Grasslands Hands on Nature


Grasslands

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Welcome to Hands On Nature.

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I'm Chris Packham and this is your guide to Britain's nature hot-spots.

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Today, we're going to be experiencing flower power.

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We're going to be exploring some grasslands,

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where your chances of spotting some stunning wildlife are pretty much guaranteed.

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I'll be hunting for the elusive Scottish bird known as the nutty noise maker.

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Mike Dilger explores the rich downlands of southern England.

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Got it.

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And Janet Sumner discovers a farm with a difference, high up in the Pennines.

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That is incredibly rare, isn't it?

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I can't actually believe that I'm seeing it.

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Welcome to North Uist, in the Western Isles of Scotland.

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A place that you can visit to get one of THE most stunning grassland experiences anywhere in the UK.

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Just look at it - stretching as far as the eye can see,

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whole pillows of purple, rafts of yellow and white.

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It really is absolutely stunning.

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This coastal grassland is known as machair -

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a Gaelic word that means low-lying, fertile plain.

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In the height of summer, just look at it.

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It's a wild flower extravaganza.

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But if you come here in the spring, oh!

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Oh, yes! Then, it's bird land.

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It might look like the holiday programme,

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but this is a unique wildlife paradise on our own shores.

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These are the Isles of Uist, on the western fringes of Britain,

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and it's about as good as it gets for birding.

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The Western Isles is an absolute mecca for birds

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and one of the best groups to see here are the waders.

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It's got some of the highest breeding concentrations in Europe -

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things like red shanks and lapwings.

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But also, it's a fabulous spot to sit down and watch some of the migrants coming through.

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A lot of these birds down here are dunlin, turnstone and are on their way further north.

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At this time of year, they're in their tip-top summer plumage.

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Just look at the black bellies on these dunlins.

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There are ringed plover as well.

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They're a breeding species and will stay here to breed.

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What a scene. It's packed with birds.

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If I was Robinson Crusoe, this would be my island.

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It's the very remoteness of these islands

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that makes them such a great place to see wildlife.

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There's a way of doing things, a pace of life,

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that's a reminder of time long gone.

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Because the machair grassland is managed in a non-intensive way by the crofters,

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it means wildlife can flourish.

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And for some birds in particular, this is a lifeline.

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Because back on the mainland, their habitats have all but been destroyed.

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And there's one bird that arrives here in Spring that really depends on this way of life.

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Locals call them "treun-ri-treun", which apparently relates to the type of sound that they make.

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But other people also call them the fat running rasper or the nutty noise maker.

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Until you've seen one, you haven't really earned your ornithological stripes.

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So this place, is the sort of place that people come to on a pilgrimage.

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Corncrakes are secretive, skulking little things.

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So to see them, come in the late spring before the grass grows too high.

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And the RSPB reserve at Balranald on North Uist is a great place to track them down.

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There it is.

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I saw its head then, sticking up.

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Yes, look at that.

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It's just come out of the side and it's doing typical crake behaviour.

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Look at the way it's creeping.

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It's so low in the grass.

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What a rascal!

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That's what it is, it's a rascal.

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Tantalising - that's the word.

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This male here is going berserk. And there he is, look at that.

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That's fantastic.

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When he's calling, he's actually flicking his head back like this.

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There are probably, sort of, corn crake bars that you can go to in parts of eastern Europe

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where you go in and sit down and corncrakes call from under the furniture.

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People get off on it. I'd go to them.

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I'd spend loads of money in a corn crake bar.

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There's something enigmatic about these birds.

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They're really characterful. They're kind of...ancient.

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They remind us of an old Britain.

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A time when life was perhaps a little harder,

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but birding was a lot better.

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Look at that!

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Other threatened birds, like corn buntings, flourish here too.

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In fact, it's bird-tastic.

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I spotted lapwings...

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..black-throated divers...

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..and short-eared owls, all within 20 minutes.

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But in July and August, these islands change again

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and the machair explodes into life.

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Now, let's not mince words, when it comes to grasslands,

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this is pretty much unparalleled anywhere in the British Isles.

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In effect, it really is the land of flowers.

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In simple terms, this riot of colour is here for one reason -

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to advertise the fact that all of these flowers are full of nectar

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so that something comes to drink and, in return,

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takes away the pollen to affect fertilisation.

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So just listen.

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It's particularly good for bumblebees.

