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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.
Off, off, off!
There's one inside my...oh!
..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!
There's one in my hair now.
I'll share the thrill of the chase...
-Do you hear them?
-I heard something.
Yeah, they're in there.
..the sheer joy of the encounter...
-She's so golden.
-She is 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.
Today I'm in a part of south-west England that I should know pretty well.
I'm right on my home patch, the Devon/Dorset border.
I've lived around here for almost 20 years.
But getting to know the local wildlife is a never-ending process...
..and this area of the south-west is home to an enthralling cast of creatures,
some of which I now think of as old friends,
but some of the more elusive ones I still haven't met.
This stretch of coast straddling Devon and Dorset is best known for
the fossil beaches and beauty spots around Lyme Regis and Lulworth Cove,
but there's plenty of interest just back from the sea
along a ribbon of land that runs from the pretty river valleys
above Exmouth and Sidmouth, past Lyme Regis
to the tidal waterways of the Fleet near Weymouth.
This is the River Otter.
As you might expect, there are indeed otters here,
and plenty more besides.
What is truly surprising is that here, just a few miles from home,
I have a chance to encounter a creature of the river
that to me has always seemed exotic and far-flung.
As a child I loved reading books about wild animals from far-off
lands and dreaming that maybe one day I'd get to see them for myself.
One creature that particularly fascinated me, with its toothy face,
its leathery tail and its amazing ability to chop down trees,
was the beaver.
When I was a boy, beavers hadn't been seen in England
for over 400 years.
They were once widespread in the UK,
but they were hunted to extinction for their fur,
their meat and their powerful scent glands,
which were used in perfumes and medicines.
But in 2011,
local wildlife watchers were amazed to find that beavers
had made a surprise return right here in Devon.
It's suspected they'd been accidentally released from captivity.
However it happened, within a few years, they were seen to have young,
known as kits. It soon became clear
that these unlikely and unexpected arrivals
had the potential to start a genuine beaver revival.
I've still never actually seen one in the wild,
which makes it incredibly exciting to know that there's
a real possibility of seeing one right here on this river,
on my home patch on the Devon/Dorset border.
Of course, I'm not the only one who finds the idea of spotting a beaver
in the wild very exciting.
They're still not easy to see,
but when the word gets around that beavers are out and about,
it can attract quite a crowd,
hoping to train their lenses on the River Otter's new celebrities.
In my personal experience the furthest anybody's come
was Western Australia, Perth and New Zealand,
and people on holiday in Europe
come in via Budleigh to see our beavers.
I could not believe it,
but that's fact.
David White was one of the first to get the beaver bug.
I retired to the area some eight years ago,
and one day when I was down here I came across a very funny footprint.
And I could think of everything it wasn't.
A few months later, I'm walking along another part of the river
and I hear a huge splash.
A bit like I'd expect somebody who had thrown a pebble the size of
a bag of sugar into the water.
I thought, "What on earth made that?"
Then, two and two together, it was a beaver's tail splashing.
That is how I got interested in the beavers in the first place.
Typically they may be nearly as large as a sack of potatoes.
They whizz around so fast and they dive up and down,
and pop up two yards away, ten yards away,
and you really don't know whether you're looking at the same one or a different one.
Having the only wild beavers in England right on his doorstep
has made Dave
something of an authority
on how to get the best view.
When I see them, the first thing really is to try and let it
relax and settle down a bit.
Some people tend to, "Oh, oh! Look, there's a beaver!"
Point, lean forward.
Hold back, ease away
and the beaver relaxes a bit and it'll actually come closer to you,
and you get a better look at it to see what it is doing.
For one amateur wildlife photographer these newcomers
on the river presented an opportunity not to be missed.
German-born Sylvie Meller is building up a library of footage
of the parents and their kits.
But she'll never forget the first time she saw them.
We were just sitting next to the river
and it was the female swimming past us.
There she was, and it was just goose bumps immediately.
I was just hooked on them.
And I just had to come there now most weekends and see them
and take pictures and film them.
Sylvie's intimate footage of this tight-knit unit
gives us an insight into beaver family life.
Beavers mate for life, having up to four kits a year.
The young then stay with the family until they're around two years old.
So the beaver family is the nicest thing to watch, I guess?
It is lovely to watch them.
And of course when the kits are out the first time,
to see the tiny little kits
swimming around and playing with
the parents and swimming on the back of the mother and the dad,
that's just one of the most amazing moments.
It's a beaver soap opera?
It is, yeah. Each and every time it's something different.
My parents always say, "Oh, you are going back to the river again,
"isn't it always the same?"
No, every time it's different. Every
time something new's happening.
I would absolutely love to see one,
just being in the river and hanging out and doing beavery things.
At the moment the best thing is to come early in the morning,
just after sunrise, when it's just about getting light,
to see them coming, swimming back to the lodge.
-Thank you, Sylvie.
-I hope I have a bit of your luck.
It's still dark when I head back down to the river
for my early-morning beaver stakeout.
