Matt Baker and Shauna Lowry are near Colchester on the Essex coast. Matt ventures to Mersea Island to meet an oyster fisherman, and Shauna Lowry goes to the River Colne.
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This is Mersea Island, off the Essex coast.
The waters here have been fished since Roman times.
And this is the prize - oysters.
And, believe it or not,
these are some of the most sought-after in the world.
And, today, I'm out on the boats to find out why.
Shauna sets her sights on one of our most elusive creatures,
the water vole.
Now, I'm seeing lots of little holes here, little burrow-type things.
Tom's looking at the darker side of man's best friend.
-What kind of injuries were they suffering, the sheep?
tore the jaws, the bottom jaws, clean off.
And, thankfully, Adam's on hand in the lambing shed.
Usually, the sac around the lamb breaks,
but it was trapped around its nose.
It's fortunate I was here.
Today, we're in Essex.
A county where the many estuaries, creeks and inlets
give it what's thought to be the longest coastline in England.
I'm visiting Mersea Island, just to the South of Colchester,
to meet some of its fishing community.
I think it's fair to say that this place was built on oysters.
In fact, there's been a connection with them for more than 2,000 years,
including when nearby Colchester was the capital of Roman Britain.
These days, the Mersea Island oysters
find their way to the high-end restaurants
of our present-day capital and beyond.
These delicacies are caught by the Blackwater Oystermen,
who take their name from the river
that feeds the estuary surrounding the island.
Richard Haward's family have been working
the oyster beds of Blackwater since the 1700s.
How many oystermen are out there these days? What's the situation?
-Well, there's about a dozen.
-And how long have you been doing this?
Well, all my life, on and off.
-And that's a long time.
-We don't need to go into numbers.
The Hawards catch between 2,000 and 4,000 oysters every day.
The vast majority of which are the non-native Pacific, or rock oyster.
This is the rock oyster.
These are called, basically, rock oysters
cos they look like a rock, I think.
-Introduced from the Pacific about 50, 60 years ago.
But the rarer, more prized catch is the native species,
the European flat oyster.
Well, this is your native oyster, been here since the Romans,
or even earlier. Very flat shell, smooth-shelled.
-These are thought to be the better-quality oysters.
But these, in contrast to the rock oysters, are in very short supply.
The old saying about these is,
"The first thing they think of doing is dying,"
-so they're a very delicate animal, really.
Native oysters are massively in decline.
It's thought that the population is down as much as 99%
in the UK's waters.
And the reasons are not yet fully understood.
So oystermen like Richard depend on the more abundant rock oyster.
-I'll just pop them down here, shall I, yeah? That's all right?
Every day, they transfer their catch
into these crates for purification.
The oysters are flushed with seawater
that's been treated with ultraviolet light.
The UV kills any microbes present.
The oysters filter this sterilised water, leaving them safe to eat.
So an oyster this size, let's say, how old would you expect that to be?
-Probably about five years.
Probably about the youngest oyster we sell here
-is about four years old.
-And we have some which are probably ten years old.
And, from this process then, how quickly are they then kind of
packaged up and then they're in the markets, or on the shelves?
Well, I mean, we'll take them out today,
and they'll be in shops and markets tomorrow.
Richard sells between 15,000 and 20,000 oysters every week,
both nationally and internationally.
But the best place to sample them...
Well, it's got to be here.
Well, listen, I can't kind of witness the whole process
-without witnessing the WHOLE of the process.
-So I've got to eat one of these. And I'd like to.
So, do you know, with me...
I don't know, whenever I eat oysters,
you do get this kind of...zing that goes on in your mind.
-Do you find that as well, Richard?
-Yes, you can do. That's very true.
-Get the top off.
-That's quite a big one, that, isn't it?
-Loosen it in the shell.
-And that's all ready to eat.
-Here we go.
Well, it's meaty and, um...
If you say that the oyster tastes like the water that it comes from,
then, um...that's quite pleasant, out there.
-Did you want to try a rock oyster as well?
Down the hatch.
That... That, to me, does taste a bit saltier.
-Difference in texture?
-Difference in texture. It's lighter.
That native is definitely meatier. There seems to be more to it.
So I can see why you want to focus on them, to be fair.
It... Somehow, I don't know,
-you can taste the quality in there, can't you?
-Well, I think so.
Although the oystermen are still allowed
to catch some native oysters, there aren't many here to be had.
Numbers are so low, they've been classified as functionally extinct.
Meaning that the population isn't large enough to sustain itself,
or grow further.
Richard and his fellow Blackwater Oystermen
are desperate to see the native's numbers increase.
-And how passionate are you about the natives?
It's... It's originally what this place was all about, you know?
-The rock oyster's come along in recent years...
..because there's been so few.
But we do want to try and get these back to sustainable levels, really.
Later, I'll be finding out how the local Wildlife Trust
and the University of Essex have joined forces with the oystermen
to help the native oyster population.
There's something about the Essex marshes that gets under your skin.
Now, as I know myself,
a working dog is an essential part of livestock farming.
