Chris Packham presents the series that examines Britain from an animal's point of view. Chris burrows into the grassland to observe the eating habits of starlings.
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Britain. The history and the culture.
Born of a landscape that we know and love.
But...hang on a minute.
That's just how WE see Britain.
We humans are in a minority.
We share our land and our shores here with hundreds of thousands
of other species of animal,
many of which have been here a lot longer than we have.
So what I want to know is what they think of Britain.
What matters to them?
And that's my mission - to see the UK through our animals' eyes.
Where are their favourite places in these crowded islands?
How do their senses affect their view of our country?
And what do they make of us?
Off you go!
This time I'm going to encounter a hand-picked group of creatures,
specially adapted to live in our grasslands.
Look at that!
I want to understand each one's unique perspective on Britain,
the amazing things they do and the unlikely places they survive.
Together, they'll reveal our country as we've never seen it before.
Welcome to The Animal's Guide to Britain.
Every summer Sunday morning, thousands of British humans get up,
go out and re-shape our most abundant habitat.
They manage Britain's grasslands.
But we've got to remember that our grasslands are a man-made habitat.
Up until only a few thousand years ago, the dominant vegetation across Britain would have been woodland.
It was only with the advent of farming, cereals and grazing,
that grasslands became far more widespread
and a whole set of species enjoyed a bonanza.
And today, when British humans talk about the countryside,
it's usually this that they mean - our grasslands.
But big changes in farming practice
mean that the survival of grassland species
is constantly in the balance and dependent on the choices
that humans make.
So how have grassland animals coped with these changes?
And are they still happy out there on the plains of Britain?
Now here's an animal that's perfectly adapted
to thrive on our grasslands.
A creature that was once befriended by Mozart,
but sings in pure Cockney.
It's a born survivor. It demonstrates some amazing behaviour
and it looks absolutely stunning.
It's one of my favourite birds.
The creatures that I'm talking about, of course, are starlings.
And this wonderful tame flock is going to
allow us a remarkable insight into the world according to starlings.
And starlings, well, they're true grassland specialists.
And they've got some superb adaptations
for this type of lifestyle.
Firstly, look at their legs.
Proportional to their body size, they're long, strong and stocky.
Perfect for walking all day long.
The second adaptation comes down to their bill, and just look at it -
it's long, straight and pointed.
Perfect for pressing down into the soil after their insect larvae prey.
But lots of birds have bills like that, that's no big deal.
But what happens underground certainly is. Take a look at this.
This is what we call open-bill probing.
Just look at that!
I've been called a worm on a few occasions, but I never thought that I would
live to see the world as one as I was being predated by a starling.
This is amazing!
I can see into the starling's throat!
Look at that!
But when you think about it,
most animals' jaws are designed to close with some force.
But the starlings are the complete opposite.
Their force comes in opening their bills.
And look - you can see what's happening.
They press them down into the soil and then using very strong muscles
they open the bill so that they can,
using their tongue and their beak,
grab hold of their prey and pull it out.
It's absolutely fantastic.
In all of my years of watching wildlife and the great good fortune
I've had to make wildlife programmes,
I've never had a view like this. This has rocketed into the charts.
It's right up there.
A couple of the birds are trying to cheat
and have come underneath the table
because they are a new species of starling called
the subterranean starling.
And at the moment,
they're scoring great success because...
Oh, get them off!
The last of the adaptations involves their eyes,
which are truly remarkable.
Most birds can't swivel their eyes in their sockets like we can.
But starlings certainly can.
They can face them forward, a bit like owls, and us,
so they have very good binocular vision.
And this means that they can judge distances extremely accurately.
But unbelievably, it's better than that.
When they've got their bills open in the soil they can turn their eyes
so they can actually look at what's directly beneath their mouths.
What they're hunting for, what they're foraging for.
And you've got to admit, that is pretty impressive.
All together, these three adaptations make these birds
supreme grassland animals.
But when you think about it,
Britain hasn't always had as much grassland as it has today.
Around 5,000 years ago,
when humans began to clear Britain's woodland for agriculture
the starling's adaptations to grassland meant they boomed.
As civilisations came and went, more of Britain's forest was cleared,
and for starlings, life just got better.
They moved into cities
and London ended up with more than its fair share.
And by 1949, they were in such large groups that when they landed on the hands of Big Ben...
they actually stopped the clock!
Londoners were facing a second Blitz.
