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MUSIC: Blinded By The Light by Manfred Mann
We're in the Wye Valley on the Welsh borders,
looking back upon the long, hot summer of 1976.
Come on, Dad.
It was a summer like no other -
day after endless day of blue skies, baking heat,
and barely a drop of rain.
It seemed like the sun would shine forever.
It's 40 years since the summer of '76,
a summer that's passed into legend,
and for those who lived through it,
one never to be forgotten,
but what were the causes of it?
What were the lasting effects and will it ever happen again?
Almost all of the UK felt its impact.
Here in the Wye Valley,
the landscape still bears the scars, 40 years on.
Whilst I'm here,
I'll be looking back at the best of previous Countryfile programmes,
to see just how much our notoriously changeable British weather
impacts on our countryside.
Like the time Matt was in Teesdale, looking back on 1947,
and one of the hardest winters of the 20th century.
Rain, wind, sleet and snow.
And when Ellie took a battering in the north-west of Scotland.
Oh, my goodness. That's really hurting. Ow!
And the time Anita was in Devon,
after one of the worst storms in decades.
The chap said, "This is a life or death situation.
"You've got two minutes and you've got to get out."
MUSIC: Golden Years by David Bowie
# Golden years
# Gold... #
It was the best of summers.
It was the worst of summers.
# ..Gold... #
40 years ago, you didn't have to go abroad for Mediterranean heat,
it came to you.
The country basked in 32-degree temperatures for weeks on end.
# ..Taking you nowhere Angel... #
But not everyone welcomed it -
farmers had it rough, their crops wilted in the searing heat.
# ..Nights are warm and the days are young... #
It was the drought of the century,
and the summer of '76 burnt itself into our collective memory
like none before or since.
And telling us just how dry it was, a familiar face.
Well, now, more about the water shortage that threatens
a large part of the country this summer
unless there's an awful lot of rain in the next few weeks.
# Just let your love flow
# Like a mountain stream... #
We were sharing bathwater,
and then pouring it onto our gardens.
But for me, actually, it was the most brilliant, endless,
fantastic summer of my childhood.
# The boys are back in town The boys are back in town
# I said the boys are back in town... #
This is me, aged ten, catching some rays and some waves
on holiday in Devon.
Yep, for me, the summer of '76 was as good as it gets,
but how did it happen?
To show you, I'm donning the waders and heading into the River Wye.
Think of the river as the jet stream -
that fast-moving channel of air, high in the atmosphere
that usually brings bad weather.
In '76, it got stuck and Britain baked.
The atmosphere actually behaves just as a fluid, like this river here.
Now, what happened in '76 is that we had a block in the fluid,
just like this boulder in this stream here,
and our normal weather systems, which are brought to us
by the jet stream, were deflected either to the north or to the south.
And it's these weather systems
which bring the wind and the rain, normally,
but that meant that the UK stayed high and dry for,
not just a month or two, which quite often happens,
but through '75 and through '76,
so the drought just built up and built up and built up.
We fed the 1976 data into the modern computers at the Met Office.
The results look like this - a big block of high pressure,
seen in red, stuck over the UK all summer long.
But the jet stream finally won out,
bringing torrential rain in a very wet autumn payback.
And isn't that just typical of our British weather?
Fickle, unpredictable, but rain or shine,
it never fails to leave an impression.
Now, the winter of 1947 is memorable for weather at the other extreme,
and when Matt visited Teesdale,
he found people keen to keep those memories alive.
If there's a part of the country that knows how to cope with
a proper wild winter, it's Upper Teesdale.
The vast expanse of fell is a stage set for the weather to play out
its many different moods.
Rain, wind, sleet, and snow -
this place gets hammered by the weather and I should know.
I grew up not far from here.
Our farm's just on the other side of that dale.
Teesdale is no stranger to brutal winters.
Nearly 70 years ago, it was tested by one of the worst.
The infamous winter of 1947, and in that year,
Teesdale recorded the most snowfall of any inhabited place in England
and, in fact, it was recorded at the bottom of this hill.
But the people who can remember that winter are slowly disappearing
and, with them, their stories.
It sparked an idea.
The North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
Partnership started an oral history project called A Winter's Dale.
By recording interviews with elderly locals,
they created a treasured archive of winter memories.
I was a ten-year-old boy at the time,
and I can remember walking along the top of the heaps,
and you could reach up and touch the telephone wires.
The sheep were in dire need of food, and it was pitiful to see them.
They were just skeletons - absolute skeletons.
Well, it was the most magical walk down that valley,
a moonlight night,
and great icicles hanging off barns.
Oh, it was a dream. A dream.
'One of the surviving contributors to A Winter's Dale
'is retired farmer Maurice Tarn.