But, as Tom has been finding out,
if a pet dog gets loose on a farm, the results can be disastrous.
From the photos you send us,
it's obviously not just people who like to watch Countryfile.
Your pet dogs do, too.
Dogs have a very special place in our lives.
Whether they're earning their keep on the farm,
or out for a walk with their owners,
the countryside can seem like the perfect place for them.
It's easy to forget that man's best friend -
even one as tiny as this -
is descended from one of the animal kingdom's greatest predators,
the wolf, and it's impossible to completely eradicate that instinct.
Working dogs are highly trained, and respond instantly to commands.
FARMER WHISTLES COMMANDS
But an uncontrolled dog, loose in the countryside,
can leave a trail of destruction.
Idris Roberts has spent his whole life farming sheep in North Wales.
On many farms, pregnant ewes are still out in the fields
at this time of year.
But Idris has brought his in already, to protect them from dogs.
Well, they're close to lambing. They'll be lambing in the next week,
and we try and house them before then.
But we've housed them a little bit earlier this time,
in case we have any dog attacks on them, to be perfectly honest.
We did have a nasty incident last year,
and it makes us a little bit nervous this time.
Last winter, an unaccompanied dog
attacked some of Idris's pregnant sheep
on land just a few miles from his home.
We had a telephone call,
and the dogs had run these sheep through a fence -
a pretty new fence - broke about ten posts, tore the fence apart.
-You mean big, wooden posts had just been snapped?
Gives you an idea of the panic and the fear.
Well, the fear that was in them.
What kind of injuries were they suffering, the sheep?
Absolutely torn apart, some of them.
It actually tore their jaws, their bottom jaws, clean off.
And we had to shoot three in the field there, as it was.
-How many did you lose, roughly, in the end?
-Six, we lost.
And, after that, I'm sure we lost another ten.
-A fair few aborted,
and we were having ewes go into the shed.
In the morning, they were dead.
Obviously, the lambs had died in the womb
and the sheep had had septicaemia.
So it's not just the immediate horror and suffering,
it goes on?
After is the worst part of it. You don't know what to expect.
But, to the dog owners who are watching this programme,
what would you say to them
when they're going out, where there are sheep in the area?
Let's put it like this. If there's a pregnant woman,
you wouldn't want to run a pregnant woman very far.
It's the same with sheep. They're very, very heavy.
And they can't run very long. Oh, 100 yards at the most.
After that, the dog just pulls them to pieces. Tears them apart.
Absolute cruelty, that is.
This footage of a dog attacking and killing sheep
was captured by a passing motorist.
No, it's got one! It's got one! It's got one!
Although no-one knows for sure how many dog attacks there are,
conservative estimates put the number of farm animals
killed or injured in the UK every year in the thousands.
In January alone, a newly-formed organisation, SheepWatch UK,
has logged 27 attacks, leading to the death of 111 sheep
and four shot dogs.
This footage was taken by a farmer after a loose dog got onto the farm.
Get the gun!
And what many people don't realise
is that any farmer can legitimately shoot a dog
that's worrying livestock,
and that the pet's owner could be prosecuted for the offence.
-Good morning, Dave.
PC Dave Allen works for North Wales Police Rural Crime Team,
and much of his time is taken up with dog attacks.
So, tell me, how bad is the problem with dog attacks, in your view?
We've been collating figures since September 2013 now.
In the North Wales area as a whole,
we've had 259 attacks, livestock attacks.
Majority of those are sheep. I'd probably say about 98%.
Is that's a true reflection of what's actually going on?
I think that's a vastly under-reported figure.
I think farmers are quite self-sufficient people.
And if they turn up to their field where there's livestock
and see they've been a victim of a dog attack,
but there's no witnesses or dog, they'll probably think,
"Well, what can the police do about it?"
When it is reported, dog owners face a fine of up to £1,000,
damages for the farmer, and the loss of their pet.
But, perhaps surprisingly, it's not dogs being walked
that carry out most of the attacks.
Many, it seems, are committed
by pets that have escaped from their homes.
In those cases, the owner might know nothing about it
until the police knock on the door.
First thing that people say to me is, "My dog wouldn't do that."
Well, in my experience, any dog's capable of it, really.
And I think once we're in the police station,
where you're there with your solicitor,
the tape machine's out, ready for interview.
I think that's when the reality of the situation bites.
I think that's when I've heard people start crying.
And what about the moment when the dog has to go?
Is it sometimes you that has to take it away? What's that like?
Yeah, it's very emotional.
There's no easy way to do it, really.
I'll turn up on the day and literally take that dog away
from you, and it will be put to sleep that afternoon.
It's horrendous. It's...
It's a death in the family, isn't it?
Nobody - police, farmers or pet owners -
wants to see a dog shot or put down.
But, sometimes, there's no alternative.
These ewes are due to give birth in the next week or so
and, with lambing under way right across the country,
this is a critical time for sheep farmers.
Later on, I'll be looking at both what dog owners
and farmers can do to make sure their pets
and their livestock can safely share the countryside.