So they wracked their brains for an effective defence, eventually devising...
the dustbin lid and stick.
But it was going to take more than that to shift the birds.
So that's how there came to be so many starlings.
They form such large groups
because they need to flock for their survival, and here's why.
This bird is foraging perfectly naturally in the grass here,
but look at it.
A lot of the time it's got its head down in amongst the foliage,
which is fine for finding food,
but no good for keeping your eyes open for predators.
The whole time it's got its head down there I could be
a potential sparrowhawk swooping in here.
So how do starlings overcome this problem?
Well, it's quite simple really.
All they need is a few more starlings.
All they need is a flock.
Or a friend like me.
The extra eyes in a flock
mean there's more chance that predators will be spotted.
Even in the air, predators such as peregrine falcons and sparrowhawks
can attack, but starling flocks provide another form of defence.
Acting as one, the birds can dart away from predators in a flash
and their mesmerising movement may help confuse any potential attackers.
So how do these vast swirling flocks manage to react
in a fraction of a second,
in a way that flocks of other birds just can't?
To find out more, I need to fly with some starlings.
The question is, how am I going to do that?
In a little French car.
A rickety old French car.
Hello, Lloyd. All right, Chris?
Yeah. How are you? I'm fine, thanks. Good.
Do you think this'll work?
I think this is going to be good. They seem keen, don't they?
They're looking pretty keen, especially this one.
Oh! Hello! You've got to fly now!
Off you go!
Well, it's a pretty small flock but it's as close as I can get
to flying with starlings.
So, what are the basic principles of flocking?
Well, they do it by following three simple rules.
One - stick close to your neighbour.
And that's what's happening here.
Lloyd is part of the flock, so wherever he goes, they follow.
Even when he's driving a car.
Two - don't get so close that you collide.
And three - fly in the same direction as your neighbour.
And you can see them adjusting their position to do this.
So those are the fundamental rules,
but it's far more complicated when they're in their massive flocks.
Scientists have discovered they do much more than look
at the one bird in front of them.
They're looking seven birds - all around them - deeper into the flock,
constantly monitoring what these birds are doing so that
they can predict when their neighbour is going to turn
and already begin their own movement when it does so.
And it's this that allows the flocks to move so quickly, so fast.
Impressive as these flocks are, there aren't nearly
as many starlings as there were in the days
when their flocks could stop Big Ben.
Since the '60s, starling numbers have fallen in Britain
and across northern Europe,
mainly thanks to modern pesticides that kill their insect prey.
But in Britain, starling flocks can still become enormous,
though only during the winter.
So why is this?
Well, a lot of the starlings that you see in winter
are not British at all.
In eastern Europe and Russia the ground becomes frozen,
so the birds can't get their beaks into it to feed.
Britain's mild winters and muddy fields become highly desirable
to millions of hungry foreign starlings,
which arrive every autumn to feed in their favourite spots across Britain.
Britain is still a pretty good place for these birds to be.
But if I was to reach up and ask any one of these starlings
here what we could do for them,
then they would probably say a few less pesticides
out there on the fields.
And if that could happen,
then perhaps these swirling spectacles would be here to stay.
Of all the British grassland animals, there is one group that
are probably more important than all of the others.
They're very widespread and quite a few of them have made the move
from grassland into our gardens, so I'm sure you're familiar with them.
The animals we're talking about are bumblebees.
Look at that. What a fantastic thing.
There are actually 23 species of bumblebee in Britain,
which all have their favourite areas.
And let's be clear from the start, we're talking about bumblebees, not honeybees.
All of the honeybees in the UK are domesticated animals.
Honeybees are smaller and less hairy,
bred to provide humans with honey.
And they're farmed.
They're a bit like insect sheep.
These things, though, ARE wild and their view of the British
countryside is very different than honeybees or even humans.
Bumblebees never nest in hives.
Their nests, as a consequence, are much harder to find,
although I have spotted one earlier over on this bank here.
And if you get down you can see the entrance hole just here.
Some of the species nesting in grassland make their nests at the base of dry, grass tussocks.
But others choose the holes made by rodents - things like wood mice and bank voles.
And that's the case here with these white-tailed bumblebees.
There are never normally that many in the nest.
I'd say in this nest possibly about 40 or 50 bees.
Even the largest nests only have about 400.
Nothing like the 80,000 you can find in a honeybee hive.
In spring, the queen bumblebee lays eggs that produce sterile workers.
Towards the end of summer, she lays male and queen eggs.