'He's now 86 but remembers those years like they were yesterday.'
So, Maurice, what are your memories, then, of that winter of 1947?
Oh, very, very savage winter. It blew from the east.
It blew from the west.
And all of this snow-cutting business as well, then, so...
I mean, no diggers and all this, that and the other, back then.
-I mean, it was all... Was it all shovels?
It was hand-shovelled... My father had to go out snow-cutting.
When the sun shone, he came home with a tan.
-What, off the reflection on the snow?
-Aye, off the snow, yes.
So, you're telling me all of this, Maurice,
with a huge smile on your face,
-and you've enjoyed your time in the Dale, then?
Aye, I wouldn't live anywhere else.
Times have changed since Maurice was a young lad,
but winter is still tough here.
Tom Hutchinson is a tenant farmer on 100 acres near Middleton
Today brings clear skies, a blanket of snow,
and a frosty bite in the air -
the kind of conditions in which Tom, his dog Kyle,
and the quad bike can cope.
All right, then, Tom, let's get these fed up, shall we?
'It's a welcome change from the eight weeks of solid rain
'he had before Christmas...' Come on, then.
'which turned his fields into a mud bath.'
So, how has this winter been for you, so far?
It's been very, very wet and very, very horrible,
-and made life very, very awkward.
-I mean, the thing...
I mean, obviously using the quad and that today,
but I bet you haven't been able to use one for a while.
The problem with the quad is that you need traction.
If you've got an inch of water and slop on the top,
it just doesn't go anywhere.
-Well, it goes downhill quite easily...
..but if you want to go uphill, it's a bit awkward.
The Dales and Dales folk are all the same -
whatever the weather comes, they just get on with it.
Tom's utter passion is his purebred Swaledales.
He's even been known to describe them as
"the worst addiction known to man".
It's what drives him to weather these winters, year in, year out.
That's the thing about the Swale sheep -
you have so many different ideas and different thoughts
on what is a good one, so it means when you go to the mart,
you can have people having a conversation
about the same sheep, but have a completely different opinion on it.
Like, a completely different opinion,
and it might just be down to one hair that's on its head.
And when you look down a line of sheep like this,
the wonderful thing is that back story
-and that connection that you have with each of your animals.
Yeah, for me, it is. I mean, it's maybe not the same for everybody,
but for me, I like to have a bit more history with them.
Like, I can go back and I know their great-great-grandmothers.
Farming these hills is no bed of roses,
and it's not just Tom's dedication,
but the efforts of the whole family that keep this place going.
The Hutchinsons are typical of most farmers,
braving the elements every day to make a living.
Lie down. Get on the bike.
The Wye Valley looks lush this summer.
It was a different story back in 1976 -
the ground had been baked hard by a drought that had actually
begun the year before.
Two years of below-average rainfall left the earth parched,
and farmers struggled to grow enough to feed us.
# When will there be a harvest for the world? #
Graham Hunter Blair was farming in 1976.
He kept a detailed record of those difficult days.
I can't help but notice there's an awful lot of zeroes. This is '76.
Just talk us through the number of dry days we've got there.
In '76, yes.
Well, I was going to go back to '75 to start with,
just to show you the number of dry days over the winter,
when the average rainfall was half of what it should be.
Dry weather in '75 fed into dry weather in '76.
I mean, just take one of these months - June.
You know, you've got day after day of zero, and then,
oh, oh, we did get a shower on the 20th.
-0.3 inches, so a third of an inch of rain.
And then we went back to zero, zero, zero, zero, all the way through.
So, it was just such...
The prolonged nature of this drought -
what sort of impact did that have on your yields?
And which crops suffered worst?
I think probably the winter wheat suffered the worst
because also we had a big aphid attack because of the warm weather
and when we harvested, we had less than half a tonne an acre
-of which normally we'd have been expecting two tonnes an acre.
And of course you've got very, sort of,
dry, sandy soils here, haven't you?
So, in this part of the world, I guess the impact was greater
than if you had, sort of, clay soils?
Yes, we're on sandstone here and it dries out very quickly.
So, the wheat suffered.
Did anything actually win out of this situation?
Yes, sugar beet.
And why was that?
As it was originated from the east coast, on the dunes,
and East Anglia being much drier than we are here,
it did extremely well.
-So, wheat needs the moisture...
..but sugar beet is less reliant on the rainfall.
Graham's son Ally looks after the farm now.
He has more modern tools at his disposal
when it comes to watching the weather.
So, Ally, are you as much a weather nut as your dad?
Well, I think with our job, you have to be a bit of a weather nut.
I mean, I'm not quite as obsessed.
I think I've only got one barometer instead of eight in my house.