Mersea Island sits where the Greater Thames Estuary
meets the mouth of the River Colne, where saltwater mingles with fresh.
Upstream, the river meanders through the heart of rural Essex.
Its steep banks, a home for nature, a haven for wildlife,
watched over by a close-knit community of river users -
all of them united by the love of one animal.
This special waterway has become a stronghold
for one of Britain's most endangered mammals, the water vole.
Back in the 1970s, a voracious predator was introduced to the UK -
the North American mink.
This invasive species almost wiped out our native water voles,
pushing them to the brink of extinction here in Essex.
Then the Wildlife Trust stepped in.
Six years ago, Countryfile featured an ambitious project
to boost water vole numbers in the county.
We joined Darren Tansley from the Essex Wildlife Trust,
as he released the first of 600 water voles
along the banks of the River Colne.
Today, I'm catching up with Darren
to find out how these charismatic creatures have fared.
So, Darren, how are the vole population doing, six years later?
We don't know what numbers we've got, but we know that the sort of
percentage of the habitat that's being used now
is much more than it was, say, ten years ago.
It's been remarkable, really.
They've spread right the way along the river.
They've gone upstream, downstream,
into little ditches along the sides of the river valley.
So we've found them in places
that are well off the actual river itself.
Probably partly to do with a lot of flooding that we get these days,
and it sort of pushes them outwards, off the river.
-Right, so the numbers have spread obviously, very well.
-You must be very pleased.
-Yeah, we're really happy.
I mean, it's just such a success story in Essex,
because all of our main rivers have lost their water voles now,
the big rivers.
And the Colne is the only one with a successful population on it now.
So it's wonderful to see that thriving.
To give ourselves the best chance of seeing water voles,
we've set up a camera trap
and there are paw prints all around it.
Actually, that's interesting.
We have got some small tracks, which look a bit like water vole.
They are about the right size.
Could be water vole, could be a young brown rat.
But these larger tracks, they're all otter.
So an otter's come out of the river last night,
-and it's come right up to the camera trap.
-They're naturally curious, aren't they?
So they're probably just wondering what that was.
They quite often lick the camera, you just get a shot of the tongue.
-Let's hope so!
An otter's a great sighting, but it's not a water vole.
Luckily, we don't have to rely solely on cameras.
You're right in the centre of Colchester, aren't you?
Yeah, we've got quite a bit of wildlife
on the water around Colchester.
We've got otters, water voles, kingfishers, swans, ducks...
As a canoe instructor, the aptly named Steve Waters
has a unique view of every twist and turn of this river.
He is one of a number of volunteer river wardens
keeping an eye out for signs of the water vole.
Now, I'm seeing lots of little holes here, little burrow-type things.
-Would that be homes for water voles?
-Yeah, you have to go...
That's the beauty of a canoe, that you can...
If you see a hole, you can stop the canoe
-and then go backwards and inspect it.
-Shall we have a look?
-Can we have a look?
-Yeah, let's go and have a look.
On the grass, if the grass is cut at 45 degrees,
where they're eating it, then that's another sign of a water vole.
I think you were quite observant there, finding that hole.
-So you hadn't seen that before?
-No, no, I haven't seen that one.
-That's fairly fresh.
-Takes me to come out on the river with you.
You never know what you might find.
-We're a good double act.
-A double act, yeah.
# Bring me sunshine... #
As well as monitoring water vole numbers, river wardens like Steve
keep an eye out for the deadly North American mink.
They're still a big threat to the fragile water vole population here.
-If there was mink on the river, you would not have water voles.
So we've got a raft upstream that monitors the mink.
The rafts are covered in soft clay that shows up footprints.
If mink are found, then traps are set.
Any mink caught have to be humanely destroyed,
as it's illegal to release them back into the wild.
Luckily, there are only signs of water voles here today.
There we go!
That is water vole poo.
And you can see, it's about the size of a Tic Tac.
Nice and brown, with rounded ends.
If those ends were pointed, then that would be rat.
It's a shame that this weren't wet enough to capture the footprint,
otherwise we'd have had a footprint.
Cos obviously it's pooed on there, so it's been across it.
So that's good news, there are water voles about.
-Yeah, good news all round.
Water voles are thriving here,
with the effective control of mink on the River Colne.
And that is good news for all the other wildlife here, too.
It's said that if you really want to know how well a river is doing,
then ask a fisherman.
-Hiya, Jim, can I join you?
-Oh, come on in.
-What a lovely spot.
-This is so nice.
-Yes, it is lovely, isn't it?
As a coarse angler and river warden,
Jim Beard is the eyes and ears of the river.
As a warden, I would normally be patrolling this for an hour,
maybe two hours.
Whereas if I come here fishing, I could be here for eight hours.
During that time, my eyes are on the water,
and I think fishermen can be...
..the sort of custodians of the water in that way.
What we're looking for when we're fishing
is all the species to be there.
They're all indicative of a healthy river.
I think everybody of my age remembers fishing
these types of rivers
and seeing water voles every time you went fishing.
