Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall journeys across Dartmoor from the granite peaks to the sea. Hugh follows the fortunes of a buzzard family as their chick heads towards independence.
Browse content similar to Episode 7. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
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.
Ants, off, off! Oh, they've gone inside, mate!
..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, look.
-That's so cool.
There's one in my hair now, Poppy.
I'll share the thrill of the chase...
-Do you hear them?
-I heard something.
Yeah, they're in there.
..the sheer joy of the encounter...
-She is fast asleep.
..and I'll pitch in to help these local heroes
safeguard the future of our precious animals.
Bye-bye! There she goes.
I can't believe 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've come to Dartmoor - Devon's own big sky country.
This vast open moorland, capped with craggy granite tors,
has a spectacular, rugged beauty.
Up here, you're exposed to the elements and never far away from
the kind of weather that is one of Dartmoor's defining features.
Two metres of rain fall on Dartmoor every year.
And when it hits the impermeable granite of the moors,
there's nowhere for the water to go but down.
Whenever I come to Dartmoor, I'm as delighted by the rivers and
streams that run through it as I am by the stunning moorland itself.
The fast-flowing white-water carves up this landscape in the most dramatic way.
And, of course, it's the lifeblood for much of the wildlife that lives here.
To find out more about the creatures that depend on it,
I plan to follow the course of all that water, from the high moor
right down to the sea.
Dartmoor National Park is in South Devon.
It's about 30km north to south, and east to west,
and the source of a dozen of Devon's rivers.
The Dart - that gives the moor its name - rises near Postbridge,
and flows to the sea at Dartmouth, close to the fishing village of
Brixham, where my journey today will end.
I'm on the high moor.
On a clear day here, the views seem to stretch out for ever.
Across this windswept expanse, there's little shelter,
and few hiding places.
So it's a perfect hunting ground for one of our great birds of prey.
At home in Devon, I see the broad wings and fanned tail of the buzzard
almost every day, as it soars above us, scanning the ground.
And today I have a chance to get a much closer look,
thanks to a tip-off from a couple who know this part of the moor
intimately, because they live and work here.
Farmers, who are tuned into the natural world around them,
can have an amazing experience of the wildlife year.
Just a few miles from the source of the river Dart is a working hill farm
with a history that stretches over 1,000 years.
Good girls, good girls!
The current tenants of Challacombe Farm are Mark Owen and Naomi Oakley,
farmers with a passion for conservation of this charmed piece of Devon.
It's just a magical place to live, you know, amazing landscape,
Just the life cycle as it sort of goes through the year,
of things sort of appearing, moving on.
It's really lovely through the seasons.
Among the farm's many delights is the exceptional birdlife,
and Mark has told me about a resident pair of buzzards that he
now considers old friends.
How many years have the buzzards been using these trees to nest in?
Ooh, probably ten years?
-Yeah, they seem to use the same nest every year.
So... And I think we have two chicks this year.
You've got two chicks? Have you been up to have a look?
I haven't, no, you can see them from the field,
but we tend to leave them alone, just let them do their stuff.
There's a vantage point where, with binoculars, you can see through onto
-the nest, or...?
-Yeah, there's a little hole in the canopy where if
you peer from the right direction, you can see right in onto the nest.
Well, it's obviously a great spot,
they've got a lovely view of your amazing farm!
Yeah, we're very lucky here.
There's good hunting, I guess. Lots of rabbits, lots of cover,
So should be lots for them to find.
The female laid her eggs back in April and, a month later, they hatched.
For the first fortnight, she stayed on the nest to guard her chicks,
relying on her male partner to bring in food.
Now, the chicks are about four weeks old, and today,
I've got an opportunity I don't want to miss.
It's the ideal time to put leg rings on the chicks.
And that means climbing up to the nest, which gives me a chance to get
a closer look at Mark's beloved buzzard family by rigging a camera
that can watch them round the clock.
Climbing specialist Waldo Etherington
is helping us get up to the nest safely.
But before I go up,
it's the turn of licensed bird recorder Mark Lawrence.
What's your job this morning, what are you going up there for now?
My job now is to go up there,
get the chick and to lower it back down so Nick can ring it.
OK, so, the first thing is to check that those chicks -
if there are two of them - are in good shape.
So you'll give us a shout if it's good to go and send them down?
-Have a good climb.
-OK, thank you very much.
The nest is a good ten metres up the trunk of this magnificent beech tree.
Can you see inside the nest, Mark?
-How many chicks?
-Just the one.
-It's just the one, is it?
-Yeah, they always tend to end up with one chick, buzzards.
For safety, the surviving chick will be ringed on the ground rather than
up the tree.
Is it the bird coming down now, Mark?
-Yes, the bird's coming down now.
Waiting below for our backpacked buzzard is Nick Ward
from the British Trust for Ornithology.
-Open it up and have a quick look.
-Quite a size!
Well-feathered, as well, so...
-Watch the feet. They're probably going to be a bit grasping.
There we go. One buzzard chick.