It's just before dawn and I'm back on the bridge where Sylvie says
I've got the best chance of seeing the beavers on the move.
It's still pretty dark, so I've got an infrared light here
and a camera that picks that up.
So even though I can't really see what's happening on the river yet,
I can see here through the viewfinder.
So if they do come down the river before it gets light,
I should still be able to pick them up.
It feels almost absurd to think a beaver might suddenly appear here
on this Devon river, but that's probably what everyone
who's seen one was thinking just before it happened.
Just a glimpse would be a thrill.
But wildlife watching is about putting in the hours,
and being here on the river as the sun rises is a pleasure in itself.
Having said that, I would like to see one.
It has been a lovely morning,
but sadly beaverless.
So that's it for today.
But I'm definitely coming back as soon as I can because
I've definitely got beaver fever.
I may not have seen one this time, but hearing from people who have,
and seeing in their eyes the excitement that goes with it,
I'm not giving up just yet.
The past plight of our beavers is a good reminder of why
our wildlife needs protection today.
But conservation isn't a new idea,
even if historically it's tended to favour only a select few species.
One of those has been the subject of what must be the oldest
continuous conservation project in the UK.
I'm full of admiration for anyone who devotes the whole of their
working lives to protecting the interests of our wildlife.
But when that job comes with a heritage that is almost 1,000 years old,
that's got to command some serious respect.
This is the Fleet,
a 13km-long saltwater lagoon
created by the pebble bank of Chesil Beach.
For centuries, this geographical anomaly has been a safe haven
for a graceful resident with privileged royal connections.
Abbotsbury Swannery is home to hundreds of these majestic birds.
This is the world's one and only managed colony of mute swans.
The job of looking after them goes back to the 14th century...
..as does the title that goes with it -
The current incumbent is Swanherd Dave Wheeler.
Let me see. Come on, girl.
Good. One, two, three, four, five, six eggs for nest 29.
The Fleet provides masses of food for waterfowl,
and that's the attraction.
The shallow lagoon has over 150 species of plant life,
25 species of fish and plentiful molluscs,
all of which contribute to this rich feeding ground
for the omnivorous swans.
In the winter, top count in recent years was very close to 1,400 swans.
It's hard to explain why I love this place.
I think there is a magic to it.
It's not just swans, it's THE Swannery at Abbotsbury.
There are so many different aspects to it, the job is so varied,
we don't know what we'll be doing from one day to the next.
That's good, that's good.
I do remember one particular day that made me think,
when my first job of the day happened to be to lift sewage pumps,
clean them and reset them,
my very next job was to pose with children,
ballerinas in tutus, on the nesting site.
There can't be any jobs with that kind of variety.
The swannery was established here by Benedictine monks whose reasons
for protecting these birds were somewhat different from ours today.
We know that Benedictine monks founded a monastery in Abbotsbury
as far back as the 1040s,
and we know that they had a great interest in this place because,
of course, they wanted to eat swan.
And obviously, if they could increase survival rates
there'd be more swan meat.
Whatever the motive, the responsibilities of the Swanherd -
to protect these birds and help their young to reach maturity
on this beautiful piece of water - are the same as they've always been.
It's a story of historical continuity
that's surprising and somehow comforting.
When we look in the archives,
there are many mentions of keepers of swans here and swanherds,
so the title may have changed a little over the years, but certainly
they've been managed for many hundreds of years.
It's almost as if these powerful birds sense the advantage
to their young of this age-old human intervention.
We have a colony of nesting swans, which is rather unusual,
and they don't make good neighbours.
They all want more territory,
there's aggressive interaction between some pairs,
and without our help, survival would not be so good.
The swan colony is tended daily by Dave and his team
but these are truly wild animals, free to come and go as they please.
Clearly at nesting time, there's nowhere they'd rather be than here.
I think the situation here,
the swans and the swannery are extremely important.
I think it's right and good that it's sustained.
Scientifically it's unique. There is nowhere in the world
where we can gain so much information about swans.
It's May and the height of the hatching season.
To gather the data they need on the year's new brood,
Dave and his team must inspect each newly hatched cygnet.
And with protective parent swans to contend with,
this is the most dangerous job of the year.
We sex and tag their cygnets when they're just a day old,
so we're really asking to be thumped!
Risky it may be, but it's all part of the job for Dave's deputy Swanherd, Steve Groves.
My dad worked in a factory all his life on a lathe, so this is,
you know, a job like this, yeah...
..you do get a big kick out of it.
One Swanherd did have his radius broken,
and there has been one case, I believe, of cracked ribs here.
One of my colleagues I did see knocked unconscious
on the nesting site.
A swan struck him on the head.
It's a male.
Cygnets are among the largest hatchlings of any British bird,
but like all chicks they're vulnerable.
Every year in the UK only about a third of all cygnets hatched anywhere
make it to their first autumn, let alone get through their first winter.
And usually we're on par with that.