We've got data loggers,
which is our full-on weather station here, and at Dad's.
Also, on my phone, I've got about eight weather apps that all tell me something slightly different.
-You can have too much information.
-You can have too much information.
What do you rely on the most?
Dad has always told me and drummed into me that I'm always
looking for the Azores high, especially when we start to cut hay,
and he's made hay for 40 years and never failed.
One year, I got it totally wrong, so I do listen.
Of course, the Azores high is the area of high pressure over
the Azores, which pushes up towards the UK and gives us fine weather.
Yeah, it blocks our weather and we get a nice period of dry weather.
Now, if 1976 was going to happen again, how prepared would you be?
We have got irrigation now, but if we got to that level of drought,
the Environment Agency would ban us from irrigating, anyway.
What we're trying to do, which is a much longer-term plan,
is increase our soil organic matter.
The organic matter in the soil is actually what can hold the water.
Now, if we can increase our soil organic matters by 1%,
we can hold an extra 100,000 litres of water per acre.
I had no idea.
That's an amazing effect, just from putting organic matter in.
Like Graham's sugar beet,
some crops just love long, hot summers like 1976.
Take blackcurrants - row upon row of fruits,
the sun concentrating their sugars.
It's a sight more common in France,
but, when Anita visited this Herefordshire farm,
she met a family with a passion for this sunshine-loving fruit.
This farm is flying the flag for the British blackcurrant
in more ways than one.
Farms like this boomed during the 1940s.
The Government backed the British blackcurrant as a way
of getting much-needed vitamin C into people's diet after the war.
The humble berries packed a punch so healthy
that blackcurrant syrup was given as a supplement in schools,
hospitals and nursing homes.
Due to the amount of hot, sunny weather we've had,
the sugar levels are very high and the berries are very juicy.
'I'm bursting to find out more about today's blackcurrant bonanza
'from farm manager James Wright.'
So, after the Second World War,
there was quite a big business in blackcurrants in the UK.
-But what is - I'm so sorry about this -
the current state of affairs?
The current state of affairs, Anita,
is there are about 40 blackcurrant growers in the UK.
However, there used to be hundreds.
So, the actual farm dairy, I think, has reduced by about 50%
Much of the market has moved abroad, where land
and labour costs are cheaper, but James
and his staff are trying to turn the tide using the highest of tech.
This is basically state-of-the-art, isn't it?
Yeah, this is the latest model.
It works by driving over the top of the bush, and those two
sets of vibrating fingers, which shake the branches on the bush.
The berries fall down onto the conveyors.
And then over this conveyor.
And it's perfect, isn't it?
It's delicate enough not to destroy the bush,
but it's releasing all the berries.
Each year, the farm harvests 300 to 350 tonnes of these zingy
pearls of goodness.
Mainly for blackcurrant squash and the frozen fruit market.
But like so many farms, they've had to diversify to add value
to their crop, bringing a taste of France to Herefordshire.
We've started to make blackcurrant liqueur,
in the same style as French cassis.
And we've labelled that as British cassis.
British cassis! Who'd have thought?
-I must say, you're very good at this.
-Do you think I've got a job?
-You certainly do.
'Having mastered quality control,
'James let me try my hand at harvesting.'
I can see how you can get used to this.
Once picked, the cascade of purple, shiny jewels gets crushed
and pressed into juice, all within 24 hours.
Then it makes its way to the brewery.
It's in here that the magic happens.
Alan Tucker is the farm's cassis king.
So, is anyone else producing cassis in the UK?
Do you know, I don't think there is.
I don't know of anybody else that brews it the same way as we do.
Wow. It smells incredible.
It looks beautiful, the colour is just bringing joy to my heart.
'I've seen the whole process through from bush to bottle.
'I think I deserve a taste.'
And if anyone knows how to get the best out of her blackcurrants,
it's Julie Green,
matriarch of the Green family, who have owned the farm since the 1880s.
Julie's laid on cassis-based puddings and cocktails for us all.
-Now, then. Would you like some of this lovely pudding?
-I would love some pudding.
-What would you like?
I think we should just get stuck in.
James and Alan are wasting no time tasting the fruits of their labour.
-The best of British. Cheers.
Not all plants welcome the sun as much as blackcurrants.
And as great as hot, sunny weather is, you can
have too much of a good thing.
The long, hot summer of '76 had a dramatic
effect on the way our countryside looked.
Lakes, reservoirs and rivers dried up.
Green grass turned brown.
And our woodlands took on a distinctly unseasonal appearance.
In August 1976,
Dr George Peterkin came here to Lady Park Wood, above the River Wye.
It looked very different from the way it does today.