-In good nick.
-Yeah, looks like it.
But there were two and now there's only one,
so sometime in the last week or so...
-Does that happen quite often?
Yeah, it's not uncommon, really, for one chick to be lost, to be honest.
So... Either they haven't been able to find enough food,
or maybe the wind has caught them, you know.
Because they'll be standing up and stretching their wings and very
often, sometimes, they'll get blown out of the nest.
Just one of those things, unfortunately.
Even at four weeks old, the power you can see in these feet, I mean,
that's quite a substantial bit of leg there.
-And a hell of a claw on the end of it.
You understand if you're a rabbit, with one of these coming at you...
..you wouldn't survive very long!
The chick is about to become one of the 900,000 British birds ringed
So you have 76837.
Brilliant, thank you. Once that's put on the bird,
it makes the bird an individual.
If it's ever found again,
hopefully someone will be able to report it into us.
There's a little bit of wriggle room.
It means the ring goes round on the leg.
-Plenty of movement there.
-It's not obviously going to come off the foot.
It's like you and me wearing a wristwatch or a bracelet, really.
It's so light for the bird.
And in a few weeks' time, this chap will be learning to hunt?
Absolutely, yeah. This will probably be another three weeks,
and then it'll be thinking about leaving the nest,
following the adults around.
The adults will help it to learn how to hunt and find its own food,
and then at some point, the adults will be driving it out of the
territory and it'll be on its own. He'll have to find all his own food,
hunt for himself and find a territory and a mate next year maybe.
So he's got plenty of challenges ahead but, as far as we can tell,
he's in good shape to meet them when they come.
Yeah, I think so, he's looking good.
So, we can send him back up the tree?
I think so, get him back in the nest.
Mark's waiting back up there to make sure he goes back in all right.
-OK, Mark, all yours.
And once the chick is settled in the nest,
we're ready for the second part of the morning's mission,
which involves me and Waldo shinning up the tree and trying to fix a camera.
The system we're using to keep an eye on the nest is a simple
battery-operated CCTV camera.
I have climbed up a tree to get access to birds' nests before,
using ropes and tackle like this, quite a long time ago.
In fact, nearly 20 years ago.
So I'm hoping that muscle memory is going to kick in at some point.
Lift this leg up in the air.
There you go. Yeah, you just stand up and sit down,
-and then you repeat that.
After a quick refresher course from Waldo, we're off.
Waldo, I'm not going under this branch, am I?
I'm just following my ropes?
Yep. So, you just follow those ones up.
I'm going to go round the back, is that the idea?
Yeah, that's it.
Just climbing up this beech tree is an incredible privilege -
it's such a beautiful tree.
And I'm just a few feet away from the nest now.
It's incredibly exciting.
Look at the thickness of this nest.
And the depth of the nest from top to bottom must be nearly three feet or more.
And there we are! That...
That little chick, who only a few minutes ago was down at the bottom,
now I'm up at the top and I can see him where he ought to be,
which is sitting on his nest.
And I'll tell you what seems to me to be quite precarious is...
..there is some soft stuff there, but it's just a platform.
It's not like he's really contained within it.
No. It's easy to see how the other chick at some point could have just
taken a tumble off the edge of the nest.
Now, where do you think we should move ourselves to, to rig this camera up?
So, what I was thinking is...
-I'm getting a bit...
-Where you are there is kind of good.
But what I was thinking is maybe having the camera somewhere around
here, looking kind of this way back at the nest.
That could be ideal, yeah.
-Up there looks good.
-Up here, yeah.
So, the camera in there? You got it?
How's that looking? You can see the chick?
This inexpensive CCTV rig is a great way to monitor the nest over a long period.
Well, that was just amazing!
Beautiful tree, beautiful nest, beautiful chick.
I can't wait to come and have a look at that shot of the nest.
-Thank you very much.
-Thank you, I enjoyed that.
-Yeah, that was good, wasn't it?
-Quite an adventure.
-Yeah, it really was.
-It's an extraordinary thought that that nest
has become a permanent feature, with the branches growing round it.
-Yeah, it has.
-I hope it's there for another decade.
Let's hope so!
That's the shot you set up, which is great.
I mean, it covers a good two thirds of the nest.
Yeah. That's brilliant, isn't it?
-So whatever happens on that nest over the next
few weeks, we'll see it.
I'm happy, Waldo's happy, but the most important thing is to
make sure that the buzzards are happy,
so they can return to their check.
And here is Mum or Dad.
So it's just pretty good timing, I think, if we can make ourselves scarce,
that she can come in, feed the chick,
and we'll get some shots of her doing that, but it does look like
she's now quite eager for us to get out of here so
she can get back onto that nest and look after that chick.
There's a busy time ahead for the parents.
The chick needs feeding up fast.
In less than a month from now, it'll take to the wing for the first time.
Then it must start learning to hunt so it can feed itself.
Dartmoor's fast-running streams and rivers are the domain of another
skilled hunter that it's a huge privilege to catch sight of.