In this crowded colony the big risk to the cygnets is from other swans,
protecting their patch, both on land and on water.
It's a threat that all these cygnets will have to face pretty soon.
They're almost ready to leave the nest.
They usually leave the nest on...
..sometimes day two, usually day three.
So they may stay in there until tomorrow and then the parents
will take them down to the nearest available water,
which, if they're a really good pair, they've already got
a bit of water in their territory.
But I don't think this pair have.
So they've got a journey now down to the Fleet Lagoon
which means going through other swans' territory,
and there's more chances that the cygnets will get predated
or attacked by another swan,
so they haven't got the best start in life,
but obviously we're always around to look after them.
Even in a 1,000-year-old colony,
life is never easy for the swans of Abbotsbury.
Last year we had a very good survival rate.
It was nearly 50% that survived their first...up to autumn.
But unfortunately, of course, last winter
we had a bird flu outbreak and unfortunately a lot of
those cygnets that made it didn't make it through the bird flu,
so nature, like I say,
just always makes sure that only the strongest survive.
The cygnets have many trials ahead and Swanherd Dave has
his biggest challenge of the year coming up too.
In midsummer he'll oversee one of the country's most bizarre annual wildlife surveys.
The rich tidal waters of the largely unchanging Fleet
have always been an ideal home for the swans.
But back from the sea, even the most
idyllic landscapes of the West Country are shaped by man...
And when that puts a species in decline,
there's a good case to be made that it's down to us
to offer a helping hand.
If you can give them a secure place to live and breed,
you can make a real difference.
And if that place happens to be man-made and even centrally heated,
well, some animals are just not going to have a problem with that.
The stately homes of England attract visitors from all over the world.
Some have been opened to the public
or been converted into swanky hotels.
But here in Dorset one former dwelling of the landed gentry
has found a very different destiny.
This rather forbidding structure was once the bustling kitchen block
of Bryanston's 18th-century manor house.
But since it was abandoned some new residents have taken over the place,
and they only come out at night.
For 30 years Colin Morris has been tending to their every need.
Bats, including the rare greater horseshoe,
were found to be in residence here in the 1950s,
and since then the accommodation has had a number of upgrades.
This roost has been studied by bat scientists since the 1950s.
And over the years it had so many improvements here,
just for the bats.
It was one of the first places to have central heating put in
for them, to keep them nice and warm and help the babies grow.
We also had it reroofed just for the bats.
They had all this money.
It's probably the most expensive bat roost in the UK.
So it's been known since then as the Horseshoe Hilton.
The greater horseshoe bat is the largest of Britain's
18 species of bats, but also one of the rarest.
Its diet consists of moths and insects that it catches on the wing,
but numbers have been hit by the double whammy of habitat loss
and the widespread use of agricultural insecticides.
It's estimated that numbers have declined over 90% in the last 100 years.
It's disappeared completely from over half its former range
in the UK, and is now confined to south-west England and South Wales.
But projects like this are helping the horseshoes hang on in there,
and nowadays they can stay here all year round,
thanks to some major recent renovations.
So here we have the world's first cave ever dug in solid rock
for hibernating bats. We took out the back wall
of an internal fireplace and we dug a tunnel
approximately 12 metres long, twisted at the end,
so you get a pocket of warm air at the top
and a pocket of warm air at the bottom,
because bats roost at different temperatures throughout the winter.
And over one weekend we excavated nearly 40 tonnes of rock.
Prior to its excavation we only had perhaps 15 or 20 bats
hibernating here throughout the winter.
This winter, we had nearly 300 bats hibernating in there,
so a very successful site indeed.
Colin's purpose-built bat cave, or hibernaculum,
has clearly been a massive boost for the greater horseshoes,
providing them with a cosy place to sit out the worst of the winter chill.
In the spring, the pregnant females move back upstairs.
This is their maternity roost, a special mother-and-baby unit
where bats rear their young over the summer.
By July the mothers have given birth and must now leave their pups
to hunt for a few hours every evening.
Did I bring my camera?
For Colin and his team, it's the perfect time for a bat count.
Now, have we all got tally counters?
..the bats will be out in about ten minutes.
-If we settle down now and wait for the emergence, OK?
Any problems, let me know.
The volunteers are equipped with some handy technology.
This is an ultrasonic bat detector.
It's one of the simplest bat detectors on the market.
This clever box of tricks allows them to hear the ultrasonic calls
made by each bat. These clicks are the echolocation
by which they navigate and hunt their prey.
-You're sitting on the bat detector.
Made my day, that did.
In the gloom of dusk, the bats begin to emerge.
And the team get busy with their bat detectors,
counting them click by click.
But click counting bats is trickier than you might think.
Some evenings are more difficult than others, because
these bats have a tendency to go in and out several times
before they go off to forage totally.
And what you've got to do is, if a bat goes back into the building...
..remember one bat's gone back in
and, when the next bat comes out,
you don't click it.