The fertilised queens leave and hibernate over winter,
but unlike honeybee colonies, the rest of the bumblebees will die.
When the bees are coming close to me, I'm holding my breath.
They don't like the smell of mammalian breath because
ground-nesting species like this are frequently predated by badgers
that will dig them out to eat all of the grubs.
But they're much more tolerant than some other species near the nest
and if you stay still or stay out of their flight line and don't breathe on them,
then you're very unlikely to be stung.
Famous last words.
There actually have been lots of famous words about bumblebees,
not all of them true.
It's often claimed that physics
proves that bumblebees shouldn't be able to fly.
This is thanks to calculations by scientists at a 1930s dinner party,
who concluded the bees' wings were too small to create enough lift.
Luckily, the bumblebees know better.
The calculations were based on the principles that allow planes to fly,
but the four moving wings of a bumblebee are far more sophisticated.
They also get a mention by Charles Darwin,
who was around when they were known as humblebees.
Not because they are lowly beings, but because as they fly, they hum.
The bees became a bit of a family project, as Darwin and his children
followed them around the garden,
dusting them with powder to see which flowers they'd visited.
This led Darwin to recognise the value of bumblebees as pollinators,
claiming that if they disappeared,
then so would some of the plants they pollinate.
Building on this, 100 years later,
Albert Einstein is reported to have stated,
"No more bees, no more pollination, no more man."
Despite having fewer bees per colony,
a bumblebee nest is able to pollinate as many, if not MORE
flowers than a honeybee hive.
In fact, each bumblebee is up to 20 times better at pollinating than a honeybee.
This is because their bigger bodies can carry double the amount of pollen,
that they're quicker at each flower and they work twice as many hours.
Our hardworking bumblebees will even fly in colder and wetter weather than honeybees.
A real asset, given Britain's soggy climate.
But our bumblebees are drastically declining
and because they're such important pollinators the British government is spending millions of pounds
to understand their needs.
So how do you get into the mind of an animal so different to us humans?
Scientists have created a whole artificial world to study them,
monitoring each bee by number.
Weighing them in and out of the nest...
to discover the precise quantities of nectar and pollen that they collect.
The work is far from finished,
but it has given key insights into how efficiently they forage.
For example, using smell.
Unlike the honeybee, which dances to tell other bees
where the good flowers are,
bumblebees spread the smell of the best flowers around the nest.
This way, the bees learn to target only the flowers with the most nectar and pollen.
And another scientist has found something even more surprising...
..by spending hundreds of hours just watching.
I see you've got little brother here, peering down on the nest hole.
Yeah. I'm watching all the bees that go in and out,
and also if any other animals use the hole as well.
Why are you concentrating on the nest when most other researchers
at the moment are interested in bees' foraging behaviour?
Well the nest is where everything really important goes on.
This is where the queen raises her whole colony
and where all of the new queens and males will be produced.
OK. So here's the camera, where's the recorder? What have you got?
Well, this wire runs underground back here where,
concealed out of harm's way is our recording device.
That's to stop people messing about with it, I presume? Yep, absolutely.
So we can have a look at some of the footage now if you want.
OK, yes. Let's have a look.
Is it just this species you've been working with or others as well?
I've been looking at all of our common bees this year.
Next year I hope to look at some rare bees. OK.
Gosh, look at that! And then you've got the bird coming in.
What is it?
This is a great tit. Oh, yeah, yeah.
And if you keep watching, you can see it's actually grabbing the bees.
I never thought you'd get great tits coming in.
We never suspected birds at all.
No studies have ever shown that birds will predate nests in this way.
Any other birds? Or is it just great tits that are proving a bumblebee nuisance?
No. I've got some footage of crows on here that you can have a look at.
It's digging around the hole, isn't it?
Seems to. I've captured several crows attacking different nests.
But given that bumblebee populations are shrinking and becoming increasingly fragmented,
it could be that nest predation is a significant factor affecting their future survival, couldn't it?
And that's why we really need to find out what's going on.
Having seen birds, mice and squirrels raiding bumblebee nests,
it's now clear what a dangerous place Britain can be if you're a bumblebee.
Because bumblebees are on the menu for so many animals,
they really need long grass to hide their nests in.
That and plenty of flowers rich in pollen and nectar.
And these two factors make hay meadows, like these,
their perfect habitat.
But as farming has changed, sadly, we've lost most of our hay meadows,
and, along with them, the bees that lived there.
