free life.
Living out on the moor,
these ponies exhibit much of the natural behaviour of a wild horse.
We're a long way from the car park here,
but there are signs of a much more ancient human presence.
What's happening in this strip along here with these big stones?
Were now in a Bronze Age, very heavy Bronze Age area.
They're remnants from a large pound enclosure.
Our team of volunteers came and cut, and allowed the archaeology
to be seen and to be uncovered.
But the thing that really delights me is that the ponies are here,
and now they're keeping on top of the work that we started by hand.
These ponies are actually assisting with the conservation
of this ancient settlement,
and the positive impact of their grazing goes beyond that.
This purple moor grass that's so dominant in this open space,
how might that transform if the ponies really get settled
into this area, and what benefits could we see?
Can you see here, we've got a lot of bilberry?
We've got some heather.
Does this actually produce berries?
-I love a bilberry.
Yes, in the month of August, everybody comes up here,
and we go back with kind of Ribena-stained lips
because we've been picking the bilberries and eating them.
And that's the kind of diversity that you'd like to see more of
-throughout this area?
-Yes, just here we've got far more diversity.
And that's what we would unleash if we could get our grazing increased
into those other areas.
So, as long as they stay in this area and move around,
and get on top of this purple moor grass,
you'll get more of this diversity?
You get more diversity, it creates a much, much better ecosystem.
The Dartmoor pony has played such a big part in the moor's history,
and it can clearly have a vital role in its future, too.
I just wonder, how do you feel about the role you've played
in bringing them back from a really difficult situation?
Actually, the future is looking very rosy.
Whereas if you'd asked me a couple of years ago,
I would have thought it was all doom and gloom.
But just to be here with them now, and to see, you know,
really see what they achieve from a biodiversity point of view,
that in itself is enough to secure their future.
But perhaps the most important thing
is that they're out here on Dartmoor,
doing everything they want that satisfies them,
but also doing great things for this landscape.
It is a win-win situation.
They are happy, and doing all they need to do,
but it's what they provide to the environment,
and it's what they provide to the landscape of Dartmoor
-that is so important.
-I've shared it with you and with them today,
-and it's been an absolute pleasure.
-Thanks a lot.
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:
Follow the links to the Open University.
Nature lover Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall continues his wildlife adventures across the West Country. This time, Hugh discovers how the people and animals of Dartmoor live alongside each other in this challenging landscape. He visits an ancient hill farm with dozens of nesting house martins and swallows that thrive thanks to the careful farming practices of tenants Mark Owen and Naomi Oakley.
In the town of Buckfastleigh, Hugh spends an evening surrounded by bats as they forage for insects, but local bat enthusiasts are keen to track down where they give birth so they can protect these important maternity roosts. And Hugh joins Dru Butterfield, who has dedicated her life to the Dartmoor pony to see how these hardy creatures can help retain and restore the biodiversity of the moor.