If I get 250 to 300 adults
and 150 to 170 babies,
I'll be very happy.
When the bats are all out, the team can compare their counts.
-344, good count.
And the result is even better than Colin was expecting...
-Ooh, really? Really?
..which raises hopes of an impressive brood inside.
-Let's go and see how many babies we have.
With all the mums now out hunting,
Colin quickly scrambles up to the attic to count the pups.
There's a bat that's been born in the last day or two.
Greater horseshoe bats have been known to live for 30 years,
but they breed very, very slowly.
They might not give birth until they're three or four years old,
and perhaps they'll only have one baby every two years, which is why
they're sort of living on a knife-edge in this part of Europe.
They don't breed very fast.
Their survival rate isn't always as good as we'd hoped.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten...
There's some very tiny bats up there,
which have been born in the last week,
so I'd estimate perhaps we'd have 170 babies in total this year.
For the horseshoe bat,
there's still a long way to go before they're out of danger,
but it's good to know that it's packed to the rafters
here at the Horseshoe Hilton.
I'm back on the River Otter on my continuing quest
to catch up with Devon's wild beavers.
Today, I'm joining Mark Elliott from Devon Wildlife Trust.
-You can see there's signs of...
-Yeah, another one down there.
Last year, a new pair of beavers were introduced
to prevent inbreeding, and Mark's been keeping a close watch
on their progress ever since.
I'm excited, and already the trail is pretty warm.
There's a tree down here, Mark. That's not beavers, is it?
-Yes, this is beavers.
-Is it? Oh! That is massive!
That's a Devon beaver?
-Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
-I've never seen anything like it!
You can see all the teeth marks all the way across here.
Oh, that's extraordinary!
A resident mammal felling trees here in Devon just seems really odd,
but wherever they are, beavers will be beavers.
And he wants this tree to come down.
Yeah, primarily so that he can reach the top branches.
So he's feeding on the top branches, or using the sticks
for lodge building, that sort of thing, but also,
because it's a willow tree, this will re-sprout,
so there will be lots of fresh, young growth come from this tree
next year, and that will then be food for beavers in future years.
A beaver's teeth are unusual,
as they'd need to be to gnaw through this much wood.
Unlike our teeth, they never stop growing.
What keeps them in check is all that chewing.
The front of the tooth is made from hard enamel,
backed by a slightly softer substance called dentine,
which is more easily worn away.
It's an ingenious arrangement
that makes a beaver's teeth self-sharpening.
The front layer of enamel
is especially tough because
it's so rich in iron,
which is very practical for wood chewing
but does lead to one rather striking
visual feature of mature beavers -
So having felled a tree, they're going down the whole length of it.
-Yeah, all the way down.
-Whittling away, nibbling every stem.
And then this is bark stripping,
so they are feeding on the bark particularly.
You can see all the way, and this is fresh here,
so this is in the last few nights.
That wood, that is food.
There's some goodness in there that's being extracted.
The smaller stuff, so they're not really eating the wood.
They are feeding on the bark, particularly on the smaller twigs,
but then the branches, like these, will probably be in the lodge.
-It's astonishing that's going on in Devon.
Sights like this haven't been seen here for centuries,
so a major part of Mark's work is to try and assess
what it could mean for the ecology of the area.
Looking at a tree like this down, it's absolutely unambiguous
that beavers are making an impact on the river.
They're changing things here. Is that a problem?
No, I don't think so.
These are all riverside willow trees.
They grow very quickly.
To be honest, they grow in response to this sort of activity.
This is a really natural process.
There will be lots of species that benefit from this sort of woody material.
But I think the other real benefits are going to be
where beavers are building dams.
And so you start to see flood risk benefits,
so the beavers are storing water up in the headwaters
and that reduces the speed of flow coming downstream.
But those ponds are also really important for amphibians
and for fish and a whole range of other wetland species.
So that's where the real benefits are,
it's when they start damming.
So they're doing all the other wildlife a favour here?
They're creating habitats for a whole range of species.
We call them keystone species because they create habitats for other things.
To keep track of this pilot population of beaver,
Mark and his team try to tag and microchip all new arrivals.
This could be my best chance to see a Devon beaver in the flesh.
But first, we have to catch one.
See how the traps are just through here.
Oh, yeah, I can see something the other side of that scrubby bit of willow.
It's quite an out-of-the-way place, this.
Do we bait first or set the trap first?
We'll bait first. Otherwise there's the risk of injury when you
-put the bait in.
-Oh, yeah, of course.
-So, yeah, what we're doing
is putting apples inside. And the plate in the middle
is what the beavers have to stand on.
So what we then do is bring the doors down onto those
-metal bars there.
That should hold it in place.
-OK, so now that's set.
So if the beaver touches the plate...
-..that's what happens.
You got me there! Is this trap
specifically designed for beavers or can it catch other critters?
This is specifically designed for beavers, yeah.
So the size and everything means that the beaver's tail is clear of
the falling door, it's been carefully worked out?
