Wildlife enthusiast Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall meets the creatures and nature lovers that make the West Country so special, this time exploring the Somerset Levels.
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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! LAUGHTER
'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, oh! Ants!
Oh! Oh! They've gone 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!
-That's so cool.
There's one in my hair now, Poppy.
'I'll share the thrill of the chase...'
-Did 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.
Whoa! 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.
I'm back in the Somerset Levels.
These lush pastoral lowlands have been shaped in large part by man's
ongoing efforts to control and contain its water.
The labyrinth of water courses that crisscross the rich farmland provide
precious habitats above and below the surface.
For millennia, the animals that inhabit these marshes,
ancient hedgerows and meadows have been cheek by jowl with the people
who live and work here.
This is a fascinating,
diverse landscape which presents
a mixture of opportunities and challenges
for all kinds of creatures.
So I'm really looking forward to working with some people who are
finding ways to tip the balance in favour of the wildlife,
giving something back to the fantastic creatures
that make living here so special.
The Somerset Levels is a flat,
coastal plain that stretches from the tidal Bristol Channel.
It's contained by the Mendips to the north and the Quantocks,
near Taunton, to the south.
The River Parrett flows out to sea near Steart,
where my journey starts.
Thousands of years ago,
much of this corner of the south-west was under the sea.
It was first drained for farming in the Dark Ages.
And since then, a network of ditches and drains has helped prevent
its precious fields and pasture from flooding.
But now, in one small part of the Levels,
the sea is being allowed to wash over the land once again.
We hear so much about the depletion of our natural habitat,
but this has been a story of creation,
and it's really remarkable.
Go back just a few years ago
and this incredible salt marsh wasn't even here.
This was just farmland.
We're used to thinking of flooding as a destructive force
to be prevented at all costs.
But here at Steart Marshes, the tide has been encouraged to roll in again
over the farmland.
The result is the regeneration of a valuable habitat that our native
wildlife has been losing at an alarming rate - salt marsh.
Coastal mudflats and salt marshes
are feeding grounds for waders and wildfowl,
and much-needed nurseries for a variety of fish,
which in turn are food for otters, egrets and many more.
And these wild stretches where the land meets the sea
are becoming scarce.
But a few years ago, work began
on a super-sized piece of forward thinking -
removal of the old sea defences
to create a well-managed wetland reserve.
As the land floods, it gradually turns back to salt marsh,
inviting in the distinctive mix of species
that depend on these important wetlands.
Joe Cockram from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has invited me
to join him, as he checks to see how the new residents are settling in.
There's a line of mud over there with maybe some dunlin.
Yep, those are dunlin. They pack in quite close together.
They go for safety in numbers.
They're very vulnerable to peregrines, hobbies, birds of prey
like that. So the more of them that get in closer together,
the more pairs of eyes there are looking for a threat.
-Yep, just taking off now.
-Straight in front of us, going left to right
now. Amazing. They really catch the light, don't they?
They really do, yeah. Very white on the undersides, quite dark on the
top, so, as they turn, yeah, they flicker, they flicker and shimmer.
Joe is monitoring the species
and numbers of birds colonising the site.
These new arrivals are the ultimate proof of concept.
The winter is the busiest time.
The mud is full of invertebrates
and various things that waders and ducks are eating.
The waders, they nest in massive numbers,
really far north in the Arctic Circle.
Obviously that's a pretty awful place to be in the winter.
It's going to freeze up.
That's not much good for a water bird, so they all come south.
This Somerset coast, and most of the coasts around the UK, indeed,
is a really good spot for wintering birds.
Is that a great white egret?
-I think that's a little egret, that one.
Over time, they're establishing this as a proper feeding ground,
-and they're really getting properly stuck in.
So this started off as farmland, then we let the tide in.
That first year, all the underlying soil and sediment was dead.
Now that it's getting flooded regularly by the tide,
we get silt that gets brought in. That provides a home for these
invertebrates, for ragworms and things like that.
So from the, sort of, freshwater invertebrates
to the marine, saltwater-friendly invertebrates obviously takes time?
It takes time. What we're trying to work out is how much time.
Nothing quite like this has been done before.
So, in more than one sense,
the wildlife here is breaking new ground.
And the signs are good.
Three years in, around 25,000 birds wintered here.
But the wildlife doesn't have the place all to itself.
Agricultural land is being reclaimed by nature.
Absolutely. We can see distantly some cattle out on the salt marsh,
so these are longhorn cattle,
and they're being farmed for salt marsh beef.
They help to create a nice mosaic of habitat in the salt marsh plants.
So having the cattle out here helps us create a very rich,
diverse habitat for wildlife, but also we're still producing food.
I'm impressed. It's heartening to see farming and wildlife working
here to their mutual benefit.
But maintaining this delicate balance between land and sea
along the 3km of tidal coast can't be easy.
To find out how it's done, I'm meeting Alys Laver.
She's been here from day one,
overseeing the transformation from farmers' fields to a wildlife Eden,
through careful management of the ever-changing water levels.