So what's left at the field edges has become increasingly precious.
The farmer here has deliberately left this margin.
And it's not just grass - look at it -
it's full of wild flowers. It's great!
So if you're a bumblebee, farms that leave uncut edges
are the best to live in.
But in 21st-century Britain there's still one type of grassland
where bumblebees can find an abundance of flowers.
A habitat that's becoming crucial in their battle for survival.
The average British garden is actually a fantastic place for bumblebees.
Look at this one here, enjoying itself on this Buddleja.
But in some ways, that's a happy accident because people
plant their gardens because they like the pretty flowers.
But these insects are enjoying the essential nectar, and the bee,
the pollen that it needs.
But look - it's just about over for the Buddleja. No problem though
because the conscientious gardener will be planting species
which flower throughout the summer period.
Look, here's another one which is just about reaching
its prime down here,
which will also be providing for these insects.
And this one over here, which is just coming out is a species
which is very much favoured by bees.
And did you know that the average suburban garden can
actually produce as much nectar as one square kilometre of rainforest?
So these places can be an incredibly rich resource.
They're being planted by humans for their beauty,
but for once, the beauty is in the eye of the bee-holder.
I'll get my coat.
Bumblebees are such important pollinators
of crops and wild flowers
that it really is in our best interest to look at things from their perspective.
If we humans can leave some rough grass for nests
and plant pollen and nectar-rich flowers in our gardens,
then we'll be making Britain a better place for them to live in.
Supernatural powers were once widely thought by British humans
to reside in the bodies of their fellow animals.
And for one group of creatures in particular this has been perpetuated
by Hollywood and particularly the British Hammer Horror films.
These animals are widespread across the UK and they frequently share our spaces.
So it's surprising that few people have ever seen them properly.
Well, it's surprising, but they are terribly small.
Most of them weigh less than a two-pence piece.
And you know, their view of Britain couldn't be more different
than the human one, notably because they come out at night.
And I want to meet some fascinating grassland-loving bats - the horseshoe bats.
There are two species - the greater horseshoe and its smaller cousin,
the lesser horseshoe.
They're distinguished by the horseshoe-shaped
flap of skin around their nostrils,
which they use to direct the high-pitched sounds
they make with their noses.
They can move this flap of skin to direct the sound,
a bit like a megaphone.
With a bat detector, we can hear a lower-pitched version of these amazing sounds.
They pick up the echoes by waggling their ears backwards and forwards
up to 60 times a second.
Then, their brains process these signals to create a 3D picture of their surroundings.
So what does a horseshoe bat want from Britain?
Well, firstly, it needs somewhere to hang out.
And typically we tend to think of those haunts as dark Transylvanian castles with damp dungeons,
but more often than not it couldn't be further from the truth.
They like the same creature comforts that we do -
shelter and somewhere nice and warm.
And for that reason, they very often set up their homes in our houses.
And one group has done that down here.
And with the help of night vision, I won't be disturbing them.
(Oh, my goodness me!
(My goodness me, look at that!
(That's fantastic. This is a roost of lesser horseshoe bats.)
They really are quite special.
So what are they looking for? What does the bat want from this site?
Well, firstly it wants it to be nice and warm.
Secondly, it wants to be safe from predators.
Things like rats, mice, even great tits,
will come into a bat roost and peck at the bats whilst they're resting.
And lastly, it needs to be free from human disturbance.
In fact, it's illegal to disturb, wilfully or even by accident,
bats on your property, and specially their roosts.
And at the end of the day,
if you're a British bat, that's got be one of the best things
about living in this country.
I've always been terribly fond of bats and to sit beneath a roost
of lesser horseshoes like this
is such a treat,
even when they're poohing on your face.
It's fabulous, but I don't want to disturb them too much,
so I'm going to leave.
Well, that's the accommodation sorted.
What these bats need now is a square meal.
And they've started to think about leaving the roost to go to hunt.
These initial bats here are just coming out to see how dark it is
and because it's not quite dark enough,
they're nipping back in again to give it a few more minutes.
Wow! That one flew right past my face.
It was amazing!
I looked into its little funny face. It's incredible!
Because they emerge at night,
horseshoe bats and bats in general have gained a sinister reputation,
something that goes back way before Hammer Horror.
In medieval times, just seeing a bat was bad luck, and if a bat should
circle around your head three times, then death would follow.
Their reputation was further blackened by witchcraft.