-And that's set.
-That's now set.
OK, so that's them set.
-When do you check them?
-Yeah, we don't want to leave them too late.
So, first thing in the morning.
So far, Devon's beavers have eluded me,
but footage taken by dedicated local enthusiasts suggests that
the River Otter is very much to their liking.
Beavers are most active and most relaxed at night
when they leave their lodge to feed.
And there's plenty of family time, too.
The following morning, Mark and I are back to check the trap.
Do you think we'll be able to see whether the trap's been triggered
-from here, Mark?
-Yeah, it should be possible to see
-whether the door's down. It does look like...
Shall we see if we can see an animal in there?
There's something in the bottom right-hand corner?
Yes. Yes, I can see it!
-That's incredible. There's a beaver in there.
-These rhododendrons at least give you something to grab on to.
It looks like I'm finally on my way to meeting one of the first beavers
living wild in England for four centuries...
Whoa! That's me.
..if I don't come a cropper first.
More brittle than I thought.
-You can see his tail.
-It's quite a long tail, isn't it?
Yeah, it's quite a small animal, though.
-I think it's probably...
-That's a small animal?
-That's a small animal, yeah.
Looked pretty big to me, but then I've never seen a beaver before.
This is, I'd say, it's probably one of the youngsters from last year.
Handling the beaver is the job of zoologist Roisin and her assistant, Ed.
-Hi. Hugh. How are you?
All right. You look like you've got what it takes to deal with a beaver.
-OK, show us how it's done.
Through her work with a similar project in Scotland,
Roisin has been handling British beavers for nearly ten years.
The job today is to assess the animal's condition,
take DNA samples and tag it for easy identification in the future.
To keep the beaver calm while all this is happening,
it's wrapped snugly in a bag.
This is a young animal, Mark.
Yeah, so this is probably one of last year's kits, by the looks
of it, so still it's a reasonable size, but it's not an adult.
My introduction to this beaver starts with a rear-end view.
An older animal will often have a scar or a cut in the tail
from fights, and that can be a really useful way
of identifying individuals if you haven't got ear tags in.
This is a lovely, perfect tail on a youngster.
-Yeah, it's really good condition.
-We've got a nice exit.
-Anything I can do to help?
-You could lift the tail.
That would be great. So, we don't want to bend it too far back.
-So about there.
It feels a bit surreal to be handling this beaver before
I've even had a proper look at it.
Right, see, if you look at the very end of the anal gland...
-..you'll see like a white...
Yeah, and it's quite...
It's quite thick. So this is a female.
So that little white paste at the end of the anal glands,
-that tells you...
-So not this, but, yeah, that.
A tiny dot of white right on its... Almost like a pyramid,
-like a pointy nipple, that tells you it's a female.
That's pretty good news, isn't it?
From the point of view of a growing population,
having another female in the tribe is good.
Yeah, so we know there were five kits born last year,
and we've caught two of them, so that's two females so far.
That smell is really lingering. It's really intense and, actually,
that smell is part of the reason for the beaver's downfall, isn't it,
because that was used for the scent industry?
Yeah, and it was believed to have medicinal properties as well, so you
-can smell it. It's quite pungent, it's very unique to beavers.
-Musky, really intense.
-And it is something you kind of almost recognise
from the world of perfume, like sort of ambery stuff.
So that was probably the most intense part of this process.
Bit more gory part, yeah, yeah.
So now we know what sex it is, so we'll record that.
We want to microchip it and we want to put ear tags in as well.
-How's she doing there, Ed?
-She's lovely and calm, isn't she?
Yeah, she seems to be.
She's probably glad that the anal examination is over.
So really, I mean, this animal looks in good body condition.
As you can feel here, I mean, there's a good layer of fat on it.
-Yeah, and it's energetic.
-There's a lot of body there.
-So beavers are largely stomach.
-Feels really well.
There's a lot of guts in there,
but there's a good layer of fat on the back.
Just feels super strong, a real powerhouse.
-What have you got?
-So that's ten kilos.
Ten kilos, bang on.
-Well done, girl.
We'll put her down.
And that's, what, about half full size?
We got her mum earlier on in the season last year and
-she was a good 25 kilos.
-She's a big animal, so this is...
She's got a long way to go to be as big as Mum.
-It's a good, healthy size.
-Now she's getting very keen to get back.
We'll take her down, just near to the water,
and then we'll let her go.
-How does this look as a release spot, Roisin?
-Yeah, this is great.
She'll probably naturally go straight into the water.
If you just hold the bag corner...
-That's definitely the...
-Hopefully not the head.
-There's the head.
And she should sort herself out.
Come on, then.
Oh, here she goes. There she goes!
Wow. You get full sight of her now.
Wow! She didn't hang around.
My guess is that you won't catch her again.
-Maybe not, no.
-After everything she's been through.
-She'll have her night off.
-Albeit for very good reasons.
At last, I've met a Devon beaver,
and maybe one day I'll get to see her cruising down the river
with some kits of her own.