I was astonished. Normally woods are quite dark at the end of August.
This was bright lit, there were hardly any leaves on the tree.
It was winter in the middle of summer.
The trees had decided it was so dry it was autumn
and had dropped most of their leaves.
And we've got a tree in front of us here. Is this a victim of 76?
-It looks like a dugout canoe.
-It certainly is.
It was, until 1976, one of the best
and fastest-growing trees in the whole wood.
How does the drought kill a tree, in a nutshell?
From the bottom upwards, from the top downwards?
At the top its branches get killed. At the bottom it kills the bark.
It lets in rot, so as the tree grows and tries to recover,
it's actually let down by the rot in its own base.
There are still trees in this wood which are rotting
and dying from the drought now. 40 years after the drought.
Some trees actually look really healthy,
they look splendid trees, but if you look carefully, you can
see this rot line at the bottom of the stump where
they've tried to heal, but inside it's very rotten.
The living part of a tree is the bark
and the layer just underneath.
The rest of the inside of the trunk is what holds the tree up.
As that rots away, the still living tree becomes hollow and unstable.
This drought victim lived on
until the millennium before finally succumbing to the wounds of 1976.
24 years after the drought, this was a drought casualty.
-A valiant effort to survive.
-A valiant effort.
You just have to respect this tree.
Our weather doesn't just affect the countryside...
it also shapes our enjoyment of it. All year round.
Just ask Ellie.
Although I doubt the word "enjoy" came to mind as she went
head-to-head with the elements in Scotland last winter.
..the glory of the north-west Highlands.
It's a landscape to fire the imagination,
stir the spirit and feed the soul.
And for those with a taste for adventure,
there's a new way of seeing it
because stringing all this beauty together
is a new route making use of old roads.
'It's called the North Coast, or NC500, a 500 mile-long network
'of road that loops around the coastline
'of the far north Highlands.
'You can drive it or bike it.
'I'm cycling some of the route that stretches along
'the West Coast, from the Applecross Peninsula, north to Ullapool.
'And right now, I'm feeling I might have bitten off more than
'I can chew.'
You know, you might not be able to see this but the wind is so gusty.
There are moments where it wants to blow you off the bike.
'This is the notorious Bealach na Ba, or "pass of the cattle".
'One of the toughest roads to climb in the UK.
'Merciless gradients, savage hairpin bends.
'Six lung bursting miles from sea level to the summit,
'more than 2,000 feet up in the clouds.'
It just saps your energy
when you're up against the headwind.
It actually knocks you off your bike.
It's incredibly, incredibly strong. Try that again.
Testing in the best of conditions,
the weather today is doing me no favours at all.
HEAVY HAIL AND WINDS
Oh, my goodness!
It's amazing, you can see the weather coming in from miles,
and I knew this bit was on its way.
Oh, it's packed with very painful hailstones.
Whose idea was this in winter?
Oh, my goodness. That's really hurting! Ow!
Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!
My legs are killing.
That's not even funny.
'Then, as quickly as it blew in, it's blown out,
'leaving a dusting of snow in its wake.'
I will not be beaten. Back in the saddle.
'And I'm not alone.
'Tearing up the pass towards me is Mark Beaumont.
'He's renowned in cycling circles, a record-breaker,
'a demon on two wheels.'
-I knew you'd catch me up. How are you doing?
-This weather is nuts.
I was going to give up back down there, but it changed again.
-Welcome to Scotland.
-Yeah, thanks, man.
-This is pretty gritty cycling.
-You all right?
-Yeah, I'm there.
You've made it up the Bealach na Ba, the Applecross Pass.
Yeah! Quite an achievement!
-That's the toughest conditions I've ever been up.
-We must be mad.
-Good on you.
Oh, what fun!
'The view from the top makes it all worthwhile,
'but it's been the toughest bike ride of my life.
'And I've just done a section of the NC500.
'Mark's done the lot, the whole 500 miles,
'and he did it in a mind-blowing 37 hours and 58 minutes.
'That's right, 500 miles nonstop in a day and a half.'
What possessed you to do the crazy challenge of completing
the NC500 in that time?
Well, I've spent my life exploring the world by bicycle.
I'm just back from cycling the length of Africa.
But I've never done anything that big and crazy in Scotland,
so I was quite inspired when I heard about the North Coast 500.
You're so tuned into the world around you.
You see, you hear, you smell everything.
And you see the world in incremental changes.
You don't sort of fly into place and then compare it to where you've come from.
You get to see change, see culture and people, places and geography.
And that, for me, is addictive.
'Remember, you can also drive the NC500!'
The green and very leafy canopy here at Lady Park Wood
in the Wye Valley looks in rude health this year.