In Shakespeare's Macbeth,
the three witches make a brew using batty ingredients.
With their hairless wings, bats have been blamed for baldness.
So for the removal of unwanted hair,
their wings were boiled to make a tonic,
which could be simply applied.
All bats were given the same bad press until science took over,
and, bit by bit, discovered that Britain actually has
17 different species.
And in recent years, we've learned a lot more about horseshoe bats.
For instance, where they live in Britain.
They seem to favour Wales and the southwest of England.
One reason is to do with how they get around at night.
Now they're heading out to hunt for insects,
and I'm using a bat detector to find them.
Bats need somewhere to roost and they need a plentiful food supply.
But often these aren't exactly very close together and they
need to get between the two.
And they're doing it in darkness,
so for us that would be a real challenge.
Horseshoe bats can use echolocation to navigate, but that only works
if the sounds they emit have an object to bounce off of.
What they need are features.
What they need are hedgerows like this because these
are their commuter routes, these are their roads, their motorways.
So these field margins are incredibly important to them.
Amongst our bats, the horseshoes are particularly dependent on hedgerows,
the highest density of which occurs in the southwest and Wales.
But there are plenty of other places with hedges, yet no horseshoes.
So hedgerows can't be the only thing these bats are looking for.
Clearly, in Wales and the southwest,
humans are doing something else that horseshoes love.
Keeping cows, because these bats have got voracious appetites.
Well, they've got big appetites, but they're not that big.
What the bats are interested in is the dung.
Of course, it's not the dung they're interested in,
but the insects which live on and in it and what we're looking at here
is a fantastic group of yellow dung flies,
one of the favourite foods of the lesser horseshoe bat.
But forgive me because, if I dive into this dung...
..and have a good poke around, yeah, here we are.
Look at this.
This is a dung beetle, one of a number of species that
land on the dung and lay their eggs so their larvae can feed upon it.
But in turn, these things are one of the favourite foods
of the greater horseshoe bat.
However, British farms are changing.
They were once mixed with livestock and crops.
But in the last 50 years, farms have specialised.
Cattle and sheep have gone from large parts of Britain
to be replaced by crops.
So the yellow dung fly is now confined to the dung-rich
sheep farms of Wales
and the dairy farms of the southwest.
And where the insects go, the horseshoe bats have to follow.
I know what you're thinking.
Every time we go for a drive through the countryside we see hundreds,
if not thousands of cows, which means there must be
hundreds of thousands of cowpats
with no doubt millions of dung flies on them and beetles in them.
But sadly that isn't the case
because the majority of farmers are anti-worming their cows
and these drugs get into their digestive system, they come out
in the pats and they kill all of the larvae of the beetles and the flies.
And that, of course, is bad news for bats.
But the good news for horseshoe bats is that now some farmers are
redressing the balance with different worming agents,
or by going organic.
In Wales, where there's lots of sheep and hedgerows,
the lesser horseshoes are doing so well, their numbers are on the up.
And if other farms can add more hedgerows
and choose their worming chemicals carefully,
then more of Britain could become an ideal home for horseshoe bats.
Now, the plains of Africa have the cheetah,
the world's fastest mammal and arguably therefore one of the most
amazing creatures on the planet.
But here in Britain we've got our own plains,
we've got our grasslands, so what can we offer in return?
Well, there is a creature.
To some, it's a nuisance and a pest.
Others love to spend a day out shooting it
and then putting it in the pot, and they claim it's very tasty.
Others, thankfully, love it for being cute and cuddly and yet more
because it's got lots of amazing folklore associated with it.
I have to tell you though, it's terribly shy
and extraordinarily speedy, so most often
all you're going to get is a fleeting glimpse
of a disappearing tail.
The animal we're talking about is the enigmatic brown hare.
And I haven't done what you might expect me to do,
which is to rush off to the flatlands of East Anglia.
I've actually come here to a suburban cemetery
on the Wirral to look for hares. And I know what you're thinking,
"You've lost your mind, you've not read the field guide,
"this is not their type of place."
But I've got tell you this, unbelievably, is a hare refuge.
This is the closest that I've ever been to a brown hare
and been able to move about and speak.
I can actually see this one nibbling the grass.
It knows perfectly well that I'm here,
and it's a fantastic opportunity to get close to this animal and have a really good look at it.
I don't need binoculars at all. I can gaze straight into its eye.