Without doubt, some of the most thrilling wildlife encounters I've
ever had in Britain have been with otters.
And it seems just incredible to me that, even within my lifetime,
these beautiful animals were being hunted and persecuted almost to extinction.
So it's fantastic news that, in the last couple of decades,
they've really been making a comeback.
But they're still incredibly elusive and very hard to see.
If you want to have regular encounters,
you've got to put in a lot of time and effort and, of course,
it helps to have a house right by the river.
When it comes to spotting otters, this is unquestionably a prime location.
And today, owner Stephen Powles is having breakfast in the afternoon.
His passion for otters means that when they're about,
he's practically nocturnal.
Stephen lives beside a stream to the north-east of the moor,
giving him an amazing chance to develop a rare and special
relationship with a wild otter.
He's grabbed it with both hands.
I found some otter spraint, and that was the clue.
I had to work out what it was,
make sure I learnt a little bit more about the otters.
These territorial animals mark their patch with their droppings,
Otters are so elusive that a sticky,
bony poo is the closest that most people come to seeing one.
The driving force was, the more I understood, the more I could watch them,
the more I could film them, the more I could photograph them.
Otters are usually very wary of humans.
They have an incredibly sharp sense of smell and great hearing.
If they detect people nearby,
they're likely to slip out of sight in an instant.
Obviously a very elusive animal,
but if you want to be there and to see them, to watch them,
to learn about them, to photograph them and to film them,
then, obviously, you need to spend time with them, and thoroughly enjoy myself,
hopefully, whilst learning about them, as well.
Years of patience and perseverance have allowed Stephen to capture some
precious and intimate footage of otter behaviour.
His prime subject has been one particular female who stood out from
the very start.
There was a little mark right on the end of her nose that was in the
shape of a hammer. And it's not a very ladylike name,
but I've named her Hammer Scar after the mark on her nose.
Could have been a fighting injury, but when you see her fishing
underwater, the speed at which she travels,
it must be so easy for her to catch it on a branch and scrape the
surface off the top of her nose.
Otters mostly hunt under cover of darkness,
when the fish that are their main quarry are less wary.
But Stephen has managed to get Hammer Scar used to his lights.
She and her cubs carry on their nightly routine,
seemingly oblivious to his presence.
This is one of my really, really special spots on the river,
because for two years, this is where Hammer Scar has introduced me to her
cubs for the very first time.
This year, Hammer Scar has a litter of two cubs.
Like most female otters, she's raising her young alone.
Hunting for three is keeping her very busy.
There's a little hole in the bank, and so when she goes down river,
she tends to leave them there, goes off on her fishing trip...
On the first occasion, she caught a trout and then you could see her
dispatch the trout and then take it in under the bank,
and three or four minutes later, two otter cubs appear.
She trusts me that much that she's prepared to even bring the cubs out
in front of me.
What else could you ask for?
Stephen has watched Hammer Scar raise several litters, and each time
he's witnessed the cubs taking their first baby steps in the art of
survival on the river.
Back earlier on in the summer, I was down by the river there,
two cubs were then fighting over this one fish.
It was a tug-of-war and a serious battle for control of this fish.
It's easy to see how the antics of this charming otter family becomes
And now, Stephen's come up with a way to watch it all from the comfort of home.
So here we've got the CCTV system, and that is critical to my otter life,
my otter obsession. Without that,
I wouldn't really have a very good handle on what the otters are doing.
Down here on the tree, we've got the CCTV camera,
and then linked in to an antenna, which is in fact an old whisky tin.
And that's beaming the signals back to the house.
And in case he's not paying attention, there's even an otter alarm.
Here we've got, between the two branches there,
we've got the sensor, so that's the thing that marks the alarm,
tells me that they're coming through, if I'm lucky.
But that's totally dependent on them actually visiting the spraint rock
that's just down there.
This favoured rock is where Hammer Scar lets other otters know
she's in residence.
So it's a great spot to site the sensor and camera.
But whenever the river rises, the spraint is washed away,
so Hammer Scar patrols regularly to leave an update.
They go over the spraint rock, and the alarms go off,
and then we're in action.
It's now several weeks since Hammer Scar's cubs left home to find
a new territory of their own, leaving their mother behind.
But Hammer Scare seems to have vanished, too.
Stephen's never gone this long without seeing her.
Yeah, not on a very good run at the moment.
The alarm has been silent for days,
and Stephen has no idea where she might have gone.
She's not going through the sensors, and just remember,
the sensors are on the spraint sites, so you begin to wonder,
why isn't she using the spraint sites?
I spend my life worrying about her,
because I know so much about what she's doing on the CCTV,
then when I don't see her, or we don't detect her
for three or four days, it's pretty traumatic.
She's almost certainly five and a half,
so she's already lived longer than your textbook otter.
It's a nerve-racking time for Stephen.
As the otter population grows, territories are in short supply.
An older female like Hammer Scar could easily be pushed out.
All Stephen can do is wait and hope he'll see her again.