There is no obvious sign of lasting damage
caused by the drought of 1976.
But what if I could look inside one of these living beech trees?
What would I see?
With the help of Professor Alistair Jump
from the University of Stirling, I'm hoping to find out.
Now, Alistair, I've seen you looking round the tree and up and down it,
but how on earth do we actually look inside this tree?
Well, all we can do is actually use a tree corer,
a device that allows us to remove a small
core of wood from actually inside the stem of the tree.
We can take that back to the lab, send it down,
and then that allows us to actually look at the ring boundaries
of individual years' growth over time.
-And compare years?
'Alistair has brought an old core sample which shows the damage
'done by the drought of '76.'
What you can see is that when the tree was younger,
you see relatively wide rings
because it was growing quite fast.
Then you get to a point up here
where you see a very sudden narrowing of the rings.
So, just about this point.
Really close together.
-That means there's hardly any growth at all.
Yeah, they're so close together you can barely make out
the individual rings. And this lasts for a good period of years.
In some cases, three decades of very narrow ring width.
So it wasn't just '76.
-The trouble lasted for years and years after that.
-Slowly recovering now, 40 years on.
What I really want to do is look into the past of this tree.
Can we do that?
-We can do that, yeah.
-Now, does this do it any harm?
-No, not really.
The main living portion of the tree is really just below the bark.
Everything inside is really structural support.
'Alistair gets things started before handing over to me.'
-Go for it.
I should have been down the gym before this!
What we'll try and do is get the core out of the tree.
It's like keyhole surgery, this, isn't it?
Absolutely - keyhole surgery on a tree.
-As if by magic...
-It's like a pale pencil.
-OK, so that's very different to the core we just saw.
This needs to be dried and it needs to be sanded down
so that you can see these ring boundaries clearly.
-OK, but even now I can make out some rings in there.
you can see them with the naked eye, yeah.
And to give us a wider context,
how did the composition of the forest get affected by '76?
Well, it was really dependent on the drought sensitivity
of the particular species.
So what happened was, beech was hard hit by the drought,
but other species were relatively unaffected.
And in a way, by knocking back the growth of the beech,
it reduced its competition with other species.
So, there were winners and losers, despite the drought.
Whether drought or deluge, work in the countryside still needs doing.
For farmers, it comes with the territory,
like the time Adam swapped the comfort of his Cotswold farm for
the wilds of Exmoor,
rounding up ponies in weather he'll never forget.
ADAM: Exmoor National Park has a wild beauty, whatever the weather.
People come here to enjoy the rugged landscape
and of course its wild ponies.
Today there is a special event.
A group of volunteers are gathering to help husband and wife team
David and Emma Wallace round up their herd of wild Exmoors.
David and Emma Wallace have gathered a large team of people
to help them bring their Exmoor ponies off the moor
down to their farm.
So, what's the plan now, David? You're splitting everybody up?
Yeah, we're organising everybody, Adam,
and making sure that we get an even distribution of vehicles
and ponies on both sides of this rope. We're hoping to find
today somewhere near about 30 to 40 ponies, something in that region.
And the reason for bringing them down at this time of year?
It's time to wean the foals from their mothers.
It's the annual time of the year when we're separating out.
We need to see whether we've got lots of little girls,
the fillies, or whether we've got lots of little boys, the colts.
So, looking forward to seeing what we've got.
-It's like Christmas today.
Well, I remember your father, Ronnie Wallace,
giving my dad three Exmoors when I was just a little boy.
Yes, and I remember, as a little boy, too,
delivering them to your father, too, up in the Cotswolds.
So, it's wonderful that you're here today witnessing this annual event.
It's very exciting and despite the weather
I'm really looking forward to it.
Yeah, glad we've been able to organise a good Exmoor day for you!
-Right, let's go get some ponies!
-Let go and be cowboys!
'David's team are fully briefed.
'All they've got to do now is find the ponies and round them up,
'which is easier said than done.'
There's a convoy of cars coming up the road.
It's amazing to see these horses riding across the moor
in thick fog and rain.
I'm not quite sure how they're finding these ponies.
How are you getting on? Have you seen many?
Yes, we saw some just over the back of the hill there,
which seem to have moved, come up across the road already.
So we're just doing another sweep of this side of the moor,
make sure we've got everyone.
-Great. All right, good luck!
I just pulled over and spotted a group of Exmoors here,
quite close to the road.
And the horse riders and quad bikes are coming across the moor to bring them this way.
These animals are quite wild.
They live out on the moor all year round
and they're perfectly designed for it.
They've be living out here for hundreds if not thousands of years.
They've got these really broad foreheads
and the rain just runs off their eyes.
And their tail fans out over their rump.