The mink came in and there was pollution in the rivers...
..and we lost the water vole. It's a very dear little animal.
I can see water voles when I come fishing now,
which is a wonderful thing for me.
-Hang on, you've got a fish.
-We've got one?
-OK. Ooh, it's quite a big one, I think.
-Yeah, it is a big one.
-OK, just leave it there now.
-Leave it there.
-I'll go and get this. We've got it.
-You've got it, in the net?
Wow, look at that! Fantastic.
-A good size as well.
-It is a good size.
-What is that one?
-It's a wonderful dace, I'll let you have it.
Let's have a look. Wow.
-And you'll see that it's in beautiful condition.
Look at that.
It's a very good size.
-And you can see, just looking at it,
that it is a very healthy fish,
coming from a very healthy river.
Now, it's time for our winter warmer.
During the summer, we asked some well-known faces,
Ooh! It's quite refreshing after a while.
..what part of our magnificent countryside was special to them?
This week, actor Nina Wadia is in the breathtaking Highlands...
..sharing her love of the open road, and her passion for adventure.
Our driving holidays began because of Mum and Dad.
We never booked hotels or, you know, places in particular.
We would just go and hope to find a little quirky B&B.
That's the holidays I knew.
I used to absolutely love
when my parents would pack us off into a car.
Sometimes, overnight, I'd be woken up,
I'd open my eyes and go, "Where are we?"
And Mum and Dad would be, like, "Oh, look.
"Look, we've stumbled across the south end of India, here we are."
I wanted to just recreate that kind of love of travel,
and just adventure, with my own new little family.
So, we tend to do that. We jump in a car.
And the kids always get excited. "Where are we going?"
And I'll say, "I have no idea."
I've always had an affinity with Scotland.
And it might be because I went to a school in India, where I was born,
called Bombay Scottish Orphanage High School.
There's something about
here, in Scotland, that I just feel at home.
There's something special in these mountains.
The view changes dramatically every few miles.
My son, in particular, loved Scotland.
And he said, "Mum, Mum, look at the mountains.
"Don't they look like sleeping dinosaurs?"
And I said, "Actually, they do, they really do."
We were in Fort William, and we wanted just to explore, a day out.
So, we wanted to go somewhere that was a bit off the beaten track.
We ended up at a loch called Loch Leven,
which we, you know, never knew existed.
My hubby and myself had had a little bit of a barney in the car.
And so, as soon as we hit the loch, we went,
"Ah, why are we bothering? Look at this, this is so beautiful."
Yes, holidays in Scotland can save your marriage. You heard it here.
It was perfect timing, because it was lunchtime,
and we found a seafood cafe which did some of the best food I've had.
It just ended up being the most perfect day.
It's not a very well-known place, not a very well-known loch.
It's not even that huge. But it is just beautiful.
Anywhere that there is water, I feel connected, I feel at peace.
It just has this feel of tranquillity about it.
Who could ask for anything better?
You've got the most beautiful food.
You've got the most beautiful view in the world.
The sun's shining.
I think, because of the roles I've played on TV,
people might not know that I very much love adrenaline sports.
There is a waterfall up this way.
And it would be amazing to go and explore around there.
I've had an absolute love for doing anything that makes my heart jump,
and anything that makes me think I'm probably going to die doing this.
-Hi, Nina, how are you doing?
-Yeah, good, thank you. Good.
Erm, look, I love doing stuff like this.
Except, I like to start at the top and then land down.
-This, I've never done before.
-So, you're more into jumping?
-Yeah, I'm always jumping.
-This is called Via Ferrata.
It's a beautiful climb up the side of the Grey Mare's Tail waterfall.
-All the way up there?
We're going to get to the very top of that cliff there.
OK, now, remember, go slow!
-Are you OK?
-Now you've got to get back on.
-Oh, no, I can't!
You can either stand on here or down there.
What do I hold on to?
-There's loads of handles.
We're probably about 80 metres vertical here,
we're about the same height as the top of the waterfall.
-Wow. I can see why it's called the Grey Mare's Tail.
Well, it actually looks like a horse's tail!
We're just over halfway, Nina.
That's it, Nina, we're at the top.
Well done. Brilliant.
Come on over here, Nina, I'll show you the Pap of Glencoe.
This is breathtaking.
This could not be a more perfect day.
I came to my favourite loch.
Did something unbelievably exciting.
This sunset, I mean...
Seriously, if there is a heaven, this is it.
Now, earlier, we heard about the disastrous effect
a dog can have on livestock, especially sheep,
if they get loose on a farm.
Tom's been finding out what can be done
to protect livestock from family pets.
And his film does contain some distressing images.
A walk through the countryside with your pet dog
can be one of the great pleasures in life.
But not if your beloved pet runs off on farmland.
Most, if not all, dogs, can play havoc with livestock.
But many owners are either ignorant of this, or in complete denial.
And, once a dog has attacked, there is a high probability,
given the chance, it will do it again.
John Blair had been taking his dogs for daily walks
in this Hampshire country park without a problem for 15 years.