The continuing recovery of the otter here is wonderful news.
But another mammal inhabiting our West Country waterways is having a
much tougher time.
The water vole is one of our most enigmatic and secretive small mammals -
one that I've only glimpsed a couple of times in my life.
For the last 30 years or so,
they've been almost completely absent from Dartmoor.
But now, at a secret location not very far from here, these busy,
chubby little voles are getting a much-needed helping hand.
Coral Edgecombe is an ecologist with a project breeding water voles to
put back into the wild.
There are no water voles on Dartmoor at the moment,
so these ones will be the first ones that we know of to go out.
Water voles hold an unenviable record.
They're the fastest-declining mammal in the UK.
The main problem has been the arrival in British waters of the
American mink, after it escaped from fur farms.
This is a voracious predator.
Small enough to squeeze into the voles' burrows,
it's wiped out whole populations in sites across the country.
But Dartmoor has now been cleared of mink,
so water voles should have a chance to thrive here once again.
And today, Coral is reintroducing the first eight of Dartmoor's new generation.
These ones are deemed ready for release
because they're above a certain weight.
So they're juveniles that have been born this year, so they're
ready to go out and become the breeding stock out in the wild.
The site chosen has two essentials of water-vole habitat - secluded,
earthy banks where the voles can burrow and raise their young safe
from predators, and a plentiful and varied supply of plants to eat.
Water voles eat 80% of their body weight every day.
As you can see, the habitat is pretty good,
there's lots of different types of vegetation.
The water's nice and deep,
which gives them space to dive away from predators if they need to.
And it's very slow-flowing, so they're not going to get washed away.
These pioneering voles are too precious to be left to fend
for themselves straightaway.
Secure holding pens give them a safe home as they grow
accustomed to life in the wild.
They'll be in these for about a total of a week.
After five days, we adapt them so they can come and go,
and then two days after that, we take them away completely.
To get them started, Coral provides food as well as lodging.
We're putting four males and four females out, but we're pairing them,
and hopefully by the time they go out into the habitat,
the female and the male will have mated whilst they're in the pen,
so the female is going out pregnant,
and that's the start of a new colony.
Water voles are sometimes known as water rats,
hence gentle Ratty of Wind In The Willows fame.
But these little rodents can be fierce.
The tube is the water vole handling device, I suppose!
We use this to handle them, because they are aggressive,
and they do bite and it does hurt!
So this is a male, and I'm just checking him over
to make sure he's nice and healthy.
They have very, very orange teeth,
and that's because they're very hard for burrowing,
so that's the keratin in them.
Their paws are quite large in comparison to their body size -
that's also for burrowing.
And he's going to in first.
And then the female's going to go in after.
This is a female, she is a little bit smaller than the male,
which is what we would want.
She's less likely to beat him up, then.
And so this hopefully well-matched couple
are ready to start their new life together.
There's lots of bankside vegetation -
gives them enough cover, so as soon as they come out of the pens,
they have somewhere immediately to go.
Coral positions the pens along the bank
to give each pair a bit of space to create their own territory.
And that's now all eight voles in the soft release pens.
Success of the project depends on the vole couples feeling settled
enough in their surroundings to mate and produce the next generation.
After five days, it's time to start phase two of their release.
I am letting the voles out,
but we do it so that they can come back to the pen if they need to -
come and get the food and use it for shelter.
Because it will take them a few days to get their burrows up and running.
And this is the baffle board.
It has two holes, it stops large predators from getting in,
so the voles can still use it as a safe base.
Some voles will come straight out,
other voles will take their time and come out when they're ready.
And then they can leave when they like!
It's not long before curiosity prevails.
These are the first small steps in the water voles' long journey
back into the wild here on Dartmoor.
And if they can make a go of it,
then there's every chance that this delightful animal could soon be
settled in Devon's streams and rivers once more.
We're hoping from here
we'll be able to reintroduce water voles across Dartmoor,
and we're hoping to have kind of a county-scale release,
reintroduction of water voles.
At Challacombe Farm, our buzzard chick is growing fast.
I'm back to see farmer Mark,
who's been keeping an eye on the family's progress.
It was about a month or so ago that the youngster fledged,
and now has been hunting around,
still calling a lot for its parents to keep feeding it.
Did you see what food the parents were bringing to the nest while they
-were feeding the chick?
We tend to stay away when the nest is active, saves disturbing them.
But, yes, it will be fascinating to find out more.
When I was last here, we rigged a CCTV camera on the nest, and now
Mark and I have a chance to review the footage.
Have a look at this.
-There's the chick.
-He's quite fluffy, isn't he?
This is just after we ringed it, so it's still pretty scrawny.
But there's some food on the edge of the nest there.
Yeah, he's picking away at it, isn't he?
And there comes the parent.
What has she brought?
-Oh, it's a frog.
-It's a frog.
Yeah. That'll be from the bogs,
the marshes down the bottom of the valley.
What's he got there?
Oh, that looks like a mole.