And I'm sure you can judge immediately that this is a completely different animal
to the rabbit. It's much larger, it's got much longer ears,
proportional to the body size,
and although it's difficult to discern at the moment with this animal sitting,
they equally have much longer hind legs in proportion to that body size than rabbits as well.
But I suppose the question has to be, why is it that rabbits are doing
so well here in Britain, but that hares are finding it really tough?
Why is it that they've had to take refuge in a garden of remembrance?
Well, to answer this question we're going to have to learn a lot more
about the hare's ecology and behaviour.
Then I can tell you why this is a happy hare in a cemetery.
Let's start at the beginning.
Hares only made it to the UK when they were introduced
by the Romans for food,
along with their cousins the rabbits.
They soon became part of the British countryside and its folklore.
In the Middle Ages, it was believed they were witches
that had shape-shifted and the only sure way of killing them was with a silver cross.
Their similarities to rabbits have made confusion common.
Br'er Rabbit, the Easter bunny and even Bugs Bunny
were originally not bunnies, but hares,
which history has slowly morphed into rabbits.
And what's most surprising about this story is,
compared to their rabbity cousins, how poorly the hares have fared.
So why are there fewer hares than rabbits?
Well, let's get down to the hare's point of view,
starting in a much more typical territory of the hare - the rolling hills of Hertfordshire.
Well, there is one there actually.
I'm not sure you're going to see it even if you move round, but...
I shouldn't have taken my binoculars off either.
I'll probably have lost it.
Oh, no, I have got it actually,
I've got it and it's hunkered right down into its form.
A form being a shallow depression in this furrow.
It's convinced that we can't see it, that's why I've been able to get this close.
And it's showing typical behaviour. Its back is flattened, its ears are
right down tight across its back, all I can see is one of its eyes.
And its eyes are perfectly placed.
They're on either side at the top of the head,
which means it's got full 360-degree vision.
But its strategy is quite simple here.
It's so convinced that we can't see it, that it's gone down and it's frozen.
Oh, and there he goes.
Unfortunately, we sort of pushed our luck there
and the hare got up and sped across the field.
Let's just see if we can find the form where it was resting down in here.
There's not much to it, it's not a spectacular sight.
But here we are. Yeah, look, you can see.
This is a perfect form where it's dug out the soil and when it flattens its back here
and it's got its head down here, you can appreciate that it's very well hidden.
They're so convinced that things can't see them that they freeze,
until you get right on top of them, then they flee, like that animal just did.
So while rabbits have burrows to bolt into, hares only have a form to crouch in.
And for the young, the leverets, it's worse.
They don't ever run away, they just freeze...
..and that's no protection from the sharp blade of a combine harvester.
So, are livestock farms better?
Sheep and cows constantly disturb hares and they eat their crucial cover.
And there's another problem for some hares.
In fact, things got so bad they had to call for backup.
You can see, it's ideal for hare-coursing activities.
Wide-open fields, plenty of exits and entrances through the hedgerows.
They can see for miles, they can see if anyone's coming.
So, it's just ideal.
What exactly is hare coursing?
How do you define it legally, as it were?
Mainly it's a minimum of two dogs and a group of blokes
and they have the dogs on the lead and literally they walk across
the field, and they see a hare and they set the dogs off onto the hare
then they bet on the dogs and it's basically the first dog to turn the hare either left or right.
So they're actually betting money on which direction the hare's going to be turning.
We're talking huge sums of money as well.
Tens of thousands of pounds in certain... Tens of thousands on which way a hare turns?! Yeah, literally.
And the dogs presumably catch the hares and kill them? Unfortunately, yes.
Not every time, but quite often.
We're talking about Lurcher type dogs and they're a fast breed,
so unfortunately, yeah, the poor old hare doesn't get away every time.
And it's illegal? Definitely, yes.
And nationally, how much of a problem is it, or is it just a few isolated cases?
No, it's a huge problem. Um, with last year, 2009 to 2010,
we're looking in the realms of at least 1,200 reported incidents of hare coursing.
It strikes me, if I were a farmer and a gamekeeper, having these people traipsing around
on the land chasing hares is going to be, you know, a bit of a pain, to be quite honest with you.
I know of estates, not a million miles away from here, where they've actually taken the stance
of shooting hares to cull the hares, because as far as they're concerned,
no hares, no hare coursing, no hare coursing and they don't have all the associated problems.
Life on many farms is really tough for hares.
But there are some humans who have used our understanding of what the hare needs to make changes.