He had no concerns about them attacking sheep
until, that is, a few weeks ago, when one of them ran off.
-Morning, John, looks like you've got your hands full there.
-Who have we got here?
We have Barney.
And we have Millie. And Wilfie.
They're gorgeous. So, which one was it that ran off,
-and what did you do?
-It was our little Wilfie here.
As we were walking back down this way, we got to about this point,
and he shot off down the field, went through the first two hedges
across the lane, into the field on the other side.
And then, ultimately, to the field just below the wood there.
And in that field, there were sheep.
-You could tell, could you, what he was heading for?
-Oh, yeah, yeah.
It was pretty clear that he was headed for the sheep.
And no amount of calling was going to change his direction.
The sheep, of course, were running.
And that's a great stimulus for a dog to chase sheep.
What's fun for a dog can be stressful or fatal for a sheep.
Absolutely, yes, indeed.
And you're obviously aware that dogs can do such things.
I've never really associated it with being our little Wilfie.
-He hasn't got form in that regard?
-Not at all, no, no.
He's your standard little household lovely pet.
But it just shows that there is the opportunity for any dog
-to go and do what he did.
-There is a bit of wolf in Wilfie.
A bit of the wolfie, yes, sadly, there is.
Wilfie didn't kill or injure any sheep.
But just the stress of being chased can lead to death,
or cause ewes to lose their unborn lambs.
-Has all of this kind of changed your behaviour with the dogs?
We tend now to walk in a slightly different part
where there aren't any sheep that we know of.
That's always the trouble, of course.
You can walk around a corner and there's a field of sheep.
But, yeah, to that extent, we keep Wilfie, from now, on a long lead.
We're trying to train him.
I believe there are ways that you can break this habit.
If you're interested in training, I've someone I'd like you to meet,
-if we can potter down this way.
-Shall I take one of these?
-Barney, come on, then.
-Off we go.
Both John and Wilfie could easily have ended up
on the wrong side of the law.
So, what should owners be doing to stop their dogs attacking livestock?
Keep out. Good boy.
Terena Plowright has had her own flock of sheep
for the last 25 years.
And, lie down!
She's also a dog lover,
and offers training to help improve their behaviour around farm animals.
-They look controlled and accomplished.
-This is John. This is Wilfie.
-Nice to meet you.
Right from the outset, I just want to make it very clear to you
that we cannot stop your dog chasing sheep entirely.
We would try to get it so that your dog might hesitate
-before doing anything.
-Try to get him under control.
-That's exactly it. And, once you've got the dog under control,
you can clip it on, and carry on with the walk. Sure.
So, what I'm going to do is, I'm going to put him on a long lead
and that will give him the feeling that he's free.
What we're looking for is, when he looks at sheep, just say to him,
That's it. He is clearly very, very fascinated by them.
-And you can see
-how, if he wasn't on the lead...
-He could be a problem.
What could happen is he's suddenly gone.
-Never trust him.
-No, certainly not now.
-Never ever trust him.
Terena doesn't just do training.
She's also launched the SheepWatch UK campaign
to help reduce the number of dog attacks.
We're asking farmers, please put a notice on the start of your field,
so that people know when they are entering a field with sheep.
Just put a really simple notice,
"Sheep in this field, dogs on leads."
We're also asking farmers,
please put a notice on the reverse of that to say
you are now leaving the area where you need to have your dog on a lead.
We don't want people to think, everywhere, they've got to put their dog on a lead.
Then, what we want to do is try and get farmers to inform
either the police or, if they haven't got time for that,
just text us to say whether they've had a dog attack,
just four or five words, so we can begin to build up a picture
of what's happening across the UK.
Why do you think this is needed?
Every single day, I am getting e-mails from farmers,
and from smallholders,
and in those e-mails are some absolutely horrendous
pictures of sheep that have been ripped by dogs.
And these farmers are upset, the sheep are suffering.
And this just has to stop, it absolutely has to stop.
There are 8.5 million pet dogs in the UK,
and their numbers keep growing.
So, unless things change, dog attacks on livestock
are a problem that's just going to get worse.
Most of the time, dogs bring us nothing but joy.
But, when those hunting instincts are unleashed,
I've seen the suffering that can result.
The key to addressing this is for owners to acknowledge that,
however unlikely it may seem,
their dog has the potential to chase sheep.
This is the Blackwater Estuary, just off Mersea Island.
Earlier, I was learning about the plight of the native oyster,
from seventh-generation oysterman Richard Haward.
Now, I'm with Essex Wildlife Trust's Sarah Allison
who's also a PhD researcher from the University Of Essex,
studying native oysters.
How often have you been coming out here, then?
For a while, very regularly, leading up to the MCZ being designated.
Thanks, in part, to Sarah's research,
these waters are now a Marine Conservation Zone,
specifically because of the decline of the native oyster.
Native oysters, they're known as a keystone species.
It means that their presence within an environment
allows other species to be present within that environment as well.