And the key to it all is what I'm carrying on my shoulder.
So what you're going to do, with opening the pen stock, means that we
can drain this whole area to then get fresh tidal water in.
A network of sluices and carefully engineered channels control the flow
of seawater from the rising tide into the marsh.
-I think it should be left. It should be left, I think.
It just takes a long time.
-After which it will just stop, will it?
-Then we'll know it's at maximum.
What we'll find, as well, as you draw the water levels down,
more mud will be exposed,
and so we'll get more birds and things feeding on that mud.
Over several years, the daily dose of seawater has created a salty,
silty soup, rich in invertebrate life.
It's a great source of food for all kinds of waterfowl,
waders and gulls.
We talk about the sea as a sort of force that can never be reckoned
with, can never be mastered, but actually you're playing around with
-sea levels here.
-Yeah, that's right. We must be nearly there.
-I've been going for nearly ten minutes.
-Oh, that's it!
-That's completely open now.
-Fully open. And we look over here now.
The level on this side has come up by about three feet already.
-A massive upwelling there. Sort of like a boiling pot.
All around us, the proof of how well the system is working can be seen...
-and heard. What's that bird there?
-Oh, yeah. That's an avocet.
That is an avocet, is it?
-So, they like this habitat?
-Yeah, very much so. This year,
we've had seven breeding pairs, compared to one pair last year.
-Seven here, right here in this area?
-Yeah. Yeah, yeah, which has been 15
juveniles have fledged, so it's been massively successful.
There are only 1,500 breeding pairs of avocets
recorded in the whole of the UK,
so their arrival on this brand-new salt marsh is excellent news.
And that's not all...
-A bit of marsh samphire.
-Is there lots of that here?
Do you know what? This is really exciting. This is the first time
I've seen samphire in this part of the reserve.
-Yeah. Because where we've got an open breach
the seeds are able to come in a lot quicker.
Because we've got structures here,
it's been a lot slower to colonise, and so this is great news.
-Another new arrival.
-Another new arrival, yeah.
And I can just about resist the temptation to pick and eat it.
Very much appreciated.
And I'll leave it to become an improving habitat.
-That's really cool.
-It's not often that you get a chance to see brand-new spaces
for wildlife forming right before your eyes.
And I'm already looking forward to coming back to this muddy paradise
to delve beneath the surface.
Here in the western marshes,
the story is one of exciting new arrivals.
But all across the Levels,
ancient woodland and pasture has long been a stronghold
for some more familiar faces.
About half of the UK's badgers live here in the West Country,
and like badgers anywhere, occasionally they run into trouble.
Secret World Wildlife Rescue has been helping to rehabilitate
orphaned, sick or injured animals for the past 20 years.
The charity's founder, Pauline Kidner, is busier than ever.
We now deal with just over 5,000 animals every year, so it has grown.
Everything has a season, so, January, February, March,
we're going to have fox cubs, we're going to have badger cubs.
As soon as the first blackbird comes in, it's, "Oh, my God,
"we've started the bird season." And then as soon as we get to June,
the first herring gull comes in and you know that's going to start.
Round about now, it's baby bats and it's fawns
and those sorts of things.
So, there's seasons all the way through.
That's what makes it so interesting is that it's so varied.
Pauline's dedication to Somerset's ailing animals sometimes stretches
to giving her patients a temporary home in her own house.
Meet Bumblebee and Nat.
Bumblebee, which is the bigger badger,
she was found in Glastonbury,
and she was wandering around the high street,
just up and down the road, when a member of the public found her.
And Nat was found at a country park,
just out, away from the sett.
Both cubs are around 12 weeks old.
It's not clear how they became separated from their families,
but for now, this is the best place for them.
They're in the expert care of Josie Nott.
Nat is a little bit smaller than what he should be at his age,
so we have them up in Pauline's cubbyhole,
so that she can keep a close eye on him and we can monitor his growth.
We've never had one in that's been as small as Nat
at the age that he is. He is pretty adorable,
but we have to remember that our aim is to get them back into the wild.
Wild badger cubs live most of the day underground in a warm sett,
so Pauline's cosy kitchen is a pretty good option
for these vulnerable youngsters.
For Bumblebee and Nat,
this is just the first step on the long road to rerelease.
When a badger first comes in,
we obviously treat it for any wounds that it has,
and treat it for anything that it needs.
We will then have them TB-tested when they're around eight weeks old,
and if that comes back as a negative, they would then be mixed
with other badgers that we have on the site here
to make a family group,
and each badger has a different individual smell.
And then, when they've scented each other,
that creates an individual family smell.
Even after a month away from their natural home,
there are promising signs
that Bumblebee and Nat are still all badger.
And even at this age, whilst they're out and about playing,
they're climbing, they're digging, they'll grab items
and pull them behind them, which is how they would
collect bedding in the wild and drag it back to their setts.
We see a lot of natural behaviour, which is really encouraging.