-That's definitely a mole.
What is that? That's a leg of somebody, isn't it?
That is a leg of a hare or a rabbit, isn't it?
With this varied diet
from Dartmoor's diverse moorland habitats,
in just a few weeks, the chick is almost the size of its parents.
Now, he's really starting to travel around the nest and work those wings a bit.
Yeah. Yeah, we see how he's sort of taking shape and growing.
He's a good-sized bird now, isn't he?
-And off he goes!
Just off to the next branch.
OK. That was the first bit of powered flight, as it were.
-Just from the nest onto that branch.
-Yeah, I saw that.
-It's a great moment, isn't it?
-Yeah - a great leap for buzzard kind!
And after that short-hop flight,
the fledgling buzzard is starting to get familiar with his surroundings.
How far away from here are you now seeing the youngster?
They're hunting over the whole of the valley.
-So, a mile or two?
If I want to catch up with them at some point today,
-where do you think I should head?
-Anywhere over the hill here,
they hunt over the ridge quite a lot.
Now the chick is fully fledged,
it will spend a couple of months with its parents learning to hunt.
And that's something I'd love to see.
I'm just on my way to meet Pete the cameraman in his hide,
which is about 600, 700 metres up the hill there.
But I can see buzzards right now on the ridge.
They're doing so well here.
Those three could be our youngster and his two parents.
The hide isn't exactly invisible, but it does give vital cover
for a pair of nosy humans and their camera.
-Is there room for me to sneak past?
What have you seen so far, before I got here?
The youngster on the fence posts.
He was sort of looking around and then he'd hop down into the bracken or the grass.
Hoping he might come across a beetle, or a worm or something?
Yeah, and slugs, I think, as well.
Just literally anything I think that he can find.
-Just learning to forage?
-Yeah, and he's definitely sort of a bit ungainly,
hasn't quite got the finesse of adult birds.
Any sign of the parent birds close by?
They were always in the vicinity.
I'm really hoping to see the youngster for myself,
but the first to show are two adults with their distinctive darker plumage.
Are they our pair?
I can see... I can see two...
I can see three birds now. Four. I can see four buzzards right now -
-three to the right on the ridgeline, and one up there.
So, that's four, that's one more than...
-Oh, is there another one?
-You know what?
There's five, there's five buzzards here right now.
And it sounds like our chick isn't far away.
It's a really persistent call now.
That sounded like it was coming from straight out in front.
Yeah. OK, I think... I think there's one coming back round.
And that is... That is a buzzard, and it's...
..possibly not holding itself quite as well in the breeze,
so that could be the juvenile.
-Oh, yeah, and you can see...
-The legs hanging down as well.
Exactly. The wing tips really spread out, like fingers.
And really working the wind.
Buzzards are superbly adapted to soaring flight.
With a wingspan of up to a metre and a half, they catch
the thermals and updrafts,
adjusting their fanned tail
From this steady vantage point,
their incredible eyesight can spot a feeding opportunity
up to 3km away.
Buzzards eat plenty of carrion, as well as hunting small mammals
and even insects and worms.
And that's the one that's calling!
I think that's the one!
And... it's very pale.
So, Pete, if that's the one we think it is, ten weeks ago,
I held it in my hands...
..while it was being ringed, popped it back on its nest,
and there it is, completely boundless and free.
It's a success story, isn't it?
It's such a heart-warming sight to see our youngster in good shape.
Once, buzzards were targeted by gamekeepers
and were almost hunted out of existence here.
In the early 1900s,
there were just 1,000 breeding pairs in the whole country.
Just swirling across in front of us now.
Over the past few decades, they've made a fantastic comeback.
Now, buzzards are our commonest bird of prey,
with around 67,000 pairs at the last count.
I'm so glad I saw him.
I've had a wonderful afternoon in this very beautiful place.
I've seen at least six buzzards flying into this stiff breeze,
and showing that they really are masters of the air.
But funnily enough, the one I enjoyed watching the most
was the least skilful -
the youngster, still just finding its wings
at the very beginning of its own aerial adventures.
Dartmoor is notoriously damp.
Even in the height of summer, it's often shrouded in mist and fog.
But there's one rare little beast here for whom wet is always wonderful.
They're quite difficult to find.
But you're looking for dead leaves,
where they've eaten patches and moved on.
On this suitably soggy August day,
Simon Phelps is on the hunt for a creature that's only found on a plant
that loves boggy meadows - the purple-flowering devil's-bit scabious.
As you can see, this site here has large carpets of devil's-bit scabious like this,
and that's the only food plant that they feed on.
Oh, yeah, we've got one here.
The bristly bunch hanging out on this scabious stem
are caterpillars of the highly endangered
marsh fritillary butterfly.
So, within each group like this,
there will be maybe 50-100 caterpillars.
Some down the bottom feeding on the leaves.
These ones have come up here to sort of bask a little bit and try and get
a bit of warmth.
This lot are all from one batch of eggs.