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In fact, Scottish Natural Heritage even publish a guide to bumblebees so you can identify them.

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And there are a few real machair specialists here.

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Like... Never when you want one!

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Like that one there,

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which is called the moss carder bee.

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Just look at it.

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Cuddly little things. The cuddly toys of the insect world - bumblebees.

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The secret of this landscape lies in the sand.

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It's made up of billions of pieces of broken shells,

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and its high lime content neutralises the acidic soils

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and this, together with the crofters farming in strips

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and leaving land fallow for several years

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means wildflowers can really take hold.

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And islander and naturalist Johanne Ferguson has the joyous pleasure

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of seeing this spectacle year after year.

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The thing is, Johanne, when I come here, I don't mean this unkindly,

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it's like a time warp

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because this is how I imagine the British Isles were 50, 60 years ago

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before the mechanisation of farming

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and things like herbicides and pesticides.

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It is fantastic. I hope you don't take it for granted.

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Definitely not. It's difficult to take something this colourful for granted anyway,

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but the other reason is it changes so much over the course of the season.

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Early spring, there's all the birds breeding. It's quite noisy.

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Later, the machair looks yellow with buttercups and species like that.

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Now, if you look around, it's more pinks and purples and blues.

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Let's have a little survey and see how many species we find.

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-Don't challenge me on the plants! Red clover.

-That's right.

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-This is a hawkbit of some kind.

-It's a cat's ear.

-A cat's ear? Similar to hawkbit, then.

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The flower you call harebell we call Scottish Bluebell.

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-And this one?

-That's wild carrot.

-Wild carrot.

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They're partial parasites, so they actually tap their roots

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into other plants' roots and steal the nutrients.

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It's not only the diversity of plants, it's the tremendous density.

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In this semi-natural landscape,

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you can see carpets of pink or purple or yellow or white.

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There really is nowhere else like it in the UK.

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What a little slice of paradise.

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You can get there by ferry from Skye and Oban

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and by air from Glasgow.

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Best time of year?

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Don't forget, there's more information on our website.

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You're watching Hands On Nature -

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your very own guide to the best wildlife sites across the UK.

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Coming up, Janet Sumner walks through farmland in the north of England,

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where some beautiful and rare wild flowers are thriving.

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Now, one of the things about grasslands

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is that they can be great examples of man and nature working together.

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Take here for example.

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The low-impact farming and grazing,

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after all these flowers have set their seeds,

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means that they've created a habitat where wildlife can thrive.

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If it weren't for these sorts of relationships,

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then pretty much all of our grasslands would soon revert to scrub and woodland.

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Take the superb Downs in the south of England and, in particular, Heyshott Down in West Sussex,

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a place that might Mike Dilger decided would be great to explore.

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The South Downs stretch for more than 90 miles across Sussex and Hampshire.

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And contain some of the best-loved hill country in southern England.

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This is my idea of a quintessential English landscape -

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mile after mile of green, rolling hills, not a jagged edge in sight.

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But most people don't realise it's a completely man-made habitat.

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Thousands of years ago, huge areas have been cleared of forest

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to make way for grazing animals and where animals flourished,

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so have the plants and the insects.

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Got it.

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Of course, the Downs are fantastic for moths

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and they're really good for this little critter.

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Oh, yes.

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That is the orange-tailed clearwing.

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You'd never believe that that was a moth

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because the wings are completely transparent

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and the whole idea of this is it's meant to mimic a wasp

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because it gives it some protection.

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Moth enthusiast Sarah Patten is always out on the Downs looking for new species.

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How are you doing?

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Hi, Mike. I've got something here I think might be of interest.

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Fantastic. I know it's a Burnett moth but I think there are unusual species round here, aren't there?

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That's right. You need to count the number of red dots on its back wing.

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I know the six-spot is common.

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And that's the five-spot Burnett,

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which is one of the brightly coloured day-flying moths that we find here.

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The question people always ask -

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what is the difference between moths and butterflies,

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of which there are also an abundance on the Downs?

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There aren't as many as people think. In fact, there's only one.

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A lot of people think if it's flying during the day it's a butterfly, at night it's a moth.

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That's not true because we've got a very nice day-flying moth.

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There's only one difference and it's a hook that attaches the hind wing to the fore wing,

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which moths have and butterflies don't but it's difficult to see.

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Now I'll be joining Sarah later for a night vigil.

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But first...