At Abbotsbury Swannery the breeding season is drawing to a close.
The young swans' perilous journey from their nest site
to the water's edge is behind them now.
Only half the cygnets have survived,
but those that did are well looked after by their parents
and have a good chance of making it through the winter.
Now it's time for Swanherd Dave to gear up for
the biggest day in the swannery calendar.
We don't want to hesitate.
We're going to go hand-in-hand.
When I say we, I mean you.
He's taking on a task that would be impossible without serious reinforcements.
But there are always plenty of volunteers willing to help.
Every two years, we have a mass round-up of the swans
that are not breeding. We always do it late July.
The idea is to catch them and check them
and make absolutely sure that they are well.
We have a team of vets present,
and every swan is carefully checked by vets.
The call for assistance with the biannual round-up
has produced a large crowd of eager amateur swanherds,
many of whom are regulars,
but Dave can't assume that they all know quite how this works.
So we're going to line up and we're going to be fairly quiet.
We're going to make a long line...
The round-up will provide important data for Dave.
We can take blood samples, we can weigh them, we can measure them,
we can ring them, and being able to identify each and every swan
enables us to study their nesting performance etc.
After a final pep talk...
It's not easy to wade in water with a little bit of silt underneath...
..it's time to get cracking.
..but we've got to go for it.
The wading and paddling human chain steadily herds the swans into a pen.
Timing this round-up for the swans' annual moult is critical.
There's a period of about six weeks while new feathers are growing
when the swans are effectively flightless.
And since an aerial escape is not an option,
the swans become surprisingly compliant to the amateur herders.
That's it, hold it there.
It might have looked pretty easy so far, but that was only the warm-up.
Now for phase two,
where the volunteers get hands-on with one of the world's largest waterfowl.
Deputy Swanherd Steve explains the rudiments of the procedure.
Well, the plan of action now is I'm going to start catching the swans.
They'll be given to carriers.
They'll go through the initial checkers,
which I'm going to be one of,
then there's some that's going to go through the stations with the vets,
and then they'll go through and be ringed and weighed
and then released, basically.
Sounds simple enough,
except for the small matter of carrying a bird that can weigh up
to 12 kilos and has a wingspan of over two metres.
If you hug a swan with the tummy pointing out,
the swan is helpless, the wings can't move,
and the feet stick out the front,
which is very convenient for any ringing.
But it's not just the feet that are worrying them,
and Dave can read their minds.
The head will be up there and, out of all those swans,
there's probably just one that might peck.
Under stormy summer skies,
the amateur swan wranglers queue up to take part
in what must be one of the most curious wildlife experiences
that Britain has to offer.
Yeah, so just came down for this.
But I live in Scotland now, so it's a long way to come.
It's just a great opportunity.
It's not something you get to do that much, obviously,
if you want to hold a swan. And it's a great community atmosphere.
Everybody comes down, you see the same faces every couple of years,
and it's a great place to bring friends as well.
I've just brought some friends for the first time. So, yeah.
Everyone seems to have taken to the task well but, amongst them all,
there's someone who I could only assume is a natural-born swan whisperer.
I went to a Women's Institute meeting in Weymouth,
where we lived at the time.
And Dave Wheeler, the Swanherd, came to give a talk,
and he mentioned volunteering, and I asked him about it then,
and he said, "Get in touch," so we did.
And they've closed the list now.
There's so many people want to volunteer that they've closed it.
So we were one of the last ones to get in, and I'm really pleased.
We love it.
Oh, well, I'll wait for some...
Ssh. OK, OK.
About 75% of the way through.
Yeah, it's going pretty well.
No real problems.
A lot of scratches.
Yeah, arms are a bit knackered now.
But it's not too bad.
You're sort of used to it.
But thanks to all these lovely people helping out today,
they've made it a lot, lot easier.
In colonies of this size, any disease could be devastating,
so this regular checkup is vital.
The whole team work very hard to get this going and, if we do it right,
then it works smoothly and, yes, I'm really pleased.
When each swan has come through all of its checks,
it's handed to a volunteer with perhaps the best job of all.
I love to release them.
Yeah, it's great to see them go back out.
I do this every time.
Finally, the last swan reaches the weigh-in.
It's been a good day. It's been a good round-up.
This is our 19th round-up and it has been very successful.
Today, we processed 727, which is a good result.
The system works.
-Thanks, Bethan. That's the last bird.
-Oh, thank you.
That's the last one.
It's been a far from average day at Abbotsbury,
for people and swans alike, but as evening draws in
everyone can start to get back to the regular routine.
I think, by tomorrow morning, they'll be here for breakfast
at 8:30 and no-one would ever believe that
we've rounded them all up and been handling every single one of them.
It's late summer on the River Otter.
And I'm ever hopeful for a sighting of a beaver.
But right now, something else has my attention.
This is absolutely fascinating.
There's half a dozen trout in there in this very shallow stretch
of the river, and I think we're seeing mating behaviour here.