And they've got amazing fur that keeps them warm
and insulated even in the harshest of conditions.
And, believe me, out here on Exmoor it can get very harsh.
There are about 20 cantering past now
and more coming up over the horizon.
I've never seen so many Exmoors in one place at one time.
'It really is a spectacular sight as more and more
'Exmoors are driven off the moor and into the holding area.
'And now there's just one last trot down the lanes
'to David and Emma's farm.'
-So, how did it all go?
-It went really well, actually.
Considering the weather today, we've gathered
all our ponies off the hill and it's been a spectacular sight.
It's very exciting to see the mares coming off with their foals,
and in the next couple of days we'll be weaning the foals from the mares.
-As then the mares and stallions run back onto the moor?
-They do indeed.
Yes, yes, the foals are weaned from them, they'll go back out
on to the hill and enjoy a winter without a foal annoying them,
-and then hopefully give birth again in the spring.
Well, there we are, the most ancient indigenous British
breed of pony, probably the toughest of the lot,
gathered safely off the moor for another year.
# Kisses for me, save all your kisses for me. #
The long, dry summer of 1976 was bad news for a lot of our wildlife.
Not for insects - they had a bumper year.
Matthew Oates, the National Trust's main man
for bugs and butterflies, had just left university.
For him, 1976 was a year like no other.
# So long, honey, so long... #
He's on Rodborough Common in Gloucestershire to tell us
why that summer, 40 years ago, was so good for his beloved butterflies.
This summer, this steep slope here in the Cotswolds
is lush and verdant green, very strong grass growth.
We're living in the era of wet, mild winters and wet summers,
and what that means is that vegetation, all vegetation, is growing luxuriantly.
It was not so 40 years ago in the long hot summer of 1976.
The grass especially hardly grew.
It was a year for warmth-loving insects in particular, we are
talking about butterflies, and obviously at night moths, bees...
They boomed, ladybirds especially. This was the year of the ladybird.
Because of the lack of grass growth,
many of the normally low-growing plants which our butterflies
breed on actually flourished, like horseshoe vetch here,
which is the food plant of the beautiful Adonis blues.
The rare Adonis blue was just one of the species that boomed that summer,
and all because of the abundance of wild plants.
But the drought would eventually burn these flowers off,
forcing the hungry butterflies from the meadows
and into our gardens.
Which is why the summer of '76 is also remembered
for the insect invasions in our towns.
When the drought broke in the autumn, the butterfly population
went from boom to bust, washed away by relentless heavy rains.
Our weather is often wet and windy.
Atlantic storms are driven in by the jet stream,
and they can be damaging.
In 2014, one of the most ferocious storms for decades
hit the south coast
and the South Devon seaside town of Dawlish in particular,
which, as Anita found out,
was a little too close to home for a member of the Countryfile team.
February 4th, 2014 began like any other morning -
people getting ready for work, kids going to school
and trains on this rural stretch of rail network were business as usual.
And then, within 24 hours, everything had changed.
Countryfile film crews had been scattered across the south
of the country covering the impact of the weather.
One of our cameramen, Dawlish resident Steve Briers, had been
filming the floods with Tom Heap in Somerset,
completely unaware of what was about to hit his idyllic seaside home.
You couldn't be much closer to the sea here, could you?
I mean, this is house, railway line, sea.
You are in the line of fire.
Yeah, very much so.
'By the time Steve got home from his shoot,
'winds of up to 91mph were creating nine metre high waves
'heading straight for land, and Steve's house.'
The waves were just landing,
literally dumping themselves on top of the car.
The car would sit down on it springs,
you obviously had to stop,
the wipers were doing ten to the dozen, and it was
just like being in a washing machine on a really fast spin.
'The dramatic footage that Steve filmed the next day shows
'the aftermath of just what he was experiencing.'
At that point I knew there was something exceptional happening
and, obviously, being a cameraman, I was certainly aware that
I really should be trying to record it and get some pictures.
So, I went to set up a light, of all things, to actually
point down into what I knew was now a hole developing in front of the house.
I literally put the light stand up - bang, power went.
-And that's when you dialled 999.
-Yeah, that's when I hit 999.
OPERATOR: Caller, go ahead.
Riviera Terrace in Dawlish,
it's been washed away into the sea.
The sea wall is gone, there is no sea defences.
The railway lines are suspended in the air.
They are... They are in the air by about, I'd imagine,
probably about 10 or 15 foot.
I realised that my utilities had gone out into the English Channel.
My gas main had split.
I didn't have any water, no electricity,
and at that point, it really was getting quite exciting round here.
Then there was a knock at the door.
Yeah, shortly after that, there was a knock at the door.