Huddling together in one caterpillar clump is a common defence strategy
for caterpillars of many butterfly species.
And they could even survive the wetlands that they live in flooding,
and sometimes when they have fires, they can survive,
cos they are buried deep in the grass, so they can be protected.
They hibernate over the winter months,
so they bury deep down in the grass to sort of insulate themselves
from the cold weather.
Come spring, Simon is back to see the caterpillars emerge from their
metamorphosis as adult marsh fritillary butterflies,
with their exquisite chequerboard patterns.
These rare beauties are in severe decline across Europe.
Numbers have more than halved in the last 30 years
as large areas of the damp, marshy pasture they need to survive
are drained for agriculture or grazed heavily,
killing off the scabious plants that the butterflies rely on.
Dartmoor is one of their last strongholds in the UK.
It's almost like a flagship species for this wet grassland habitat
that's so important for lots of other things.
This marshy meadow has another resident that's equally diverting,
and, sadly, just as scarce.
Despite its appearance, this is a moth.
It's the narrow-bordered bee hawk-moth,
a curious creature that mimics the bumblebee to put off predators.
They are quite difficult and can be confused with bumblebees,
but once you get your eye in,
you can see that they fly in a more direct and faster sort of flight
pattern than bumblebees, and they've got sort of paler markings,
and, as well, you can see their antennae
stretching out quite far from the body,
which bumblebees don't have.
Simon is working to revive the fortunes of Dartmoor's hawk moths and marsh fritillaries.
And after several years of campaigning to conserve the
marshes and meadows they need for survival,
the champion of these beguiling insects
has made some encouraging progress.
It took a few years,
but after three or four years of the project starting,
the butterfly numbers did start to rise,
and they have improved and stabilised
and colonised new patches of habitat
that we've worked on with farmers, as well.
So it has been a great success.
These brilliantly distinctive creatures are living on the front line of
changes in our environment - developments that seem small to us,
to them can be calamitous.
So, it's great that in Dartmoor, thanks to Simon's hard work,
their habitat is now being protected.
On this Dartmoor riverside,
Stephen Powles is looking for a wild otter he's kept in regular contact
with for years.
He hasn't seen Hammer Scar for ten days -
the longest time she's ever gone missing.
At more than five years old, she's already outlived most wild otters.
So, Stephen is anxious for any sign, and he's keeping a full-time watch
on his specially installed CCTV system.
Days and hours pass without so much as a glimpse of an otter.
But then, on day 11... DEVICE BEEPS
She's on her way up. Let's go.
We're going to try and go upriver and find her.
But Stephen can't be sure that his sensor was set off by Hammer Scar.
The only way to confirm it is seeing her in the flesh.
So, we wait.
-I suspect she's given us the slip.
By the time he arrives,
the otter that triggered the sensor has melted into the darkness.
But after all these years, Steven's not giving up on Hammer Scar.
The next night sees another vigil, and the alarm is triggered again.
She's gone through the sensor.
In fact, she's now made it to the second sensor,
so we are all in an otter panic.
Often Steven can identify Hammer Scar, even when she is in the water.
But heavy rain has clouded the river with silt and runoff.
Otters can stay submerged for minutes at a time,
covering long distances underwater without needing to surface.
Seeing any sign now would just be a matter of luck.
A brief glimpse tells him everything he needs to know.
There's no mistaking Hammer Scar.
And she has spotted Steven, too.
It's a huge relief to see Hammer Scar safe and well.
She's a wild otter.
I'm very privileged to have this contact with her.
Hammer Scar has rewarded Steven's dedication
with one of his best encounters yet.
Well, that was the most amazing experience.
I've had some great experiences with Hammer Scar, but,
yeah, that's pretty well near the tops.
It doesn't matter how much time you spend with her,
it's never going to get boring,
it's never going to get mundane.
To me, that's the pinnacle of a wildlife experience.
It's rare to even see a wild otter,
let alone build the level of trust that's been developed by Steven
over years of watching his beloved Hammer Scar.
Hats off to him and to Hammer Scar for showing us all that the most
patient of wildlife watchers can get their just rewards.
I've come to a very special spot on a Dartmoor river in autumn.
No matter how idyllic,
it might seem a strange time of the year to be thinking about a dip.
But this is Lydia Falls,
and I've heard it's a good spot to catch one of nature's great migrations,
which means I don't need asking twice to get into the water.
This is when salmon and sea trout are making their way inland from the
sea, into the cold, clear waters of Dartmoor's rivers.
After a couple of years fattening up in the ocean,
they return to freshwater to breed.
This is known as the salmon run,
an annual event on many British rivers
from Cornwall to the northern tip of Scotland.
But it's not easy to see the salmon in action.
Plenty of small trout and one good-sized salmon.
As the fishermen say, you know, one of those.
A real cracker. I think I might have caught a glimpse of it on camera.
I've only seen one salmon so far.
I'll go and have a look in some of the other pools in a minute,
but it does suggest they're starting to arrive.