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Think of a group of plants that these words apply to -

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exquisite, glamorous,

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seductive, fragrant.

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What are we talking about? It's obvious, isn't it?

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Orchids.

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And the South Downs has got a wonderful array of grassland species

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and the best time of year to see them is June.

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This one you can find all over the Downs -

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it's the common spotted orchid.

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Although this isn't the rarest orchid,

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it's one of the most charismatic.

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It's called the bee orchid for an obvious reason.

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Look at the little, tiny flowers. They perfectly mimic a bee.

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That's basically how it gets pollinated.

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A male bee comes along, sees what it thinks is a female bee,

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lands on board, hoping to mate,

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doesn't get any joy but...

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it carries away these little, tiny yellow pollen sacs

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and then goes to another bee orchid and transfers the pollen there.

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The irony is that in this country, you simply never encounter this species of bee,

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so the orchid has to pollinate itself.

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This has to be find of the day.

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It's a real speciality of the South Downs.

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It's called the musk orchid

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but I think that's a rubbish name really because if you smell it...

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there's a really overpowering scent of honey, which is just gorgeous.

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These chalk grasslands are one of the richest habitats

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for a whole variety of plants

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but you have to look close-up, as local botanist Paul Harmes is going to show me.

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How long have you been coming to the South Downs

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and this beautiful chalk downland?

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I started when I was eight, coming with my mother to, shall we say, "pick" wild flowers, in those days.

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-It is like egg collecting. Long since forbidden.

-Absolutely.

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Quite right, too.

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-We've got a little competition.

-We're going to do some quadrats.

-OK, I'll try over there.

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May the best man win?

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-Or should I say, the best botanist?

-We shall see.

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By quadrats, we simply mean a marked out square metre

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in which we'll search for as many plants as we can find.

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So, my quadrat, my notebook -

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which any self-respecting naturalist should always carry with him.

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I'll scribble down a few names and see how I get on.

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This is one of my favourite plants.

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This is yellow wort,

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a real specialist of base rich or chalky grasslands.

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There, we've got nice common spotted orchids,

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bird's foot trefoil,

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Ox-eye daisies, aren't they beautiful?

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But this is my favourite grass.

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It's called quaking grass. You can see the little spikelets.

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Aren't they fantastic as they delicately wave in the breeze?

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That's it, Paul. Time!

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Speaking of time...

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-Ah, wild thyme!

-Wild thyme.

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Own up, how many did you get? I got 25.

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-35.

-35?

-35

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Unbelievable! In one tiny area.

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I do recognise one plant that I haven't got in mine, this little stunner here.

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-Yep, common twayblade.

-Fantastic orchid, isn't it?

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That's a beauty.

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Purging flax, or fairy flax, because it was used in the 1600s, 1700s, as a purge for constipation

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and whilst we're on medicinal plants, there's also eyebright,

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sold as a flower remedy for eye disorders.

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-You can buy it in the shops today.

-This site is open-access.

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You don't have to find 35 plants to enjoy yourself.

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Just come here and identify the orchids, the really showy ones.

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-People should get out there.

-Public footpaths and it's open access.

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-Healthy, commune with nature.

-All these lovely things to see.

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It's official - botanising is good for you.

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Time to rejoin Sarah Patten,

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who is all set up with her night-time moth trap.

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How does the trap work? Effectively, it's like a lobster pot, isn't it?

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It is. They are attracted to light, it's difficult for them to come out, so they're trapped.

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And it never does them any harm because they like to spend the night in these little egg boxes.

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That's right. They go in the little gaps and they're quite happy in there.

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And what is it that turns you on, to get you up in the evening,

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when you're tired, you want to watch television,

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what drives you on night after night?

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It's the suspense, the excitement.

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What was that that went in? See that?

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It's an elephant hawk moth.

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Most people think moths are dull, boring and brown. How wrong they are.

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Look at that. Pink and green, and the antennae are white.

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It's stunning. It's unreal, really, isn't it?

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I recognise this bruiser.

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He looks very dull but it's not until they fly

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-you see the distinguishing feature.

-Right.

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It's a large yellow underwing. The under wings, as you say, are bright yellow.

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Look at this beauty just landed here, Sarah.

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That a blood vein, which presumably refers

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to the red line across it, although it does actually look like a pair of lips.

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Indeed. I think Marilyn Monroe's lips would be a better name!

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I think we should change it.

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How many species of moth are there in Britain, would you say?