Playing is vital for the cubs to develop the life skills they'll need
for survival. And, of course,
it's what makes them irresistible to camera crews.
Two months later, the young badger cubs have been moved
to an outside pen to mingle with other badgers,
away from human company.
But even more advanced in this delicate and painstaking process of
rehabilitation, and almost ready for rerelease into the wild,
is one very special otter.
His name is Drift.
Across Somerset, otter numbers are steadily rising,
helped by the warm weather here and an abundance of waterways for them
to fish in. But if a young otter is separated from its mother,
it won't survive long.
Drift was found in Somerset and he was found at the back of a hotel.
He was just sat there, squeaking away - very sad and lonely.
Luckily, young Drift was brought here to Secret World
for some expert care.
He was a cub of just five weeks old.
We've had Drift for over a year.
His rehab's been really good.
In her role as surrogate mum to the young otter, Josie's fed him,
weaned him on to solid food, given him swimming lessons,
and even taught him how to hunt.
But there comes a time in all parents' lives for their young ones
to fly the coop.
It's really important for Drift just to get back home to the wild.
He's a wild animal - that's where he needs to be. He's a male otter.
-His biggest challenge is being a male.
He's going to have to fight for his life, really.
He's going to have to fight for his territory, fight for his women,
and eventually, hopefully, he'll find his feet
and he'll get into the swing of it.
Release coordinator Tristan Cooper has spent weeks researching
the ideal spot for Drift to start his new life.
The plan is for a soft release -
a staged return to the wild in gentle steps -
and the team will keep a close eye on his progress.
For the first couple of weeks, this is his little world.
So we've got screening and then we've got electric fencing.
And it's basically a case of keeping him within this area for now.
It's not such a shock to the system.
He can get used to the new sounds and smells.
It would be ideal to get a bit of the river in, but that's
logistically really hard to do with an electric fence.
But it's a really important that he's got water,
because they have to keep their coat wet.
There's sort of a pile of brash and some tunnels
and some natural scrub and cover.
So we're basically ready to go.
We've done all we can for him, we've given him a really good start, and
with Tristan's help to find such a great place to release him,
yeah, I feel really good.
After some initial uncertainty,
Drift soon starts to settle in to his new quarters.
But this is just the first step.
For now, he's still safely enclosed.
In a few weeks, the fence will come down
and Drift will be a wild otter once again.
It's mid-May, and the smell of
freshly-cut grass announces the arrival of summer.
It's a busy time for any farmer,
but on this particular farm
there's an extra special sense of urgency about the place.
This is Worthy Farm, home of the world-renowned Glastonbury Festival.
Every summer, these 900 acres in the Vale of Avalon
host the largest music festival in the world.
And these green fields become home to a multicoloured makeshift city.
But outside of that spell of midsummer madness,
this is a traditional Somerset dairy farm,
where keeping cows runs in the family.
We've been milking here 160 years altogether.
Festival founder Michael Eavis is probably the country's most famous
farmer, and even when the rock stars come calling,
he's still in touch with his day job.
I was always rushing around, taking phone calls from Radio 1,
talking to The Smiths and all that sort of thing, and milking cows at
-the same time.
-Talking to Morrissey and milking cows?
And, as well as tending to his beloved cows,
he's got time for the local wildlife too.
It might seem surprising with a quarter of a million people here
for two or three weeks every year, wildlife really does survive.
The owls at night and the foxes and badgers -
everything's here, you know?
The survival of nature is unbelievably powerful.
When the festival's happening,
do you think the wildlife retreats deep into the hedge,
or does it, sort of, come out and see what's going on?
We used to take the deer out.
You know, they were jumping over the fence to get back in.
Even when there were people on site?
One of the really striking things, looking around the farm,
is your hedgerows - the amount of mature trees in your hedges.
In fact, it is made of mature trees.
I had to leave those, you see, deliberately.
When the people were cutting them down,
I was letting them grow, you know?
And you're reaping the benefits in terms of songbirds and other
-It's all full of life.
Beyond the ancient hedgerows here at Worthy Farm, the pasture,
ponds and woodlands all offer a refuge for wildlife.
So what really happens to the wild residents of the farm
when the festival crowds descend?
I'm here today to find out about one family of creatures that have become
well-known festival regulars.
-Right in the corner.
-Yeah, if you lean right over that tub...
Oh, they're literally living in here?
They're living underneath this building.
Really? There's a little animal track
just the other side of this fence.
You can see that's quite well worn.
This building is where the crew, who work at the festival, are fed.
But catering boss Audrey Brown has some other hungry mouths
to feed here too - Glastonbury's resident badgers.
Behind her alfresco wash basins is an ancient sett
that's home to up to 12 badgers.
They've become more than used to the annual invasion.
During the festival,
they're crowded out of their regular hunting grounds,
so they, too, turn up at the catering tent.
So you're here cooking for about six weeks of the year,
and during that time, the badgers know there's stuff going on here
-and they come in looking for a bit of a free feed?