One of the fish has rolled on its side,
and some of the fish are then flapping their tails
really quite vigorously,
as if they're just stirring up the bottom of the river.
They've dropped back here now. They're just here,
in the shadow, under the shadow of that tree.
One thing I've learned watching wildlife
is that what you think you see isn't always what's actually there.
You can scratch everything I've just said,
because these are not trout,
These are mullets.
I've been hallucinating trout, but now I can see
broad head, grey back,
silver sides, they're grey mullet...
..which I wasn't expecting to see,
because this is obviously fresh water, and mullet are sea fish.
Grey mullet spend most of their lives at sea and in estuaries,
but they are one of a few species happy to come upstream
on the high tide to feed in fresh water.
All that stuff I was saying about trout breeding behaviour,
It's actually mullet feeding behaviour,
and that little sideways shimmy...
..is them just trying to...
..nuzzle that wide mouth into this riverbed
and find little crustaceans and things.
And I wasn't expecting to see that today.
It's all happening here.
West Country rivers and streams come in many forms,
but the most distinctive must be the chalk streams.
These are typically wide and shallow, with beautiful,
clear water that rises from springs in the chalk hills.
There are only about 200 chalk streams in the whole world,
and England has more than three quarters of them.
One of the finest, in my not unbiased opinion,
is the River Frome in Dorset.
I've spent quite a bit of time in my life hanging around by rivers,
or even in them, and one thing I've found is that,
when you look really closely, the little stuff,
the tiny creatures, are every bit as fascinating as the fish,
the birds and mammals.
So it is absolutely no surprise to me that for some people
the invertebrate life of rivers can become a complete obsession.
Ewan Jones has managed to turn that obsession into a living.
As a river ecologist, based on the Frome,
he's in and out of the water almost every day.
I grew up next to a river.
I used to spend all my time paddling,
chasing fish, getting into trouble,
getting my shorts and shoes soaking wet.
I just found it really interesting.
I'm just a little boy at heart and I just enjoy mucking around in rivers
and finding the bugs to play with.
My wife calls me a professional pond dipper.
For all the boyish glee, Ewan's river dipping has a serious purpose.
From his riverside laboratory, he studies how life in the river
responds to changes in the environment.
I work with all kinds of rivers all across the country,
but I particularly like chalk rivers.
Because chalk rivers are fed by ground water,
they're much more stable than other rivers which are fed by rainwater.
They're very productive as well,
because the water's clear and also has nutrients in it as well.
There's lots of life going in, things growing in there,
the plants are really important and so are the algae,
and they are so diverse and unique.
At the heart of the precious chalk stream habitat
is all the small stuff that lives in the riverbed.
I'm doing what is known as a kick sample.
This is just where you kick the bed of the river just enough to
disturb it so that the animals drift down into the net.
I just want all the different types of invertebrate, the mayflies,
that emerge in the springtime, also the snails, the worms,
the other insects, everything,
just a sample of them so I can find out what's living in this river.
Freshwater invertebrates are vital food
for the river's fish and birdlife, but they also play a key role
in maintaining the quality of the water.
These caddisfly larvae help to break down organic matter
in the stream, like a living filter mechanism.
Well, this is just some of the animals
that we've caught in the river.
There's lots of shrimps jumping around.
I can see saucer bugs,
and there's a leech
and some caddisflies.
Ewan always keeps an eye out for one very special character
among the river's tinier residents.
Just looking through now, seeing if I can find a mayfly.
There we are.
..a nymph of the mayfly.
He's an ugly-looking brute compared to the adult,
but an important stage in their life.
The mayfly nymph spends up to two years on the riverbed,
feeding on algae and plant life, before finally emerging
out of the water to spread its wings as an adult mayfly.
For Ewan, the mayfly provides important scientific data.
By acting as a tiny living time capsule,
the nymphs reveal information on the health of the river.
Mayflies are important because, along with all the other organisms,
they can tell us what's going on.
They kind of hold a bit of a memory.
Water moves through rivers so, if there's a problem,
so something ends up in the river that shouldn't be there,
as it moves downstream, if you were trying to detect it with chemistry,
you'd have to be there when that chunk of water passed by.
But by just looking at the invertebrates,
you can tell an awful lot of what's wrong with the site.
Ewan's lab work on the nymphs yields vital data for managing chalk streams.
But you have to get back to the river to witness
the culmination of the mayfly's amazing life cycle.
On a sunny day in late May,
there's a sense of anticipation here on the Frome.
The birds are ready and waiting...
..as the adult mayfly emerge and take to the wing...
..in their hundreds...
For every one of them, today is their day in the sun.
The reason that the mayflies all come at once is partly because
they've not got long to live and they have to breed quickly,
and partly it's to swamp the predators.
So many things are coming to eat them,
they can't possibly eat all of them, so a few get through.
The threat comes from above...
..but the mayfly just keep on coming.