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I couldn't put a figure on it

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but there are far more moths than butterflies -

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even just the macro moths, the big ones.

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When you start looking at micros, there are thousands more.

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So it's a lifetime's hobby. You'll never get bored.

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The fab thing about moth trapping as well,

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you don't really need an expensive trap like this.

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Get yourself a white sheet with a fluorescent light strip

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or a really strong light bulb, go into your garden,

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into any garden at night, and you will catch moths.

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-And you get completely addicted like we are now.

-Absolutely right.

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You can walk from one end of the South Downs to the other,

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from Beachy Head in East Sussex to Winchester in Hampshire.

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Butterfly Conservation hold a moth night every year

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and local branches hold events all summer, most of them free.

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More details are on our website.

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Now, our grasslands are very much a result of farming practices,

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very different from our lawns and parklands.

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When you go in to the countryside,

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those grasslands can be full of native plants and animals.

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And where the farming is particularly sensitive to nature,

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the results can be astonishing, as Janet Sumner found out

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when she went for a walk on the wild side through Teesdale in the North of England.

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This is the wild North Pennines, the very backbone of England.

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As rugged as it's beautiful.

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And though it might look like a wilderness,

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it's here in the upper reaches of Teesdale,

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that you'll find one of the richest grasslands in the country.

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When spring arrives, this place just bursts into life.

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You don't find many farms covered in marsh marigolds

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but Herdship Farm is being managed for wildlife

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and what's great is the whole experience is laid out on a plate for us all to enjoy.

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There are guided walks around the farm.

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There's even a leaflet to help you on your way -

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it's got a handy little map in it - and everywhere you turn there's something different to see.

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The high rainfall and altitude give this part of Upper Teesdale its own distinctive feeling

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but it's what's underground that makes this place rather special.

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This is sugar limestone.

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About 300 million years ago, molten rock rose to the surface here,

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forcing its way through the limestone, baking it and changing it for ever.

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Now, today, it's pretty crumbly but it's rich in calcium

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and it supports some amazing plant life.

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The soil, together with the way the pastures are managed,

0:21:560:21:59

has provided the ideal home for rare wildflowers

0:21:590:22:03

and it's all happened under the careful eye of Kath Toward and her family.

0:22:030:22:07

There's a plant in particular they're especially proud of.

0:22:070:22:10

-Now, you've brought me here to show me one of the crown jewels of the flower world.

-I have.

0:22:130:22:18

-That's the spring gentian, isn't it?

-Yes, that's the Teesdale gentian.

-That is incredibly rare, isn't it?

0:22:180:22:24

It is. There are two or three places in Teesdale where you find this

0:22:240:22:28

and we cherish it - it's the Teesdale emblem.

0:22:280:22:33

But they're much smaller than I expected. They're tiny!

0:22:330:22:37

I can't actually believe that I'm seeing this.

0:22:370:22:39

It really is an incredibly vivid blue. It almost looks fake or artificial.

0:22:390:22:45

-Yes, it does. Wax-like, really!

-It really stands out.

0:22:450:22:49

What's amazing to me is that such an tiny plant

0:22:490:22:52

can be so huge in the plant world.

0:22:520:22:56

But there's another reason to come here.

0:22:570:23:00

This place is just teeming with wading birds.

0:23:000:23:04

A good place to base yourself is by the side of a stream.

0:23:200:23:24

You've got to keep still and this is all about sitting patiently and waiting.

0:23:240:23:30

There's my first customer.

0:23:350:23:38

It's a common sandpiper. You can see him bobbing around in the rocks.

0:23:380:23:42

See him just bobbing around?

0:23:440:23:46

And behind him is, I think, a grey wagtail.

0:23:460:23:51

They love these fast-flowing streams.

0:23:510:23:54

Oh! And a redshank has just turned up.

0:24:010:24:05

Easy to see where he gets his name from - his lovely, long, red legs.

0:24:050:24:09

And there's something splashing around in the water there.

0:24:130:24:17

I think it's a lapwing. Yep!

0:24:170:24:21

Having a bit of a bath.

0:24:210:24:22

See? I told you it was worth the wait. There's so much to see here.

0:24:250:24:29

Looking after this landscape isn't something that can be done by the farmers on their own.

0:24:330:24:38

The Towards work closely with other groups to make sure the delicate balance is maintained.

0:24:380:24:43

But just what is it that makes this land such a good place to see so many birds?