What sort of treats are they getting?
Well, they've had some pine nuts and they've had some dried apricots.
-Very healthy stuff!
-And they've had a bit of stale bread.
Are you usually seeing them when you feed them
-or do you leave the feed out?
-No, we leave it out.
Summer picnics are on the way.
Yeah. And it's a thrill to know that they've eaten that food,
so they've been round and they've gone on back.
You enjoy the idea that they're here and they're connected and,
even when there's nearly a quarter of a million people here,
the badgers are still safe and able to...
But they were here before the quarter of a million people.
We're intruding in their land.
So, all the more reason,
-the obligation if you like, to look after them.
It's one show at Glastonbury that hardly anyone's ever seen,
but our automatic cameras should allow us to catch
the nightly performance of the UK's most rock and roll badgers.
The daily tides wash in and out
over the newly-created reserve at Steart Marshes.
Success of this exciting wetlands project depends on
the animals it's intended for deciding to make use of it.
Today, Tom Stamp and Sean Plenty are hoping to find some very important
new arrivals, and their early-morning investigation
has drawn a bit of a crowd.
That's too close for comfort.
Usually they will just head over the bank.
This one doesn't seem to be too put off by us being here.
Maybe if we just ignore it...
Yeah, try. Yeah, let's try and ignore it.
-MOOING AND LAUGHTER
-You can't eat a net!
This isn't tasty.
Tom and Sean are looking for fish.
For these two scientists,
it's a big moment in their study of this new environment,
worthy of their attentive audience.
They hope today to find proof that these tidal, muddy creeks are being
used as a nursery where juvenile sea fish can grow,
protected from the open sea.
So we're just dragging the two ends of the net together and hopefully
all the fish should collect at one part of the net.
This is a thin-lipped mullet. That's actually quite a fat one.
That one's doing quite well. Looks very healthy.
Obviously, we've just taken the fish out of the natural environment,
and so they're going to be a bit stressed when they come into
contact with the nets, so what we try and do is put them in a bucket
of water as quickly as possible with an aerator,
so they don't run out of oxygen and they're as happy as they can be
while we measure and process them.
Here we have a juvenile herring.
As well as being identified,
each baby fish is measured.
Thin-lipped mullet, 90.
Thin-lipped mullet, 70.
Thin-lipped mullet, 96.
One species of fish in particular seems to be finding sanctuary here.
Thin-lipped mullet, 102.
The mullet tend to be feeding on
little plankton that grow on the mud.
Which is quite interesting - the different species use the salt marsh
in different ways. And what we've found at the moment is that
you do tend to get higher fish diversity and equal or sometimes
even higher fish abundance compared to the natural salt marshes.
So, at the moment, we've got quite promising results.
One fish whose stocks are under mounting pressure in the UK
is the sea bass, so to find some
young bass here would be encouraging.
So all the fish are basically swimming up and down these channels,
and as the tide ebbs, they all want to get out of the salt marsh
as quick as possible.
So they're coming down the salt marsh to be funnelled through a
series of chambers into what's called the cod end right here.
It's always quite exciting, this bit.
Ah! One scoop and two...
-Two juvenile bass.
-That's cool. So, we know that from
elsewhere in the UK, they use salt marsh quite a lot when they're
really young. At the moment, they're going through quite a rapid decline
around the UK, so every individual counts.
Bass - 81.
For Tom and Sean, it's been a good day,
and further proof that
when it comes to creating a much-needed new salt marsh habitat
for British wildlife, if you build it, they will come.
Keeping dry land under your feet has been a challenge
ever since people first settled on the Levels.
Over thousands of years, rivers have been diverted
and drainage ditches dug to contain the water.
The resulting patchwork of land is steeped in history
and often brimming with rare wildlife.
In the dawn light of an autumn morning, it's an atmospheric place.
I've joined amateur wildlife photographer Stephen Hembury
to visit a spot by the River Tone near Taunton
where, at this time of day,
he's had regular sightings of one of my favourite animals - the otter.
What's the plan?
We're going to be heading up around this corner,
another 200, 300 yards up the river,
and that's generally where I see an otter or two pop out.
And when did you last see an otter here?
-Very excited to be here today.
Stephen's a dedicated wildlife watcher who knows these river banks
and their wild inhabitants as well as anyone round here.
And this is a spot where he's seen and filmed otters before.
And I got on film, it catching a big fish as well.
-What sort of fish did it catch?
I think it was a pike. It had a big old tail on it.
It was a big fish.
When you see this otter here,
it tends to be moving and fishing and...
Yeah, moving and fishing.
Sometimes they may only come up once and then disappear.
Often it's just a glimpse, it's the best you can hope to get.
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
Recently, Stephen's patient vigil was rewarded by this playful pair.
Somerset's otters were once in real decline but, since the 1980s,
they've made a significant comeback.
But they're still far from easy to see,
so we need to be alert to any little sign.
You are able to track their bubbles.
They do blow bubbles as they swim, so you can track the bubbles.