Obviously pitch blackness, a torch shone in my eyes,
and a chap in full rescue kit, hard hat and the rest of it,
just literally said, "You've got two minutes.
"This is a life or death situation.
"You've got two minutes. You've got to get out."
Were you scared?
Um, I don't think there was time to be scared, really.
I was certainly confused.
The amazing thing through all of this is that no-one was injured.
OK, Steve, back to the day job. You ready?
The next day, Dawlish was thrown into chaos.
This railway line is vital, as it connects the south-west
to the rest of the country, so something had to be done and fast.
A 300-strong fleet of engineers swept into action.
Operated by Network Rail,
they became known locally as the Orange Army.
Within two months the railway line was rebuilt and back in action.
Thanks to the Orange Army,
hundreds of thousands of passengers living in rural communities
in the south-west have got their lives back on track.
And Steve? Well, he's got his road back.
I've been in the Wye Valley,
where one of Britain's most beautiful rivers
winds its way along the border between England and Wales.
It looks stunning here, with plenty of water,
but back in 1976 it was a very different
and altogether more devastating picture.
George Woodward has been a gilly - an Environment Agency bailiff -
on the Wye for decades.
-George, do you mind if I join you?
-Not at all.
Good, cos last time I fished was on the River Wye a couple
of years back, and I nearly caught...
It was about that big, just got away, but I think it's probably still in there.
-Well, let's see if we can get it out, shall we?
So, George, you were working here in 1976. What did it look like?
The river was totally different to how you see it now.
You could literally walk in your Wellington boots across.
So, obviously, it must have had a huge impact on the salmon.
It had a massive impact, not just the water height,
the water being so low, but the water temperature just shot up.
By mid-June, it was basically in its high 70s.
How many salmon died, then?
I remember one particular evening on about a four-and-a-half mile walk
with the wife round the area I live, we counted 900 dead salmon.
'And there was another consequence -
'the low water made the fish easy to spot -
'easy pickings for the unscrupulous.'
I don't think a lot of people realised just how many fish
-ran that river, and it wasn't long before the...
-Word got out?
..the word got out and then, for the next 10 to 15 years,
the Wye was very, very badly poached.
So, it was a disaster.
And how many years has it taken for that to recover? Or has it?
In the mid-'60s you would have been looking at somewhere in the region
of 5,000 to 6,000 salmon, rod caught salmon on the Wye.
And we're nowhere near those sorts of figures now.
Last year was just over 1,000, about 1,000, somewhere around there.
There's some way to go before salmon numbers are back
to their pre-'76 levels, but efforts are underway, as I'll see later.
Now, this year's Countryfile Photographic Competition is already well underway,
but there's still plenty of time for you to enter.
Here's John with all the information for you to get involved.
For this year's Countryfile Photographic Competition,
we want you to get out with your cameras to celebrate
the British countryside at its very best, from morning till night.
Our theme is "Dawn Till Dusk".
The very best 12
selected by the judges will take pride of place in the
Countryfile calendar for 2017.
we'll have an overall winner voted for by Countryfile viewers.
Not only will their picture take pride of place on the cover of the
calendar, they'll also get to choose photographic equipment worth £1,000.
Whoever takes the judges' favourite photo will be able to pick
photographic equipment to the value of £500.
To enter the competition please write your name,
address and a daytime and evening phone number
on the back of each photo with a note of where it was taken.
Then send your entries to...
The competition isn't open to professionals
and because we're looking for something original,
your pictures must not have won any other national competition.
You can send in up to three photos.
They must have been taken in the UK and please remember,
we're looking for hard copies, not e-mailed or computer files.
And I'm very sorry but we just can't return any entries.
The full terms and conditions are on our website where you'll also find
details of the BBC's code of conduct for competitions.
The competition closes on July 22nd
so that means you've got just under five weeks
to send in your pictures.
So, its time to go out and capture the British countryside
from dawn till dusk, and we look forward to seeing your entries.
The jet stream that gifted us the long, hot summer of 1976
also curses us with severe storms -
damaging to our coastline and to our wildlife, as Ellie found out
when she visited an RSPCA rescue centre in East Anglia.
The biggest storm surge since the great floods of 1953.
A perfect storm where high tides, high winds
and low pressure combine to devastating effect.
Not least for the wildlife, and in particular these grey seal pups.
Stranded on the region's beaches,
they were rescued and brought in here...
..to the RSPCA's wildlife centre near King's Lynn.
When the storm broke,
centre manager Alison Charles was left holding the babies.
So, December the 5th was a bad night. What happened to these pups?
They ended up with 58 coming in over three days
so it was incredible,
we've never had that many in the building in one go.
-Very, very busy.
-How did you cope with that many?