0:24:460:24:51

It's a question for Nick Mason from the RSPB.

0:24:510:24:54

Nick, this is an unlikely environment for such rich wildlife, isn't it?

0:24:560:25:03

I suppose it could be seen that way.

0:25:030:25:05

When you start to understand why the birds are here

0:25:050:25:07

it becomes clear that, although it looks unlikely,

0:25:070:25:10

it is actually a fantastic place for birds.

0:25:100:25:13

There's some very clear reasons why it's a good farm.

0:25:130:25:16

We're standing in the midst of them right now.

0:25:160:25:19

-I don't know whether you feel it under your feet, but the soil's quite springy.

-Squelchy!

0:25:190:25:24

It show's that the soil's still very damp here,

0:25:240:25:27

even though we're getting into the summer now

0:25:270:25:30

and for the waders that come here - lapwing, the snipe, redshank, curlew,

0:25:300:25:35

when they come up here in spring, what they're looking to do

0:25:350:25:39

is probe down into the soil and extract things like worms and leather jackets from it.

0:25:390:25:43

And later on in the season, birds like the meadow pipit, here...

0:25:430:25:47

-That one, there?

-Up on the ridge side, if you have a look.

0:25:470:25:50

What's it got in its beak?

0:25:500:25:53

It's got its beak stuffed full of little insects like crane fly.

0:25:530:25:57

Jammed, isn't it? So what, is it taking those to its babies?

0:25:570:26:01

Typically, they nest on a bank side, just like this one,

0:26:010:26:04

and usually under a little grassy overhang.

0:26:040:26:07

All the structure of vegetation that you see, the rushes, globe flowers, the marsh marigolds,

0:26:070:26:12

all of that adds up to provide just a fantastic structure for small flying insects.

0:26:120:26:16

Let's have a quick look now and see what we can actually get hold of.

0:26:160:26:20

I can see things flying over here,

0:26:200:26:23

so if I have a few sweeps with my net...

0:26:230:26:26

..not let anything get out and then I can... I've got something here.

0:26:280:26:34

-Shall we try and get it into this little jar?

-It looks a bit big, actually!

0:26:340:26:38

-There's one.

-Ready?

0:26:380:26:40

Yeah.

0:26:400:26:42

That one went up. Where did it go?

0:26:430:26:46

There's just loads, isn't there? Masses and masses.

0:26:460:26:49

Yes, just after five minutes of effort,

0:26:490:26:51

we've captured seven or eight different species.

0:26:510:26:54

Birds like meadow pipits probably capture 300-400 small insects a day

0:26:540:26:59

to feed their family at this time of year.

0:26:590:27:02

Although we've captured a lot very quickly here, birds need to find that volume of insects every hour

0:27:020:27:08

to raise a family successfully. They've got to work really hard.

0:27:080:27:12

So, all in all, it ends up being a fantastic place for birds.

0:27:120:27:15

Definitely one of the best farms, I think, in England for birds like lapwings.

0:27:150:27:20

A wonderful place to see them.

0:27:200:27:21

You can do the farm walk around Herdship in just a couple of hours.

0:27:230:27:27

It's the most brilliant place to spend a day

0:27:270:27:30

and if you come in May and June, at the height of the season,

0:27:300:27:34

this place is just guaranteed to blow your socks off.

0:27:340:27:38

Who says it always rains up north?

0:27:480:27:51

The nearest town to Herdship Farm is Middleton-in-Teesdale.

0:27:510:27:54

There's more on our website.

0:28:010:28:04

Now, be honest, when this programme started and you saw that it was about grasslands,

0:28:040:28:09

I bet more than a few of you thought, how boring!

0:28:090:28:12

But as you've seen, these habitats are among the most exciting

0:28:120:28:16

and the most colourful that you can explore anywhere in the UK.

0:28:160:28:21

So when it comes to Sunday, don't worry about cutting your lawn.

0:28:210:28:24

Get out there and see where the real action is.

0:28:240:28:27

See you next time.

0:28:270:28:29

When Mike Dilger will be witnessing one of the great bird spectacles.

0:28:290:28:34

All I can hear is the sound of thousands of knots

0:28:340:28:38

flying over my head.

0:28:380:28:41

This is just the most amazing view.

0:28:410:28:45

And Janet Sumner visits the beautiful Humber Estuary.

0:28:450:28:49

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