But sometimes the bubbles disappear and then the otter's gone with them.
The otter can be inquisitive. They can, erm...
They'll come by and they'll stop
and they'll have a look and check you out.
And then they'll move on.
I often wonder, are they, or is there something else
sat in the reeds on the other side watching us, you know?
You're sat there nice and quiet and they just know you're there.
They're sitting over there saying,
"I wonder if those strange creatures
"are going to come out and sit on a bank today!"
No otters for me so far.
But time spent in a spot like this is never wasted,
especially in such good company.
Now, always, if you're out looking at wildlife, then,
if there's a commotion, find it, watch it.
-Always something happening.
-Have a look.
Little bit of a display there.
That could get interesting over there.
Yeah. There's another half a dozen coming down the other way.
That bird's got wings opened up to look a little bit larger.
Yeah, that's right. Yeah.
As most things do when they get defensive or aggressive,
-they puff out. Make themselves look bigger.
-Oh, yeah. Look at that!
Really looking after himself, isn't he?
That preening behaviour is just so important
for the condition of the feathers.
Look at that upside down head!
Takes a lot of work to stay looking this good, isn't it?
It's a funny time of year for the birds,
coming into their winter plumage.
So, that's probably what a lot of this is about.
We've got the cygnets preening now, lovely and close.
And they're pretty good at it.
They're not in the same class as their dad.
Not quite there just yet, are they?
He really takes the cake.
They've been watching and learning, I think.
These cygnets will stay with their parents for a few more months yet.
Then, when they have a pristine, white plumage of their own,
they'll be driven off to fend for themselves and, with luck,
to find their own lifelong mate.
We've given it our best shot here, haven't we?
It's been a beautiful way to start the morning.
-Yeah, it has been. I'm never disappointed.
-No, it's been lovely.
Sometimes you see nothing,
but you've got all the sights, the sounds, the smells.
-You never quite see nothing, do you?
-There's always something.
-Oh, yeah, absolutely.
I've loved being by the river bank this morning,
even if Stephen's otters didn't show themselves today.
Though, as we head off for breakfast,
I can't help feeling they'll probably be here tomorrow.
The Somerset coast is defined by the powerful tidal waters
of the Bristol Channel, where the River Severn flows into the sea.
This vast estuary is one of the most important places in Britain
for a creature that, down the years, I've become rather obsessed with.
As tiny little babies, they swim upstream in their millions,
heading right up the river.
Then years, maybe even decades later,
as part of an extraordinary life cycle
that we still don't fully understand,
a lucky few of them head downstream again,
swimming out to sea in the hope of starting the next generation.
Of course, I'm talking about the eel.
These marvellous, mysterious fish can grow over a metre long
and live up to 100 years.
Until a few decades ago, eels were an important food fish,
served up jellied and smoked in pubs and cafes all over Britain.
I have to admit that I have, in the past, caught,
cooked and eaten eels with considerable enthusiasm.
But that's not something
I'm thinking of doing again any time soon.
And the reason is that eel numbers in our rivers
are in serious decline.
But ecologists Harriet Alvis and Scott West are optimistic
that the creation of a new wetland at Steart Marshes
could help to improve the eels' fortunes
in this part of the UK at least.
-Are you in, Harriet?
-Yeah, we can push you off.
And I can't wait to join them
for their first ever trip to look for eels here.
That looks good.
-You've done this before, haven't you?
-I'm liking this.
Keeps me warm.
You're putting me to shame there.
The first place we're checking out is one of the older,
more established pools that predates the creation of the new wetlands.
OK, so we've deployed five double fyke nets.
These fyke nets are targeting adult eels.
Yeah, that's right. So, we're really trying to understand
the larger eel population here.
Does this look like an eely pond to you?
-It is as eely as it gets, Hugh.
-It really is.
Well, Scott should know.
All right, so, here we go.
-And we've got an eel.
-Oh, that's exciting.
Well done, Scott. It's a beaut.
Lovely. Really nice. It's almost got a kind of reddish tinge to it.
It's because of the clear water.
So it lives in clear water,
so naturally it takes a dark appearance.
-Good size, eh?
-Well done, everyone.
This female eel could be more than 20 years old,
and she's showing one of the many remarkable features
of this strange fish - shape shifting.
Depending on whether they form mainly fish prey
or larger invertebrates, which depends on where they live,
they'll either have sort of a flat head,
wide, sort of flat triangle, arrow tip type head,
or a much broader head.
And the flat, pointy one would be a predator eel?
That's correct. Yeah.
And the flatter, broader one would be a mud-chomping...?
Yeah. Larger invertebrates, that type of thing.
Eating grubs and things in the mud.
They eat both,
but they will specifically sort of morph their head.
So, they become specialist feeders
and their heads change shape to adapt to what they're feeding on?
So, could you tell if this is a stickleback-muncher
-or a kind of an invertebrate, wormy sucker?
-This is a...
The more pointed shape one, so this is probably a fish chaser.