Much of Sarah's work concerns the importance of the oyster
to the marine ecosystem.
The Essex Estuary is the one that we're in now, the Blackwater.
It's very mobile, it's got lots of mobile sediment.
But oysters are a constant within that environment.
They group together, as a group of individual animals.
And, because they have a hard surface,
things can live on it, and things can live in it.
Small fish fry, juvenile fish, they can get away from predators,
and live within it, so that it becomes this really complex
It's called an oyster bed, but it's a three-dimensional structure
and there's loads of stuff present.
So, vitally important as far as filtering water's concerned?
They're called filter feeders.
And they constantly take in water from the environment.
And everything contained within it that's organic,
they will digest that, as food particles.
And then, all of the clean water is released through the system.
So they're constantly cleaning the water.
Working alongside the Blackwater oystermen has taught Sarah
a lot about the health of the oyster population locally.
The Essex Estuary has always been famous for the fact
that it has native oysters within it.
But very little scientific information
or ecological information was known about the populations.
So, we surveyed the whole of the Marine Conservation Zone
for this particular species of native oyster.
How did you do that?
The best way to find a native oyster is to use the fishing boats
that are designed to find native oysters.
And were you surprised by what you saw?
We expected to find pockets of individuals.
Some pockets were doing really well
and some pockets were doing not so well
and that was the really interesting bit.
And is there any hope in discovering
what the native oysters actually need in order to thrive,
even at this stage in the research?
Yeah, a part of the research certainly is, where are they?
But also, where are they not? Where could they be?
And we're going to start looking at restoration techniques
for those areas, to see if we can build the numbers up.
There's still a long way to go
for Sarah and her fellow PhD researchers.
But, even at this stage,
it's clear the future of the Mersea Island native oyster
depends on this curious partnership
between the oystermen and the conservationists.
At long last, winter is drawing to a close.
And the early signs of spring are beginning to show on Adam's farm.
It's not only the seasonal newcomers that are demanding his attention.
For his favourite sidekick,
life could be about to change in a big way.
At this time of year, the fields are fairly empty
because my flock of pregnant ewes
are all in the sheep shed, waiting to give birth.
So, for the working dogs, it's a quiet time of year,
because we don't want them chasing the sheep around
when they're heavily pregnant.
So, to keep dogs like Peg here fit,
I let them run around when I'm out in the buggy.
But, for Boo, it's a very different story.
She's the house dog, and I'm letting her ride in the cab with me
to take it easy because, hopefully,
I've got some good news to share with you later.
We're right at the early stages of lambing.
We've got about 550 ewes to give birth and a bunch of goats as well.
And the shed is a lovely environment to be lambing in,
not only for the shepherds, but also for the sheep,
in the warmth and comfort here.
We've had a few lambs born so far.
Really good sets of twins down here,
all looking well.
This ewe here has successfully given birth to her first lamb.
And she's in the process of giving birth to her second.
Usually, a ewe will lie down to give birth.
But she's doing it standing up.
I'll just stand back and watch,
and she should get on with it fine by herself.
It's actually hanging out of her now.
And the lambs are in a water bag, it's called,
full of amniotic fluid to protect them inside the ewe.
Usually, the bag breaks,
but this lamb is hanging still inside the bag,
with liquid all around its head.
So, there's a danger it might drown. I'm just going to get in.
Just have to clear its nose, otherwise it'll suffocate.
Get it breathing.
Usually, the sac around the lamb breaks,
and then, as it comes out, it can breathe for air.
But it was trapped around its nose,
and it was in danger of drowning, so it was fortunate I was here.
And, there we are. That's...it's breathing well now.
When you're lambing in close quarters like this,
in this kind of environment in a shed,
there's a danger that the lambs will get muddled up
and end up with the wrong ewe.
Because another ewe has come in. It's what we call an auntie.
This isn't the mother of these lambs.
She's got incredibly strong maternal instincts.
Probably is only 12, 24 hours off lambing herself.
But she's desperate to have some lambs.
So, she's trying to steal these ones off their mum
which is the ewe just over there.
And she's pushed the other ewe out the way,
and she's licking them and talking to them.
The danger is she'll take them away from their mother.
And then she'll eventually lie down and give birth to her own lambs,
and end up with four.
And, if you're not here to sort out the muddle,
you can get into all sorts of trouble
and end up with rejected lambs and lambs with the wrong ewes.
So, that's why we have a shepherd on duty in the shed 24 hours a day.
So, I'm going to remove the mother and the lambs,
and put them in a separate pen.
That way, Auntie can't interfere.
There's a good girl.
They're nice and safe in there, and they should bond as a family.
And the other ewe should go off now and give birth to her own.
Lambing season is well under way,
so we have to keep an eye on the ewes around the clock.
But, if that wasn't enough to keep us busy,
the pigs are getting in on the action, too.
We've got a number of different breeds of pig on the farm.
And I'm just picking up some straw to bed them down.
Because it's been so wet, we've got them in the stables.
And a number of them have got piglets.
So I give them a bit of straw, and their breakfast.