On the water, there'll be insects all over it, and every time
you look in the air, there'll be something trying to eat them.
But whatever the risks that lie in wait, they have to seize the day.
This will be their only one as an adult.
And once on the wing, they have only hours to find a mate.
The males move to places where they can do a little dance
to try and attract the female in to reproduce,
because that's what it's all about for them.
For the mayfly of the Frome, love is in the air, literally,
as they mate in flight.
Every square metre must have a couple of hundred individuals
which all come popping out, and they just...
..constant supply of these beautiful insects coming out of the water.
But reproduction on the wing is a fleeting affair.
The males die soon after mating,
and the females after they've laid their eggs.
Every year, I make an effort to come and watch the mayflies emerging,
but just to get that opportunity to get down and sit somewhere quiet
by the river and watch it all going on.
It's amazing. Just so much life all happening at the same time.
The mayfly hatch is one of our great natural spectacles,
the definition of a day well spent.
Leaving Dorset and heading into Devon,
I'm returning to the River Otter,
the domain of the new bosses of the river, the beavers.
Despite several visits,
I haven't seen a beaver on the river since we tagged a young female
a few months back.
But our lucky cameraman did catch up with them early one summer morning,
looking as relaxed as ever.
I'm sure my moment will come but, for now,
I'm back with Mark for an update on our tagged young female.
And it seems he is determined to tease me
with fresh telltale signs of beaver activity.
-What's happening here, Mark?
-Well, we're looking at a scent mound here,
-this area here.
-That muddy patch?
-With a few kind of grassy stalks matted into it?
Not quite as exciting as seeing a live beaver,
but I guess the whole point of a scent mound
is to be sniffed at, not necessarily seen.
That's beaver-made. I mean, I would never have spotted that.
That's something that... The beavers actually pushed that mud there.
It's been pushed up and it will be really strong-smelling.
Well, you've got an eye for detail that I don't have,
and obviously a bundle of knowledge.
This site, we think, is the boundary between two territories,
so we think what's going on is that this is marking behaviour
by the animals that live in the main river, and they're basically
saying to a pair of beavers that live up here that this is...
.."You come no further, this is the edge of our territory."
Oh, OK, just right here, under the bridge.
-So they've chosen an intersection to say, "That's it."
-And the pair who've got the territory over here,
are they getting quite busy in this area? Are they making changes?
They're having quite a big impact. Let's have a look.
So there's a little beaver dam.
Yeah. So it's only really sprung up in the last few weeks, really.
-You can see it's already impounding all this water here.
And there is a regular trackway going across there into
that pond as well, so they're just creating this deeper water,
which means they can move up through here in relative safety.
So it's for the ease of movement that they like these
-long pools of slow water.
-And it's safety as well,
so they're really...they're looking for deeper water where they can
-escape if they feel threatened.
-They can hide under the water.
Yeah, get under the water and just disappear.
-Quite a nice piece of work, that, isn't it?
-Yeah, it is.
There's a lot of sediment in there as well so, as well as the sticks,
there's a lot of silt and mud that's being used to sort of bind all
-And they pushed the mud and silt in there themselves?
They don't just put the sticks down and wait for the water to
-sort of jam it up with mud?
-No, they really do.
They dredge it up from the bottom and place it there.
It's just great that a creature that was engineering our rivers and
shaping our landscape centuries ago is back at work here in Devon.
By creating slow pools,
helping to control water levels and reducing the risk of floods,
the beavers are benefiting all kinds of aquatic wildlife,
from otters and water voles to fish and birds.
So do you know where you are?
Bend on the river.
-Is this where we trapped the beaver earlier in the year?
And we then saw her again down in the estuary, a few weeks later.
Oh, really? So almost at the sea.
So, yeah, about three miles down from here.
OK. And what's she been doing over the summer? Do we know?
Well, we've got this amazing video that somebody sent in
of her 46km upstream...
-..at the top of the river.
So she'd obviously gone all the way up the main channel,
right up on the Somerset border...
So that's definitely her?
Definitely her. We gave her those bright orange ear tags.
The same one that...
The same one that I held and we released just here?
-She's been 46km upriver.
Does that feel like it would have been a sort of solo adventure for her?
Was she seen with any other beavers?
She was on her own, and...
Seeing her all the way up there definitely indicates that
they're really exploring all of the river.
Populations are really doing well.
We think we've probably got about six territories on the river,
so maybe about 27 animals in total.
So they are really thriving, they are really doing very well.
That feels like a proper population of wild beavers here in Devon,
and like they're here to stay.
They're certainly getting...
They're showing that this river is really suitable for them.
-They are loving it, basically?
-They are, they're loving it.
-They really are loving it.
-Having a great time.
-So they should, it's a lovely river.
-It's perfect for them, it really is.
I've had a tantalising time trying to track these bashful beavers,
but the biggest thrill of all is just knowing that they are here.
And since I'm here too from time to time,
I'm sure that one of these days I'm bound to bump into one.
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