I really don't know how we coped.
We look back at it and we think, "What on earth were we doing?"
But we emptied out all the rooms that we had that had drains in
and were tiled floors so we could keep them nice and clean
-and we just put seals in there.
-And through the night,
feeding through the night like newborn babies almost?
Almost like newborn babies, yes. We fed them up until 12 o'clock.
But as you can imagine, it takes so long to feed that number,
it was about half two by the time the staff were getting out of here.
Then we started again at eight o'clock in the morning.
But we got through it, and as you see, the seals look really good now.
Yeah, they do. They look absolutely amazing.
So if it wasn't for the fact that they were brought in here,
would this lot probably have survived?
They came in at under three weeks old, really tiny and emaciated
-little pups that really needed their mum, and they'd gone.
Because these pups have been fed by hand for so long,
they need to learn how to feed themselves.
For these seals, that means only one thing - lovely, oily mackerel
and milk crates.
Why milk crates, Alison?
-What are these for?
This is to make life a bit more exciting while they're in here.
They've got quite a long rehab and we just want to liven it up a little
bit so they have to forage for their fish once we put them in here.
-The fish go in here?
-They do. We're going to slot them into there.
-Right. Some mackerel weaving.
-Yes. We like to be ingenious.
-This is environmental enrichment on the cheap.
That's it. Don't fall in. And there we go.
-Have some of that.
-Launch the fish crate.
And now it rolls over and over and then they get to go
-and chase the fish.
-Can't wait to watch the frenzy.
'These grey seal pups have not been in the wild
'since they were just days old.
'The storm surge that washed them away from their mothers
'is now a fading memory, and with spring just around the corner
'there couldn't be a better time to be going home.'
Oh, I'm stuck in the mud.
'He can smell freedom.
'But it's been a while.
'No surprise he's cautious.'
-There you go.
-The fun way in.
It's just a nice, little slide down there now.
How do you make sure they are wild rather than coming back to you?
All the way along, we try to have as little to do with them as possible.
We try and get them with other seals, we don't talk to them,
we don't cuddle them, we don't stroke them,
we don't do anything with them apart from go in and feed them,
medicate them and look after them.
So it's all hands off and just try to have as little interaction
with them as possible.
So, how does this stage feel when they're released?
This is the best bit. Everyone thinks we're really sad,
but it's not sad.
It's really good to see them go back out to sea
and then it's up to them to make a go of it.
They live to 30 years, so you hope that we've done a good job
of getting them fit and healthy, and then it's down to them.
'Given up for dead by the storm,
'nursed back to life and health by Alison and her team.'
'Now isn't that a sight to warm the heart?'
We're in the Wye Valley,
where we've been looking back at the summer of 1976.
The prolonged dry spell saw water levels plummet,
with a drastic effect on the salmon population of the River Wye.
I've come to a tributary in the upper reaches of the river.
Here, conservationists from the Wye and Usk Foundation are working to
improve the chances for salmon returning to the river to spawn.
What practically do you do to help maintain the salmon population here?
Well, we're putting in fish passes.
There's a fish pass here to get them over this rather difficult falls.
You have to imagine there's about two or three feet of water on it
and it's really quite quick,
so they can go then for another kilometre or so
and spawn on the gravel at the top there.
Now, of course, you remember way back 40 years ago, '76,
just talk us through that historic event.
There was no spring rain.
The sun came out in around the middle of April and beat down
the entire year until it finally ended with some rain at the end.
With the flooding rains in the autumn.
And what sort of plans have you now got in place to
sort of mitigate the "what if" scenario?
-You know, if '76 happened again.
-Well, several things.
Firstly, we've taken you to a place that's nicely shaded by trees.
Now, we'd like all our streams to have this sort of level of shading.
But there are places further north of here where they're just
completely bare of trees.
So we're fencing them off,
letting the trees grow again to give that sort of cover.
-And what does that help do?
-It keeps the water cooler.
Also, the streams get narrow again,
so less evaporation, more depth, more suitable for the young fish.
'The team are using electric probes to stun the young salmon.
'This makes them easier to catch and count.
'After a quick health check, they're returned unharmed to the river.'
So, you can keep a measure on how many fish there are
-in a certain stretch of the river.
-And that measures our success or otherwise.
The long, hot summer of 1976
didn't just leave a lasting impression on me,
but on our countryside too.
It could happen again,
but after the winter we've just had,
it won't be this year.
When or if it does, though,
the lessons we've learnt from '76
should help us to help nature through the crisis.
Well, that's it for our look back at the summer of 1976.
Hope it's brought back some happy memories.
Next week we're in Pembrokeshire. Hope you can join us then.
Subtitles by Ericsson