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Welcome to Hands On Nature.
I'm Chris Packham and this is your guide to Britain's nature hot-spots.
Today, we're going to be experiencing flower power.
We're going to be exploring some grasslands,
where your chances of spotting some stunning wildlife are pretty much guaranteed.
I'll be hunting for the elusive Scottish bird known as the nutty noise maker.
Mike Dilger explores the rich downlands of southern England.
And Janet Sumner discovers a farm with a difference, high up in the Pennines.
That is incredibly rare, isn't it?
I can't actually believe that I'm seeing it.
Welcome to North Uist, in the Western Isles of Scotland.
A place that you can visit to get one of THE most stunning grassland experiences anywhere in the UK.
Just look at it - stretching as far as the eye can see,
whole pillows of purple, rafts of yellow and white.
It really is absolutely stunning.
This coastal grassland is known as machair -
a Gaelic word that means low-lying, fertile plain.
In the height of summer, just look at it.
It's a wild flower extravaganza.
But if you come here in the spring, oh!
Oh, yes! Then, it's bird land.
It might look like the holiday programme,
but this is a unique wildlife paradise on our own shores.
These are the Isles of Uist, on the western fringes of Britain,
and it's about as good as it gets for birding.
The Western Isles is an absolute mecca for birds
and one of the best groups to see here are the waders.
It's got some of the highest breeding concentrations in Europe -
things like red shanks and lapwings.
But also, it's a fabulous spot to sit down and watch some of the migrants coming through.
A lot of these birds down here are dunlin, turnstone and are on their way further north.
At this time of year, they're in their tip-top summer plumage.
Just look at the black bellies on these dunlins.
There are ringed plover as well.
They're a breeding species and will stay here to breed.
What a scene. It's packed with birds.
If I was Robinson Crusoe, this would be my island.
It's the very remoteness of these islands
that makes them such a great place to see wildlife.
There's a way of doing things, a pace of life,
that's a reminder of time long gone.
Because the machair grassland is managed in a non-intensive way by the crofters,
it means wildlife can flourish.
And for some birds in particular, this is a lifeline.
Because back on the mainland, their habitats have all but been destroyed.
And there's one bird that arrives here in Spring that really depends on this way of life.
Locals call them "treun-ri-treun", which apparently relates to the type of sound that they make.
But other people also call them the fat running rasper or the nutty noise maker.
Until you've seen one, you haven't really earned your ornithological stripes.
So this place, is the sort of place that people come to on a pilgrimage.
Corncrakes are secretive, skulking little things.
So to see them, come in the late spring before the grass grows too high.
And the RSPB reserve at Balranald on North Uist is a great place to track them down.
There it is.
I saw its head then, sticking up.
Yes, look at that.
It's just come out of the side and it's doing typical crake behaviour.
Look at the way it's creeping.
It's so low in the grass.
What a rascal!
That's what it is, it's a rascal.
Tantalising - that's the word.
This male here is going berserk. And there he is, look at that.
When he's calling, he's actually flicking his head back like this.
There are probably, sort of, corn crake bars that you can go to in parts of eastern Europe
where you go in and sit down and corncrakes call from under the furniture.
People get off on it. I'd go to them.
I'd spend loads of money in a corn crake bar.
There's something enigmatic about these birds.
They're really characterful. They're kind of...ancient.
They remind us of an old Britain.
A time when life was perhaps a little harder,
but birding was a lot better.
Look at that!
Other threatened birds, like corn buntings, flourish here too.
In fact, it's bird-tastic.
I spotted lapwings...
..and short-eared owls, all within 20 minutes.
But in July and August, these islands change again
and the machair explodes into life.
Now, let's not mince words, when it comes to grasslands,
this is pretty much unparalleled anywhere in the British Isles.
In effect, it really is the land of flowers.
In simple terms, this riot of colour is here for one reason -
to advertise the fact that all of these flowers are full of nectar
so that something comes to drink and, in return,
takes away the pollen to affect fertilisation.
So just listen.
It's particularly good for bumblebees.
In fact, Scottish Natural Heritage even publish a guide to bumblebees so you can identify them.
And there are a few real machair specialists here.
Like... Never when you want one!
Like that one there,
which is called the moss carder bee.
Just look at it.
Cuddly little things. The cuddly toys of the insect world - bumblebees.
The secret of this landscape lies in the sand.
It's made up of billions of pieces of broken shells,
and its high lime content neutralises the acidic soils
and this, together with the crofters farming in strips
and leaving land fallow for several years
means wildflowers can really take hold.