Obviously waiting to head up through those waterfalls,
through those rapids to their spawning grounds.
And those numbers should keep building now, as the month goes on.
Swimming against the current is hard work.
And even for the fish, this is an arduous journey.
From the sea to its source on the moor,
the River Avon rises to over 400 metres above sea level,
and there are plenty of obstacles along the way.
It's extraordinary that these fish
can swim up these waterfalls.
And to do so successfully,
they need all the help they can get from the elements.
The problem is it hasn't rained properly here for nearly two weeks.
And there's just not enough water in the river,
coming over those falls and through the rapids,
for the fish to move up into.
But when the water does come,
that faster flow will put more water through the gills of those fish,
more oxygen into their blood,
and they'll get the energy they need to keep on pushing upstream,
through those rapids, up the waterfalls,
heading upstream to their spawning grounds where they themselves
were spawned several years ago.
Salmon are driven onwards and upwards by the urge to breed.
At this time the males undergo a dramatic change.
Their jaws become hooked and their normally silvery flanks
take on a coppery-red tone.
Once in fresh water, the salmon don't eat
but rely on their fat reserves to fuel them upstream
as they leap those weirs and waterfalls.
Sadly, in recent decades,
this seasonal spectacle has become an ever rarer sight on Dartmoor.
The cause of their decline is a complex issue.
But one pioneering team is honing in on a unique way to help.
So, we released 200,
which were attached with an ID.
Rupert Goddard and Matt Elmer are on the hunt.
How many you find, we're not really sure yet.
It depends on how far they've moved.
What they're looking for could be anywhere in the river.
But if they find some,
they might hold the key to helping revive the salmon's fortunes.
We're looking for rocks.
-Yep, got one.
So, this little tag will stick onto the rock
with, like, a sort of glass fibre resin,
and then as we come along the detector
will generate the current that will excite these.
The tag will produce a signal that the detector will then pick up.
This Plymouth University project is tracking stones that were among
700 tonnes of granite gravel added to various stretches of the river
by the West Country Rivers Trust.
This gravel could play a vital role in bringing back the salmon.
Before the female salmon spawns, she makes a nest called a redd -
a small hollow where she can lay her eggs for the male to fertilise.
The right-size stones are important for holding the eggs.
It's normal that stones are sometimes washed away by the fast-flowing water,
and usually the pebbles are replaced by more from upstream.
But not here.
And this is why -
in the 1950s, for the creation of a reservoir, the river was dammed.
When you have a dam across the river,
it stops the natural movement of stones.
We end up with a channel that doesn't have the right kind of
composition of stone sizes that would enable the fish to spawn in.
In the breeding season, salmon travel many hundreds of kilometres -
perhaps from as far away as Greenland -
to return to the exact stretch of water where they were born.
But if their spawning grounds have been washed away,
they've got nowhere to start the next generation.
So, by adding more stone into the river,
we are increasing the available habitat for the fish to spawn in.
And to find out if the plan is working,
they need to know how far the gravel has travelled.
So, the lazy ones, 3.7 metres.
The adventurous ones, 90.
The great news is that this project is already seeing a positive effect.
A five-minute survey of one spot found 21 juvenile fish,
where previously there were none.
We're certainly improving habitat,
and these areas would not have been here before we started the project.
If this method is proven to work,
it could be used to help salmon and trout flourish
in other rivers all over Britain.
A journey down any of Dartmoor's rivers ends at the sea...
..where the foibles of the flowing freshwater habitat
give way to the great opportunities of the ocean.
And for me today, that's a chance to encounter
an animal that never fails to thrill me.
I'm in the fishing port of Brixham,
a stone's throw from where the River Dart flows into the English Channel.
So, today's plan, we're going to be covering around 100, 105km today,
at around ten knots. That should take roughly 5½ hours.
Going to be recording our efforts.
Rachel Davies and her volunteers from Marine Life make regular surveys of
a creature that most of us are excited to even glimpse.
The team are researching all cetacean activity in the
southwest. In the past year even humpback whales
have been spotted off this part of Devon's coast.
What about today's conditions?
Are they good for surveying cetaceans?
Well, right now it's absolutely fantastic.
We've got grey skies,
which may not sound like it's the best conditions for us,
but actually it really is, because when we get a little bit too much sunlight, we get glare.
-Too much glare is not good?
Not good at all, for a few reasons.
It can make it very difficult once you've actually spotted an animal
to identify the species, because quite often you can just see a silhouette,
so you can't see any colour markings.
But also when there is light reflecting off,
it can be very tiring for the eyes. And of course we want to keep our eyes fresh and we want to be rested.
And your volunteer spotters have been doing this for a while.
-They're a pretty eagle-eyed bunch?
The surveyors we have on board today have been doing this since the '90s, actually.
Oh, so really experienced.
Yeah, we've got Pete, who is a very, very keen birder
but also an exceptionally experienced...
Eagle-Eyed Pete, they call him?
Oh, Eagle Eyed Pete. Yes, definitely.