This is one of my Gloucestershire Old Spots.
I just want to move her into a slightly bigger stable.
It's all bedded down and ready for her.
If I just let her out, hopefully, the piglets will follow her.
But Mum seems more interested in the food than her piglets.
Time for plan B.
Hello, little piggies.
Come on. Come on!
OK, so using a pig board clearly isn't working.
That'll shift them.
I'll tempt the sow into the barn using some pig nuts
and, hopefully, the piglets will follow. It normally works.
But, on this occasion,
the piglets are enjoying their freedom too much.
Time for plan C.
Just need to grab the final piglets.
Whenever you pick piglets up, they always squeal for their mother.
There you go.
At this time of year, there's plenty of new life on the farm.
And, for Boo, who we introduced to the family three years ago,
a trip to the vet today could be life-changing.
Boo's a really lovely dog. She's a great pet in the house.
And the children absolutely adore her.
And, four weeks ago, we found her a boyfriend.
And so, now, I'm hoping she's pregnant.
So, I'm taking her to the vet to have her scanned.
And, if she's not pregnant, it's a negative scan,
the children are going to be really disappointed.
So, fingers crossed. In you go, Boo.
It's a short drive to my local vets in Broadway.
Ah, very relaxed.
So, she went to the dog about 30-odd days ago.
I don't know whether that suits scanning.
It should give us a good chance of seeing some pups, if she's pregnant.
OK, all right.
She's got a bit of a bulge on here, so I've got high hopes.
-Let's hope so.
We'll start off by putting some ultrasound jelly on her belly.
OK, let's have a look.
And already we can see multiple puppies.
Wonderful, Boo, you're going to be a mum, hopefully.
-That's brilliant, isn't it?
-They keep coming. Gosh.
-There's a few there.
-She must have a few, yes.
That one's moving. Look at it.
Those are really good shots, there. Yeah.
What do you reckon, as far as numbers go, can you tell?
She's certainly carrying multiple pups.
-And I would estimate around eight.
-Wow, that's a good-sized litter.
-It's a great litter.
-Wonderful. That's good news.
You're going to be a mum, hopefully, Boo-Boo.
I know the family will be absolutely over the moon.
It's great news that Boo's expecting puppies.
We'll have to give her lots of love and attention now.
All in all, it's been a good day.
We've had new lambs, new pigs, and Boo's a mum-to-be.
I'd better get back and tell the family.
It's great to see spring on its way.
We'd love to see your spring photographs.
Send them via our Twitter account, or the website.
And we might use yours in an upcoming programme.
There's something very special stirring in the Essex undergrowth.
DOG SNUFFLES AND PANTS
Meet Stig, a very spirited Springer Spaniel.
But Stig isn't just a playful pet.
He's got a job to do.
And it's a job he does better than any human could.
He's using his nose, he's having a good old rummage around
to see what he can find.
For Stig is the first and only dog in the world specially trained
to sniff out one of Britain's most endangered mammals,
the water vole.
When he finds something, he'll just freeze, he'll stop.
-There we go.
-Has he found something?
OK. He doesn't want... I can see something there. Let's see.
Ecologist Ali Charnick is Stig's owner.
So, Ali, how does Stig, as an ecology dog, work?
OK, so he helps us to survey for water voles.
And he sniffs out their latrines.
So he's looking for their droppings.
And what has he taught you about water voles you didn't know before?
We're constantly learning with him.
We were doing a survey, and he actually found
a latrine on an island that we wouldn't have been able to get to.
He's found floating latrines on logs.
We wouldn't necessarily have looked on a log for a latrine,
so that's a gap we've managed to fill in.
So, we are learning about the species through him,
-which is really helpful.
I love the boots. Look at the little shoes he wears.
They're great, they help him get into stinging nettles.
At the time of year when we'd be surveying,
stinging nettles are prolific.
With these boots, he's nice and protected, and safe.
He's saying, "Shut up, Mum, come on, let's get to work!"
Stig seems blissfully unaware of the important role
he's playing in the survival of the water vole.
And he certainly seems to be enjoying his work.
But, at nine years old, he's reaching retirement age.
Waiting in the wings, though, is seven-month-old Lola,
and Ali is starting to train her up.
-She's not a Springer Spaniel.
-She's not, no.
She's a Sprocker Spaniel.
So, her dad is a Cocker Spaniel, and her mum is a Springer Spaniel.
Ah, does that mean she's doubly quick?!
She's a healthy mixture of the two.
And what do you look for in an ecology dog,
how you know she's going to be a good worker?
She's ball crazy, which helps because that's her reward.
Although she's a gun dog, she doesn't want to look for birds.
She's good to be working in a sensitive site
and on a nature reserve.
-She'll work alongside Stig?
-She will, yeah.
She'll do the bulk of the work,
and Stig can have a leisurely time in his old age.
She's raring to go. Shall we have a look at her?
Yeah, let's get her going. Come on, then.
Before Lola learns to sniff out water vole scent,
she must first be trained to find a tennis ball.
Find it. Find it.