Trapping this eel was relatively straightforward.
Getting her vital statistics is another matter entirely.
And your half drainpipe here does the job?
It never goes exactly to plan.
Measuring a very slippery, wriggly customer.
-Good luck with that.
Well done, well done, well done. You've got her.
You've got her.
Oh, nice job. Whoa!
Back in the bucket.
Erm... There we go.
Just coming up to 72, I've got.
Whoa, whoa, whoa.
It's great to see such a beautiful, healthy female...
..and even better to watch her return to the depths unharmed.
Well done, team.
Once she's fully matured,
our eel will begin an incredible and improbable adventure
that's one of the great aquatic journeys of the natural world.
It all starts on moonless, wet nights in autumn.
This is when the mature silver eels head downstream,
some leaving ditches and ponds to find rivers
that will carry them down to the sea.
Here, along with eels from all over Europe,
they cross the Atlantic to the Sargasso Sea near the Caribbean.
They were born here and, after breeding, they'll die here.
Their offspring then drift on the currents,
thousands of miles back to the rivers of Europe.
They arrive as glass eels - tiny translucent young
that become elvers as they adapt to living in freshwater.
Sadly, in just 40 years,
the eel population in Europe has plunged by 95%.
I love these incredible creatures,
but they're in trouble and they need our help.
It's obviously vital that as many adult eels as possible
complete that journey to the Sargasso Sea to breed.
And if we're going to help with that here in the UK,
then we need to make sure that elvers can get up our rivers
and adult eels can get down them.
Andrew Carr is from the Sustainable Eel Group.
Mankind really, over hundreds of years,
has done all sorts of things to the environment.
In particular, there are the blocked migration pathways.
Flood defences, weirs and dams, are just some of the barriers
that are hampering the natural breeding cycle of the eel.
These are all historic wetlands but, over the centuries,
we've been draining them.
In England and Wales, we have about 20% left of what we had.
So, loss of habitat is a major issue for the eel.
Despite the decline,
elvers are still fished here in the way they always have been -
at night, with hand nets, on the rising tide.
But a new breed of fishermen are now doing their bit to conserve,
as well as catch, the tiny glass eels.
Harley Curl is a fourth-generation elverman here on the River Parrett.
My grandad always used to tell me,
he used to live by the river and when he was little,
he used to go out and see all the elvers in the river.
My dad used to come out and I used to go out with him.
As soon as I've been able to hold a net, I've been fishing for myself.
I've always done it, so I wouldn't imagine not doing it.
These days, half of the elvers caught in UK rivers
are set aside for restocking.
From a distribution centre in Gloucestershire, they're sorted,
packed and shipped out to resupply waterways, not only in the UK,
but also in Europe.
Packing them up to survive these journeys is a major operation.
Some of these wriggly dignitaries
even get their very own private plane.
But others will be staying much closer to home.
This school is about to receive its own consignment...
..hand delivered by Harriet.
She's getting classrooms on the Somerset Levels
actively involved in eel conservation.
The schools will look after them for about four weeks.
In that time they get bigger and fatter
and they'll get darker in colour.
And then the schools are going to release them into their local river,
so they're helping to stock the next population of eels.
OK. In they go.
Our eels will need all the help they can get from the next generation
so it's great to involve the kids growing up in eel country.
Has anyone got fish at home in a tank?
Yeah? And do you have...
The fact they ask so many questions
really helps them to learn about their environment,
rather than us talking at them, and they are really, really interested.
That one. I would say that one, actually.
It looks quite fun being an eel, because you'd be wriggling around.
The kids have got to help to clean the poo out and they feed them.
They do water changes
and just generally checking on their wellbeing,
making sure they're active and they're disease-free.
It's a big responsibility.
I'm going to call them Gracie number two.
Gracie number two.
-Which one's Gracie number two?
I definitely think it's the most powerful engagement project
that we've got. For the kids to be able to look after them for so long
and to learn so many different things about rivers,
rather than just being taught on a piece of paper,
yeah, it's definitely so powerful.
In three weeks, the elvers are ready to return to the rivers of Somerset.
Where do you think he's gone?
Down there. What do you think it's going to do down there?
Find a home.
Tip it out. Yay. It jumped out, yours.
Oh, I can see it.
-Did you like having him in your classroom?
-What was the best bit?
-It was looking after them.
Eventually, some of the elvers the children have released
will mature into adult silver eels,
ready to make that marathon journey across the Atlantic.
With luck, their stopover in a Somerset classroom
will have won the eel a new generation of supporters.
At Worthy Farm, there's only a week to go
until the start of the Glastonbury Festival.
The site is buzzing.
And so, too, are the hedgerows.
With bees, naturally.
But not just any bees.
These are British black bees
and a colony of around half a million of them
are kept here by Glastonbury's commercial director Robert Richards,
and the festival's founder, Michael Eavis.
Black bees are indigenous UK bees.
I talked it through with Michael.
He was really enthusiastic about having some bees.