And islander and naturalist Johanne Ferguson has the joyous pleasure
of seeing this spectacle year after year.
The thing is, Johanne, when I come here, I don't mean this unkindly,
it's like a time warp
because this is how I imagine the British Isles were 50, 60 years ago
before the mechanisation of farming
and things like herbicides and pesticides.
It is fantastic. I hope you don't take it for granted.
Definitely not. It's difficult to take something this colourful for granted anyway,
but the other reason is it changes so much over the course of the season.
Early spring, there's all the birds breeding. It's quite noisy.
Later, the machair looks yellow with buttercups and species like that.
Now, if you look around, it's more pinks and purples and blues.
Let's have a little survey and see how many species we find.
-Don't challenge me on the plants! Red clover.
-This is a hawkbit of some kind.
-It's a cat's ear.
-A cat's ear? Similar to hawkbit, then.
The flower you call harebell we call Scottish Bluebell.
-And this one?
-That's wild carrot.
They're partial parasites, so they actually tap their roots
into other plants' roots and steal the nutrients.
It's not only the diversity of plants, it's the tremendous density.
In this semi-natural landscape,
you can see carpets of pink or purple or yellow or white.
There really is nowhere else like it in the UK.
What a little slice of paradise.
You can get there by ferry from Skye and Oban
and by air from Glasgow.
Best time of year?
Don't forget, there's more information on our website.
You're watching Hands On Nature -
your very own guide to the best wildlife sites across the UK.
Coming up, Janet Sumner walks through farmland in the north of England,
where some beautiful and rare wild flowers are thriving.
Now, one of the things about grasslands
is that they can be great examples of man and nature working together.
Take here for example.
The low-impact farming and grazing,
after all these flowers have set their seeds,
means that they've created a habitat where wildlife can thrive.
If it weren't for these sorts of relationships,
then pretty much all of our grasslands would soon revert to scrub and woodland.
Take the superb Downs in the south of England and, in particular, Heyshott Down in West Sussex,
a place that might Mike Dilger decided would be great to explore.
The South Downs stretch for more than 90 miles across Sussex and Hampshire.
And contain some of the best-loved hill country in southern England.
This is my idea of a quintessential English landscape -
mile after mile of green, rolling hills, not a jagged edge in sight.
But most people don't realise it's a completely man-made habitat.
Thousands of years ago, huge areas have been cleared of forest
to make way for grazing animals and where animals flourished,
so have the plants and the insects.
Of course, the Downs are fantastic for moths
and they're really good for this little critter.
That is the orange-tailed clearwing.
You'd never believe that that was a moth
because the wings are completely transparent
and the whole idea of this is it's meant to mimic a wasp
because it gives it some protection.
Moth enthusiast Sarah Patten is always out on the Downs looking for new species.
How are you doing?
Hi, Mike. I've got something here I think might be of interest.
Fantastic. I know it's a Burnett moth but I think there are unusual species round here, aren't there?
That's right. You need to count the number of red dots on its back wing.
I know the six-spot is common.
And that's the five-spot Burnett,
which is one of the brightly coloured day-flying moths that we find here.
The question people always ask -
what is the difference between moths and butterflies,
of which there are also an abundance on the Downs?
There aren't as many as people think. In fact, there's only one.
A lot of people think if it's flying during the day it's a butterfly, at night it's a moth.
That's not true because we've got a very nice day-flying moth.
There's only one difference and it's a hook that attaches the hind wing to the fore wing,
which moths have and butterflies don't but it's difficult to see.
Now I'll be joining Sarah later for a night vigil.
Think of a group of plants that these words apply to -
What are we talking about? It's obvious, isn't it?
And the South Downs has got a wonderful array of grassland species
and the best time of year to see them is June.
This one you can find all over the Downs -
it's the common spotted orchid.
Although this isn't the rarest orchid,
it's one of the most charismatic.
It's called the bee orchid for an obvious reason.
Look at the little, tiny flowers. They perfectly mimic a bee.
That's basically how it gets pollinated.
A male bee comes along, sees what it thinks is a female bee,
lands on board, hoping to mate,
doesn't get any joy but...
it carries away these little, tiny yellow pollen sacs
and then goes to another bee orchid and transfers the pollen there.
The irony is that in this country, you simply never encounter this species of bee,
so the orchid has to pollinate itself.
This has to be find of the day.
It's a real speciality of the South Downs.
It's called the musk orchid
but I think that's a rubbish name really because if you smell it...
there's a really overpowering scent of honey, which is just gorgeous.
These chalk grasslands are one of the richest habitats
for a whole variety of plants
but you have to look close-up, as local botanist Paul Harmes is going to show me.