There we go. Good girl.
She was a little bit keen there. She went in with her teeth.
She's a little bit excited.
So, I held her back, waited till her nose was on it,
then we asked her to come off.
It's all about repetition. And, the more she does it,
the more she'll understand what we want from her.
-So, she's doing well at finding the ball.
-She is, yeah.
How do you move on, then, to finding the scent you want her to find?
So, we move on by reducing the amount of tennis ball,
and increasing the amount of water vole dropping.
She'll start to build that association
with the tennis ball and the droppings.
Then, eventually, we'll be able to take the tennis ball away,
and she'll just be imprinted on the water vole poo.
It's fun for her, it's a game at the end of the day.
It's the same for Stig, it's all a game. They love it.
-They love to work.
-Look at her. She's desperate for it.
She's desperate to find some more for us.
-Come on, then. See what we can find.
-Where is it?
Where is it, Lola?
Whilst Shauna's been on the hunt for water voles,
I'm doing a bit of oyster catching
in the Blackwater Estuary just off Mersea Island in Essex.
Thanks, in part, to the research being done
by conservationist Sarah Allison,
this estuary has been classified as a Marine Conservation Zone
which has had an impact on the local oystermen.
What was your reaction, Richard, when you heard that
the wildlife trusts wanted to come and start surveying this area,
-an area that you've known since you were a lad?
-Well, concern, anyway.
From the outside looking in,
it does seem very much like it's a really odd partnership.
We found that, for different reasons,
we really both wanted the same thing.
With Richard's son Bram at the helm, we're going to dredge
some of Richard's own private oyster beds.
These beds lie outside the Marine Conservation Zone
and so aren't subject to the same restrictions on fishing.
Responsibility for the welfare of the native oysters here
rests with Richard.
There's a lot there, Richard.
-Yeah, a lot of shell, not a lot of oysters necessarily.
Stood on this board at the back, Sarah,
this is how you've been doing the majority of your research, is it?
This is my research, yeah. Wet, muddy research.
This is a long-term monitoring project.
It's not just a one-off.
We need to know what the health of these beds are, going forward.
And the oystermen will be a part of that.
-Yeah, there's a lot of shell in here.
-Can you see here?
This is kind of an example of the way that they all group together.
So, a smaller juvenile individual will want to attach to a larger one.
And they build up into this reef system.
And you can see here and here, and there's another one here.
And that's just a really good example.
How have you done with the natives? Because we saw...
We'll probably get one or two more.
But that really summarises the situation.
There's plenty of rock oysters, but not many natives on the ground.
But, if we shunt this lot over the side, we'll have another haul
and we'll see what we get this time.
Richard and Bram have chosen not to dredge
in this specific part of the estuary for several years now.
They want to see the young native oysters gain a foothold.
Wow, that is a lot.
-There's loads of natives here.
-We've got some native action.
We've got a lot here.
There's a real mix of live natives in here,
and it's the age range that we're really looking for.
The smaller ones mean that the older ones are producing larvae.
What strikes me as being quite unusual is,
I've spent a lot of time with folk from the Wildlife Trust
and what have you, people passionate about wildlife.
And yet, here you are,
taking out the very species that you're trying to protect.
-And you're helping to do it.
-I know, I know.
-It seems like an illogical situation to most people.
But, in an area where the oystermen are,
where the oystermen work, where the oystermen cultivate their oysters,
the species is doing much better there.
There's this huge increase in numbers,
compared to an area that isn't being worked by the oystermen,
isn't being cultivated, and isn't being looked after by them.
So, it really is the presence of the oystermen in the estuary
that is helping the native oyster.
And that's where the conservation comes from.
And that's got to be good news for the communities above and below
the waves, along this beautiful stretch of British coastline.
Well, that's all we've got time for from Essex.
Next week, John and Anita will be in Northern Ireland
where John will be finding out about the thriving kelp business
on Rathlin Island.
And Anita will be exploring the beauty of the Ulster Way.
Hope you can join them then.
Matt Baker and Shauna Lowry are near Colchester on the Essex coast.
Matt ventures to Mersea Island to meet Richard Haward, a seventh-generation oyster fisherman. They head out to sea, where Matt learns about the decline of the native oyster and finds out how the local fishermen are joining forces with the Wildlife Trust to help save them. He also learns that native oysters are not just a key indicator of habitat quality, but that the habitat they help create is as valuable as coral reef.
Shauna Lowry returns to the River Colne, where five years ago Countryfile saw the start of a big project to return water voles to the wild. She sees for herself the success of the project and the vigilance needed to keep predatory mink at bay. Shauna also meets Stig - the first dog in the world specially trained to help sniff out water voles. And then there is Lola, the puppy learning the ropes from Stig.
It is also getting busy down on Adam's farm as he welcomes the latest arrival - a full-grown Berkshire pig.
While dogs might well be loving companions to millions of people across UK, Tom Heap finds out the devastating impact on livestock they can have when they get loose on a farm.
And actor Nina Wadia talks about her favourite bit of the countryside.