It's not too long before Eagle-Eyed Pete lives up to his name.
-300 metres, something like that.
-300 metres, but, Pete,
you are going to know better than I am what we are looking at.
Yes, they look as though they are common dolphins.
I've seen about three or four.
This fleeting glimpse is proof that there are cetaceans out here today.
And I'm desperate to see more.
I mean, those weren't feeding, so there's nothing with them.
But very often you're attracted to cetaceans by sea birds circling overhead.
Cos if they're feeding, then there's scraps available,
or even the gannets feeding might have drawn the common dolphins in.
-So you'll quite often see sea birds feeding before the dolphins?
Even on this flat, calm sea we have to keep our eyes keenly peeled.
We've just had another sighting.
The skipper called this one, actually.
He thinks it's a harbour porpoise.
Here it is just now.
Looks like a solitary beast. Is it a harbour porpoise, Rachel?
Yep. I can't see it at the moment.
-I did see it pop up just a second ago.
He will come up again, so we just want to keep an eye open in this area here.
But if it was a harbour porpoise there, in these conditions,
-if it comes up we will see it.
We just need to keep scanning.
Don't fix on one spot, just keep scanning.
I think that might have been the mirage of the day.
It was just a fleeting little black back on the surface, wasn't it?
There it is. So that's the harbour porpoise,
and you see what I mean by a fleeting glimpse.
It's just the curve of the back and then it's down again,
often for a couple of minutes.
Dolphins must break the surface regularly,
exposing their blow holes to the air to breathe.
But the whole thing happens fast.
They can breathe in and out in less than a second.
One's coming out of the water there.
They're much more active than they were earlier.
Whoa! A tail slapping right in front of us.
Now they're showing off.
Oh, right under the boat, there's six right underneath us.
Right on the bow wave, that's fantastic.
I'm literally on top of them.
Dolphins can save a huge amount of energy by bow riding,
using the pressure wave ahead of the boat
to push them through the water.
I'm just hoping I can get this
little underwater camera close to them
and get some shots of that amazing swimming action.
Whoa, here we go!
Just in front of me now.
These common dolphins are so distinctive,
with that amazing, creamy flank and underparts.
Common dolphins can grow to lengths of 2½ metres,
and have a lifespan of 30 years or more.
They live in tight-knit social groups,
communicating with high-pitched calls and clicks.
They even have their own version of regional dialects.
The best time to spot them in UK coastal waters
is between July and October,
and they're most commonly seen in the southwest.
Look at that!
I was watching all that from lying down,
but that was absolutely amazing.
Really smacking the water with its whole body, there.
What sort of behaviour is that, then, Rachel?
I think they're having a bit of a play, to be honest.
There's no single explanation for why dolphins breach and bellyflop.
It might be another way they communicate,
or perhaps they're dislodging parasites on their skin.
But I'm happy with Rachel's theory -
that these social, intelligent animals are simply playing.
And it's impossible not to get caught up in the sheer glee of their
It's great when you see them breeching out of the water.
We've counted 12 dolphins and one porpoise so far.
Not a bad tally for a few hours.
I'm pretty sure there's a juvenile in amongst them.
And this one is certainly a little bit smaller, isn't it?
We didn't record a juvenile last time, did we?
You've been out here in Lyme Bay more than anybody, Rick.
Do you have a sense of getting to know these dolphins now?
Sort of. I mean, we have catalogues,
numerous individuals that we've picked up upon regularly,
so you do, I suppose, attach yourself to those animals, yes.
So today we're a little piece of a big jigsaw puzzle...
-..but when we put it all together it tells us about the health, the success of the species.
-It just gives you a good feeling,
knowing that you're doing something good
for the animals that you like to get out and see and observe.
It's not hard to see what brings these volunteers out here.
The data they gather on our cetaceans is important,
and today's trip will deliver its fair share of that.
But spending time among dolphins is its own reward.
There's so many creatures that you can be thrilled by
when you see them,
but for me, of all of them, the dolphins...
You kind of want to know - what's it like to be one?
-Yeah. Absolutely, yeah.
-It looks such fun.
Yeah, to be able to swim through the water at 25-30 miles an hour and...
While chatting to your mates.
-Yeah. It wouldn't be bad to come back as a dolphin.
If you'd like to explore Britain's diverse landscapes in more detail
and find out how to create your own wildlife habitats,
the Open University has produced a free booklet with bookmarks.
Order your copy by calling...
Or go to...
..and follow the links to The Open University.
Nature lover Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall celebrates the wildlife of the West Country and meets the dedicated people safeguarding its future. This time, Hugh's journey takes him across Dartmoor from the granite peaks to the sea. Hugh follows the fortunes of a buzzard family as their single chick fledges and heads towards independence, he seeks out salmon as they migrate upstream to breed and he helps marine biologists to survey dolphins off the Devon coast.
Nearby, water voles are being returned to the area after a 30-year absence and local vet Stephen Powles has developed an extraordinary level of trust with one otter and her cubs living at the end of his garden.