Wicken Fen Hands on Nature


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Wicken Fen

Chris Packham goes in search of dragonflies and damselflies.


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This is Wicken Fen Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire.

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It's a brilliant place, it's somewhere you should come.

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More than 200 different species of birds have been seen here,

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25 different types of mammal live here,

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19 species of dragonfly, and, get this, 1,000 different types of moth.

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Wicken Fen was THE first nature reserve to be bought by the National Trust,

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way back in 1899.

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The 1,500-acre site is a tiny remnant of the watery wilderness

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that once characterised the whole of East Anglia.

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Undoubtedly, one of the best ways to explore these rivers, or loads,

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as this channel is called, is on one of these Fenland longboats.

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You can just gaze down into the clear waters here and literally look into a different world.

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The water supports an abundance of wildlife,

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but I'm looking for one thing in particular - the aerial master of the insect world.

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Now, to find these creatures, like most wildlife,

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one of the best things you can do is to look for the right habitat.

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-Rory Mackenzie Dodds, you've been looking for the right habitat for a long time...

-Indeed.

-..and know it.

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-What do you make of this?

-It's absolutely brilliant, Chris.

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It's a lovely, lovely site here.

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You've got the three key sorts of plants which are attractive,

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you've got lots of oxygenators in the water, which keep the water nice and clear,

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-and then you've got the surface coverers, like white water lilies...

-Looking very nice.

-Very nice.

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..and then above those you've got these tall, stemmed plants.

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These are the three key groups which are really attractive habitat.

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-And there...

-Right! OK, yes, absolutely.

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It's the star of our show - a dragonfly. Look at that.

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This is the stunning Emperor dragonfly,

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the largest of a family that's been around for 300 million years, much longer than us humans.

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This one is a brown hawker.

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It's decided it's a perfect place for a female brown hawker to lay her eggs,

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so it is guarding this territory, waiting for a female to come along.

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When that happens, he will mate with her, and she will be ready to lay her eggs along both sides of the pond.

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-Good start.

-There is a damselfly down here. Two!

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This pair of damselflies are laying their eggs,

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with the male holding onto the female to ensure that no other males muscle in.

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The egg hatches into a nymph,

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which lives underwater for around three years -

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hence the importance of those oxygenating plants -

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before it emerges from the water and sheds its skin to transform into the adult dragonfly.

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This is the dried-out skin of the last aquatic stage of this dragonfly,

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and here is the adult insect that has emerged from it.

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At the moment, it is pumping its wings full of fluid,

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and in the process of drying out.

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But just over here is another one that is a few hours ahead of it.

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Shortly, it will be taking to the wing and starting its process of looking for a mate.

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-Look, a four-spotted chaser.

-That is. They're unmistakable.

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What you need to look out for is the four little spots in the middle of each wing.

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-How many species here? Five or six?

-Five or six, just dragonflies, yes.

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And there's actually three or four down here.

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There are three of four types of damselfly too.

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And how do you tell the difference between damsels and dragons?

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Effectively damselflies are smaller and more delicate, but there is a trick, Chris, which is

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when you see them land, if they park their wings along their backs...

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-Folded behind?

-Folded behind, exactly.

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..the chances are that it is an damselfly.

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If the lay them out flat, like an normal aeroplane, it is a dragonfly.

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-This is dragonfly heaven, isn't it?

-It is absolutely perfect.

-And yet we're not even on the the reserve.

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-This is just a pond-dipping area for kids.

-And they've created a perfect heaven for dragonflies.

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These insects need sunshine to heat up their bodies in order to fly.

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They use their wings as solar panels.

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Now then, what have these children found in a nearby pond?

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-Hello there, James.

-Hello.

-What have you got, then?

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So far, I've got a great crested newt. I think it's a female.

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It certainly is. What a fantastic animal.

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-Beautiful. Have you seen its belly?

-Yeah.

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Lovely and marbled and black underneath. It is a female - it's a bit bigger than the male.

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'The great crested is the largest newt found in Britain, and can live up to 27 years.

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'But it is endangered, so you need a licence to handle it.'

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What a fantastic animal. It just goes to prove what a wealth of wildlife there is here at Wicken.

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Now, here's a little tip.

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Dragonflies often return to the same perching spot,

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so if you're patient and keep still...

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This common dart has been landing on this stick in front of me for some time,

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so I thought I'd stick my finger out and see if he'd choose my finger instead of the stick.

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And it's given me the best views of a dragonfly I've had all day.

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Let's see if he does it one more time.

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Just look at that.

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Oh, it's like having a pet.

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He goes off for a little fly, chases another dragonfly, and then he's back to my hand.

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It's like falconing, but with dragonflies.

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Look at that!

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What a stunning creature.

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Now, this habitat may look perfectly natural to you, but I'm afraid it isn't.

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It's been managed by man for centuries.

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One of the principal uses of an area like this was to cut the sedge for thatch.

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Well, these days that's largely redundant,

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and if we were to leave this area, it would rapidly become woodland.

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It'd be a disaster - we want wetland here - so they've come up with a new way of managing the vegetation.

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I say new, but, in fact, it was happening thousands of years ago,

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when bison and wolves and bears were roaming this land.

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These stunning-looking animals are konik ponies.

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They are one of the closest relatives to the primal ponies that roamed over Europe.

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And the warden, Carol Laidlaw, knows more about these herds than most.

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We've got them here because they're wetland specialists. They're so hardy, and have a placid temperament.

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You need an animal that is not going to be aggressive or bolshy.

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-Just a bit curious.

-Just a bit curious, yes.

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They're no respecters of body space, as you can see.

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-But they are here to graze the site?

-Yes.

-In a traditional fashion.

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The National Trust has a huge expansion project on that is going to last the next hundred years,

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and it is going to become unsustainable to buy machinery and people to manage the land,

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so the best way to do it is to get these guys out to act as natural wardens.

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-They're out 365 days of the year.

-365 days of the year, yep. Rain or shine.

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Rain or shine...

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Beautiful as these animals are, Karen has one important tip for visitors.

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The general advice is, if you want to come and see these horses, um, use binoculars and watch them from afar.

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Don't approach them - these are wild animals and they're not predictable.

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-They're quite curious today, and they're behaving themselves.

-Yes.

-Let's hope they prosper.

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The National Trust plans to expand this fen over the next hundred years

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until it's 17 miles long, stretching all the way down towards Cambridge.

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What a thought that is.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd - 2006

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E-mail subtitling@bbc.co.uk

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