One of the reasons for promoting black bees
is because black bees don't suffer from the same diseases
that imported bees can do.
Bees are pollinators with a vital role in fertilising plants.
But, recently, numbers have been in steep and worrying decline.
The reasons are complex and controversial.
But one thing that is giving hope is this hardy British bee.
Black bees account for just 1% of our honeybees.
But, as a native species, they're suited to our climate
and seem to be more resistant to the traumas affecting other honey bees.
So, these VIP bees need to be looked after,
which is why beekeeper Joe King is making a timely intervention.
He's taking the bees on holiday.
Bees cope very well with what they're used to.
And so, all of a sudden, from being very quiet and tranquil,
with an occasional person about,
suddenly you've got a quarter of a million people bopping up and down
in the fields around you.
There's a lot of noise.
I think there's a lot of the heavy bass
which goes on during the day and part of the night.
And I think that sort of thing
probably would be very unsettling for them.
Honey bees are sensitive to low-frequency sounds,
so a thumping bass could well cause them damage.
Since it's not that difficult to actually move a colony of bees,
it does make sense just to move them out for a few weeks.
As soon as the bees have returned to their hives for the night...
..the job of preparing for the move can begin.
First, the entrances are sealed and, to prevent them from overheating,
each hive gets a ventilated travel screen.
The next morning, Glastonbury's bees are ready to be spirited away.
But when the engine is running,
there's slight vibration in the vehicle
and the bees seem to cling on to the comb.
The problem is when you turn the engine off.
But the idea is you don't turn the engine off till you get there.
Seven miles down the road, the bees reach their destination -
the serene setting of the gardens of Glastonbury Abbey.
The abbey and the farm have a connection dating back
to the very beginning of Worthy Farm's existence,
when it was presented by the abbot
to a person he deemed worthy of the gift.
And this ancient place of sanctuary seems a fitting spot
for these treasured British bees to carry on their vital resurgence.
It looks to me as if they've travelled well.
They're in good spirits.
They're coming out. They're having a look around.
They'll get used to where they are and what they'll start doing
is by flying very short distances immediately around the hive.
and gradually, as they're orientated, and they get to know it,
they then gradually start travelling in wider circles
until they're totally familiar.
And, you know, they'll start foraging.
There's lots of nice trees in Glastonbury,
so they should do very well. They should enjoy their holiday.
They'll have a lot quieter time than if they're at the festival, I think.
A few days after the bee relocation,
the transformation of the once-peaceful fields
of Worthy Farm is complete.
Backstage, the crew catering tent is in full swing.
Manager Audrey makes it her job to ensure nobody misses out.
Along with husband Terry,
she ends the day with a special "at table" service
for the farm's full-time tenants.
We've got some nice bits of apple and a nice bit of buttered bread.
They love that.
When we check the next day, the food always seems to be gone,
so they seem to enjoy it.
We feel that if we feed them in here,
they're not going out into the crowds
and not going anywhere near people's tents
so they're not getting harmed and they're not harming anybody.
And right on cue,
Glastonbury's very own badger family arrives for dinner.
They're just a stone's throw
from thousands of unsuspecting festivalgoers.
But the badgers are careful not to draw a crowd.
Although they don't see especially well,
badgers do have an acute sense of smell.
And very sensitive hearing.
Their sett here could be centuries old.
And there's not much that its robust residents haven't seen before.
Long may they go on making the most of an annual opportunity
that they seem more than capable of taking in their stride.
Just a few miles from Glastonbury, at a secret location,
Tristan is preparing for a crucial moment
in the life of orphaned otter Drift.
Two weeks ago, Drift was moved to his halfway house,
an enclosure where he can adjust to life in the wild.
But today's the day when that fence is coming down.
It's all out of our hands now.
It's up to him to go and find his way in the wild.
But we know we've done everything we can
to give him the best second chance.
I hope he's going to go and make me proud.
Drift is left alone
to pick his moment to venture into the wild.
The remote trail cams left around the site will be Tristan's
only indication of how Drift is getting on.
It's the culmination of months of work and preparation.
He's still around in the area, which is quite a nice surprise.
We didn't expect him to hang around this long.
But I think that's a good thing that he's still about.
He's eating well.
He's fending for himself.
He's swimming in the river, which he's obviously never done before,
which is really exciting.
Tristan still leaves food for Drift
to support him as he learns to hunt for himself.
But where there's free fish, there's likely to be competition.
We've got a fox that's been hanging around quite a bit,
who we think has been sharing the food that's being put out for Drift.
He's not been going back for support food every day,
which suggests that he is finding natural food
and he is learning to fend for himself.
It's fantastic to see Drift's instinct and adaptive intelligence
kicking in after a year of captivity.
And the cameras have revealed something
that was beyond Tristan's wildest hopes.
We've got two otters,
which I think is potentially Drift
and a lady otter.
So, it's really exciting to see
and quite a surprise.