Farmers on a wildlife-friendly scheme have created a patchwork of fields
so there's always something to eat,
long grassy strips where hares can hide
and the farmers cut crops from the middle of the fields outwards to allow the hares to escape.
The result? Hare numbers have shot up by 35% in a single year.
And there are other little pockets where hares can thrive,
and our cemetery in the Wirral is one of these.
I hope by now you've got a far better idea why these hares have
taken to living in this cemetery, finding refuge here.
Firstly, they're not disturbed by any cattle.
In fact, they're not disturbed by very much at all,
because this is a place which is renowned for its peace and for its quiet.
Also, they're protected here from human disturbance.
There's no-one shooting at them, there's no-one coursing for them.
The whole area's guarded by community wardens.
But it's not just about avoiding disturbance.
If you move somewhere, you've also got to eat to be able to live there,
and in fact we are indirectly feeding these hares.
And as a clue to what's on the menu, take a look over there.
What is it that people bring fresh to cemeteries with great regularity?
And they are a tasty morsel for the hares.
So from the hare's point of view, this is a place where they can find
shelter, safety and a fantastic salad of fresh carnations.
Now then, I don't believe in ghosts, but I have had the pleasure of watching a creature which you
could say has an almost spectral quality,
and when you see one of these things gliding over a misty meadow,
it lends an almost dreamlike quality to the experience.
And although they're incredibly popular with humans, and pretty much always have been,
if you're a smaller mammal, then they're the stuff of absolute nightmares.
Their screeching sounds, heart-shaped faces and snowy white underparts are unmistakeable.
They were recently voted Britain's favourite farmland bird.
But they haven't always been top of the pops.
Since Roman times, barn owls were surrounded by superstition.
Their old names include demon owl, death owl, and hobgoblin.
They were often nailed to barn doors to ward off other owls
and even to protect against thunder and lightning.
During the Middle Ages, barn owls thrived,
partly due to poor sanitation and a high rat population.
This taste for rodents transformed barn owls into a farmer's friend.
And in the 20th century, owl windows were built into some stone barns to encourage the birds to nest.
It paid off, because barn owls eat lots of small mammals, their favourites being field voles.
To most human eyes, a grassy field is a grassy field,
but I've got to tell you there are succinct differences.
And this one, we could call voleville,
because this grassy field is what we call rough tussocky with a deep litter layer.
Well, here are the rough tussocks, and the deep litter layer I can show you down here.
If I just part the grass like this,
you will see that at the bottom of it, there's all of this dead grass.
And this forms because at the end of every year the grass like this
grows up, and then it falls over in the winter,
and then new grass grows through it next year.
Let's see if we can find any evidence that there are voles living in here.
I bet you we don't have to go too far.
Oh, yeah, look at this, look.
Here's an area where an animal has been active in that litter layer.
It's come out, it's cleared a patch here.
You can see all of the seeds that it's been feeding on.
And here - it's been dragging a piece of grass down its hole -
is...my finger going down in there, a field-vole hole.
Now, the difference between this type of grassland and heavily managed grassland
is that there, in farmland, they cut the grass, harvest it,
take it away, and then they rake or chain-harrow the field, so you don't get this essential litter layer.
And as a consequence, you only get about 15 voles per hectare,
whereas in grassland like this you can get up to 250.
And when they reach plague proportions, it goes into the thousands.
Now, given that the average pair of barn owls
with a healthy brood of youngsters needs 10,000 voles a year, this is the habitat they require.
And because a barn owl's prey is hidden down in all that long grass,
it needs sharpened senses to find it.
Its sense of hearing is its most important hunting sense, not its eyesight.
And I'm going to demonstrate that... BLEEP, BLEEP
..using a bleeper.
Now, I'm going to hide this out here...
..right down underneath the vegetation,
And there's no way that that could be seen by anything flying over here.
And previous to this, I've already hidden two other bleepers in the clearing just up here.
Next up, I'm going to take the control box.
HIGH-PITCHED BLEEPING That one's bleeping.
I can just hear that one.
BLEEPING And I think I can hear that one.
And I'm going to stand stock still here
against the tree,
and in five minutes' time, a barn owl is going to fly round that corner and come up here.
I'm really confident of that.
Five minutes? Bang on cue, what did I say?
The reason I was confident is that this isn't a wild bird, this is a captive bird that's flying free
and has been trained to come to these bleepers, rewarded with a small piece of meat.