How long have you been coming to the South Downs
and this beautiful chalk downland?
I started when I was eight, coming with my mother to, shall we say, "pick" wild flowers, in those days.
-It is like egg collecting. Long since forbidden.
Quite right, too.
-We've got a little competition.
-We're going to do some quadrats.
-OK, I'll try over there.
May the best man win?
-Or should I say, the best botanist?
-We shall see.
By quadrats, we simply mean a marked out square metre
in which we'll search for as many plants as we can find.
So, my quadrat, my notebook -
which any self-respecting naturalist should always carry with him.
I'll scribble down a few names and see how I get on.
This is one of my favourite plants.
This is yellow wort,
a real specialist of base rich or chalky grasslands.
There, we've got nice common spotted orchids,
bird's foot trefoil,
Ox-eye daisies, aren't they beautiful?
But this is my favourite grass.
It's called quaking grass. You can see the little spikelets.
Aren't they fantastic as they delicately wave in the breeze?
That's it, Paul. Time!
Speaking of time...
-Ah, wild thyme!
Own up, how many did you get? I got 25.
Unbelievable! In one tiny area.
I do recognise one plant that I haven't got in mine, this little stunner here.
-Yep, common twayblade.
-Fantastic orchid, isn't it?
That's a beauty.
Purging flax, or fairy flax, because it was used in the 1600s, 1700s, as a purge for constipation
and whilst we're on medicinal plants, there's also eyebright,
sold as a flower remedy for eye disorders.
-You can buy it in the shops today.
-This site is open-access.
You don't have to find 35 plants to enjoy yourself.
Just come here and identify the orchids, the really showy ones.
-People should get out there.
-Public footpaths and it's open access.
-Healthy, commune with nature.
-All these lovely things to see.
It's official - botanising is good for you.
Time to rejoin Sarah Patten,
who is all set up with her night-time moth trap.
How does the trap work? Effectively, it's like a lobster pot, isn't it?
It is. They are attracted to light, it's difficult for them to come out, so they're trapped.
And it never does them any harm because they like to spend the night in these little egg boxes.
That's right. They go in the little gaps and they're quite happy in there.
And what is it that turns you on, to get you up in the evening,
when you're tired, you want to watch television,
what drives you on night after night?
It's the suspense, the excitement.
What was that that went in? See that?
It's an elephant hawk moth.
Most people think moths are dull, boring and brown. How wrong they are.
Look at that. Pink and green, and the antennae are white.
It's stunning. It's unreal, really, isn't it?
I recognise this bruiser.
He looks very dull but it's not until they fly
-you see the distinguishing feature.
It's a large yellow underwing. The under wings, as you say, are bright yellow.
Look at this beauty just landed here, Sarah.
That a blood vein, which presumably refers
to the red line across it, although it does actually look like a pair of lips.
Indeed. I think Marilyn Monroe's lips would be a better name!
I think we should change it.
How many species of moth are there in Britain, would you say?
I couldn't put a figure on it
but there are far more moths than butterflies -
even just the macro moths, the big ones.
When you start looking at micros, there are thousands more.
So it's a lifetime's hobby. You'll never get bored.
The fab thing about moth trapping as well,
you don't really need an expensive trap like this.
Get yourself a white sheet with a fluorescent light strip
or a really strong light bulb, go into your garden,
into any garden at night, and you will catch moths.
-And you get completely addicted like we are now.
You can walk from one end of the South Downs to the other,
from Beachy Head in East Sussex to Winchester in Hampshire.
Butterfly Conservation hold a moth night every year
and local branches hold events all summer, most of them free.
More details are on our website.
Now, our grasslands are very much a result of farming practices,
very different from our lawns and parklands.
When you go in to the countryside,
those grasslands can be full of native plants and animals.
And where the farming is particularly sensitive to nature,
the results can be astonishing, as Janet Sumner found out
when she went for a walk on the wild side through Teesdale in the North of England.
This is the wild North Pennines, the very backbone of England.
As rugged as it's beautiful.
And though it might look like a wilderness,
it's here in the upper reaches of Teesdale,
that you'll find one of the richest grasslands in the country.
When spring arrives, this place just bursts into life.
You don't find many farms covered in marsh marigolds
but Herdship Farm is being managed for wildlife
and what's great is the whole experience is laid out on a plate for us all to enjoy.
There are guided walks around the farm.
There's even a leaflet to help you on your way -
it's got a handy little map in it - and everywhere you turn there's something different to see.
The high rainfall and altitude give this part of Upper Teesdale its own distinctive feeling
but it's what's underground that makes this place rather special.