The fact that he's hung around for this long and has now been,
obviously, interacting with another otter, is really exciting,
because male otters are fiercely territorial
and there was a chance that he was going to go out into the world
and get his butt kicked, basically.
Who knows? There could be little baby Drifts out there
at some point in the foreseeable future.
I'm back at Steart Marshes, investigating the future of a fish
I've always found deeply intriguing - the eel.
It loves wetlands but they're a disappearing habitat in the UK,
so this brilliant new wetland reserve
could play a crucial role in its local revival.
I'm with fish biologists Scott and Harriet.
We've already found an adult eel here.
But Scott wants proof that the young elvers,
fresh from their Atlantic migration, are settling here too.
So, if we find elvers today,
will they be the first elvers you've worked with on Steart Marshes?
-Yep. That's it.
-OK. So, it's going to be a first.
-Or a zero?
-First or a zero.
-It's a blank or a first.
Yeah, you know. If we get them, I'll be super happy.
It's a cold, February morning.
At this time of year,
tiny elvers should be arriving from the ocean and heading upstream.
But weirs, tidal gates and sluices could block the elvers' routes.
So Scott and Harriet have installed special ramps to help them
slither up against the flow of the stream and get through.
Gosh, so you're asking those elvers to have swum up there?
That's correct, yeah.
That's going to require quite an effort
for those little fellas, isn't it?
Well, inside that covered black box, as you can see the green,
it's all that upturned bristle filament.
So they slither their way up the pass inside there.
So those bristles give them some traction to go uphill?
That's correct, yeah.
Yeah, a bit of a challenge and that's only one of the structures
along the river so, you know,
there are several obstacles they've got to make across the journey.
We want to find out whether the elvers
are actually using these eel elevators.
That was close.
I'm getting very close to the limit of my waders here!
Using an old pair of tights as a net,
Scott and Harriet have designed a simple trap
to catch any passing elvers.
I don't think so, Scott. I'm really sorry.
It's a disappointing start, but there are a few more traps to check.
I don't see an elver.
No matter how hard we search, the elvers are nowhere to be found.
Jeez. Are you starting to think it probably was not an elvery night,
-it just wasn't happening?
The enigmatic elver has eluded us today, but there's still a hope
we'll find some bigger eels out in the new salt marsh.
This is a completely different landscape
to where we pulled the first fyke.
Yeah, that's right. I mean, it was only four years ago now
that this was farmland and fields.
-Really? That recently?
-And now it's saltwater brackish.
We've got a new habitat here
so it would be fantastic to know whether eels are using it.
Let's have a look at this one.
I've not been feeling too confident about the salt marsh.
We'll see how it goes, but let's have a look.
-There's something in it!
-Yes! Look at that!
-It's a little greeny.
-That's really significant here.
That's a young eel, the second eel we've caught here at Steart ever.
-And the first one in this habitat.
-The first in this habitat.
-What were we saying on the way over here?
-Such a different animal, isn't it?
This one I would say is...
..probably isn't mature yet.
A real significant find for this new salt marsh.
And until now we did not know for sure
that eels were using this habitat.
-Yes, that's right.
-And now you do.
-Now we do, which means a lot.
It means a lot to me. I've got a lot to think about now.
-It's a whole new eel story.
-It is, yeah. Yeah, it is.
Away you go, little fella.
You are eel history.
But what a great day.
I used to catch eels...
..to cook them and eat them.
And today I spent the day
catching eels with Scott and Harriet for conservation.
It's been the most exciting eel hunting trip I've ever been on.
And how fantastic to see them slithering away
into this amazing new habitat.
But where are those elusive elvers?
After all, they're the vital future of Steart's eel population.
OK, Hugh, looks like you've missed the glass eels and the elvers
by literally a day.
Here are some lovely little glass eels.
Just got their black line down them,
so they've been feeding in freshwater.
These are the first glass eels caught at the Steart site.
Not just in Europe but globally,
the eel faces a very uncertain future
due to overfishing and habitat loss.
But what I've seen here at Steart Marshes
is that it isn't necessarily our destiny
always to be taking from nature.
We are capable of rebuilding and giving back wild places too.
And when we do, the rewards are rich indeed.
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 0300 303 3643,
or go to bbc.co.uk/hughswildwest
and follow the links to the Open University.
Wildlife enthusiast Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall meets the creatures and nature lovers that make the West Country so special, this time exploring the Somerset Levels. Hugh visits Worthy Farm, the home of Glastonbury Festival, to see how the wildlife copes when a quarter of a million festivalgoers descend on the countryside, and discovers that the badgers seem pretty unfazed by their new neighbours.
Nearby, Secret World Rescue Centre rehabilitates animals that need a helping hand. It is time for Drift the otter to return to the wild, but can he survive on his own?
Hugh also visits Steart Marshes on the Somerset coast, where a vast area of farmland has been reverted to saltmarsh to provide a haven for all kinds of birdlife and one of Hugh's favourite fish, the eel. European eels have suffered a huge decline in the past few decades but, with this new marsh and the help of the local community, their future is looking brighter.