But nevertheless, she can't see them.
BLEEPING She's got to pick them out just
by listening to them. And that's what she's doing. Her name is Kenza.
And she can hear this above the sound of the traffic, the wind in the trees.
I mean, I can only just hear these sounds,
and, of course, these sounds are artificial.
What she's especially attuned to are the high-frequency calls made by
small mammals that we can't hear but these owls can.
Her acute hearing is down to the shape of her face.
Under the feathers, a barn owl's faces works like a satellite dish,
capturing and channelling sound down to its incredibly sensitive ears.
BEEPING I'm going to try and bring her from that one back to that one,
and then I'm going to try and get her to go back to that one.
Oh, this is unbelievable.
It's like a radio-controlled owl, except that I'm using sound,
and she's able to locate that precisely, literally on the button.
But it's no use having great hearing if you make lots of noise yourself.
Barn owls have super-soft feathers so they don't make a sound in flight.
That means their own wing beats don't drown out the sound
of their prey and the voles can't hear them coming.
Hunting in this way requires them to fly low over the ground, listening for the voles.
But in modern Britain, this awesome hunting technique is getting them into trouble.
Barn owls are so vulnerable to vehicles that any birds
living within three kilometres of a major road are likely to be killed.
When you think about it, kestrels can successfully hunt for voles
along road verges, but that's because they're hovering up here.
The barn owls are quartering lower down,
in the vehicle zone, in the death zone.
And in fact recent studies have shown that major roads
have removed barn owls from 40% of their available habitat in Britain.
So are humans doing anything to make things better from a barn owl's point of view?
Well, some councils are planning to plant trees and hedges along roadsides
to force the owls to fly higher, above the danger zone.
But there's another requirement of barn owls where humans are finding it much easier to help -
places to nest.
Old farm buildings, well, they're perfect.
Lots of entrance holes, lots of nooks and crannies inside.
On the other hand, modern farm architecture, like this,
well, there's not much provision for barn owls there.
But humans have come to the rescue, come and look at this.
Now, initially, this would have been useless for barn owls, but by putting up a box there,
it's completely transformed it, it's absolutely perfect.
And this has been a great conservation initiative,
because I can tell you that 50% of British barn owls now nest in artificial boxes like this one.
It's hats off to the humans for a change.
And most importantly of all, some humans are working to create
vole habitat and therefore more food for these birds.
We've known the farmer here for many years.
He's created so much habitat for barn owls, we've put up nest boxes.
But look, this is fantastic. He's created rough grass field margins,
both sides of a really nice thick hedge.
I can see them stretching around all of the hedges here.
Yeah, kilometres just on the one farm. Several kilometres of these grassy margins.
And they're not just grass, they're rough, that's the key.
They've got to be rough, have that litter layer
so they provide the cover that the voles and shrews and mice need.
It's good to see not just conservationists, you know, understanding the world
from a barn owl's point of view, but people who are managing the landscape, too.
Yeah, and if consumers choose food from farms like this,
there will be even more farms like this, so everybody needs to understand.
You know, taking a look at Britain's grasslands
through the eyes of other animal species has been truly revealing.
And one thing's for sure, we humans would only have
to change a few things to make life dramatically different for many grassland species -
a few less pesticides, a few more rough field margins,
and a few changes in the way that we harvest our crops.
Because, you see, one thing is absolutely certain, we humans are the governors of grasslands.
We make them wherever we go, and because we have the power to shape and control them,
then we have the power, too, to look after all of those grassland animals.
Next time on the Animal's Guide To Britain,
it's the turn of woodland animals.
Why our biggest insect prefers the capital...
..and the phenomenal skills that make this bird, the goshawk,
our top woodland predator.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Chris Packham presents the series that examines Britain from an animal's point of view. Each week he encounters an elite group of five animals each of which senses the world in a very different way. By understanding their needs, problems and histories on these islands, Chris reveals what they make of modern Britain - and its humans.
This time Chris looks at grassland animals. Chris burrows into the grassland himself so that he can observe the eating habits of starlings, clever and well-adapted grassland predators. British starlings have had their ups and downs: they were once so common that they famously stopped Big Ben due to numbers perching on the clock hands, but nowadays their food supply is dwindling, thanks to modern pesticides.
There are new revelations about how honeybees - insects vital for our future - manage to collect nectar and pollen. And how horseshoe bats, brown hares and barn owls are all learning to adapt to modern Britain in different ways.