This is sugar limestone.
About 300 million years ago, molten rock rose to the surface here,
forcing its way through the limestone, baking it and changing it for ever.
Now, today, it's pretty crumbly but it's rich in calcium
and it supports some amazing plant life.
The soil, together with the way the pastures are managed,
has provided the ideal home for rare wildflowers
and it's all happened under the careful eye of Kath Toward and her family.
There's a plant in particular they're especially proud of.
-Now, you've brought me here to show me one of the crown jewels of the flower world.
-That's the spring gentian, isn't it?
-Yes, that's the Teesdale gentian.
-That is incredibly rare, isn't it?
It is. There are two or three places in Teesdale where you find this
and we cherish it - it's the Teesdale emblem.
But they're much smaller than I expected. They're tiny!
I can't actually believe that I'm seeing this.
It really is an incredibly vivid blue. It almost looks fake or artificial.
-Yes, it does. Wax-like, really!
-It really stands out.
What's amazing to me is that such an tiny plant
can be so huge in the plant world.
But there's another reason to come here.
This place is just teeming with wading birds.
A good place to base yourself is by the side of a stream.
You've got to keep still and this is all about sitting patiently and waiting.
There's my first customer.
It's a common sandpiper. You can see him bobbing around in the rocks.
See him just bobbing around?
And behind him is, I think, a grey wagtail.
They love these fast-flowing streams.
Oh! And a redshank has just turned up.
Easy to see where he gets his name from - his lovely, long, red legs.
And there's something splashing around in the water there.
I think it's a lapwing. Yep!
Having a bit of a bath.
See? I told you it was worth the wait. There's so much to see here.
Looking after this landscape isn't something that can be done by the farmers on their own.
The Towards work closely with other groups to make sure the delicate balance is maintained.
But just what is it that makes this land such a good place to see so many birds?
It's a question for Nick Mason from the RSPB.
Nick, this is an unlikely environment for such rich wildlife, isn't it?
I suppose it could be seen that way.
When you start to understand why the birds are here
it becomes clear that, although it looks unlikely,
it is actually a fantastic place for birds.
There's some very clear reasons why it's a good farm.
We're standing in the midst of them right now.
-I don't know whether you feel it under your feet, but the soil's quite springy.
It show's that the soil's still very damp here,
even though we're getting into the summer now
and for the waders that come here - lapwing, the snipe, redshank, curlew,
when they come up here in spring, what they're looking to do
is probe down into the soil and extract things like worms and leather jackets from it.
And later on in the season, birds like the meadow pipit, here...
-That one, there?
-Up on the ridge side, if you have a look.
What's it got in its beak?
It's got its beak stuffed full of little insects like crane fly.
Jammed, isn't it? So what, is it taking those to its babies?
Typically, they nest on a bank side, just like this one,
and usually under a little grassy overhang.
All the structure of vegetation that you see, the rushes, globe flowers, the marsh marigolds,
all of that adds up to provide just a fantastic structure for small flying insects.
Let's have a quick look now and see what we can actually get hold of.
I can see things flying over here,
so if I have a few sweeps with my net...
..not let anything get out and then I can... I've got something here.
-Shall we try and get it into this little jar?
-It looks a bit big, actually!
That one went up. Where did it go?
There's just loads, isn't there? Masses and masses.
Yes, just after five minutes of effort,
we've captured seven or eight different species.
Birds like meadow pipits probably capture 300-400 small insects a day
to feed their family at this time of year.
Although we've captured a lot very quickly here, birds need to find that volume of insects every hour
to raise a family successfully. They've got to work really hard.
So, all in all, it ends up being a fantastic place for birds.
Definitely one of the best farms, I think, in England for birds like lapwings.
A wonderful place to see them.
You can do the farm walk around Herdship in just a couple of hours.
It's the most brilliant place to spend a day
and if you come in May and June, at the height of the season,
this place is just guaranteed to blow your socks off.
Who says it always rains up north?
The nearest town to Herdship Farm is Middleton-in-Teesdale.
There's more on our website.
Now, be honest, when this programme started and you saw that it was about grasslands,
I bet more than a few of you thought, how boring!
But as you've seen, these habitats are among the most exciting
and the most colourful that you can explore anywhere in the UK.
So when it comes to Sunday, don't worry about cutting your lawn.
Get out there and see where the real action is.
See you next time.
When Mike Dilger will be witnessing one of the great bird spectacles.
All I can hear is the sound of thousands of knots
flying over my head.
This is just the most amazing view.
And Janet Sumner visits the beautiful Humber Estuary.