Ellie Harrison finds out about a conservation effort to save two species from extinction in Breckland, on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.
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These are the Brecklands of Norfolk and Suffolk,
a mix of heathland and sandy soils
that make it one of the UK's rarest habitats.
But it's under threat -
and with it some of the Brecklands' most endangered species.
But help is at hand from one of the area's best-known inhabitants,
the Breckland rabbit.
Matt discovers the secret to success for farmers here.
-The sandy soil - that's what does it.
-That's the key, isn't it?
-It's wonderful. Yeah.
It is the key.
It would be impossible on heavy land, absolutely impossible.
Margherita meets the former shepherd who gave up wool for watercolours.
He spent a lot of time with me
and said very kind things about my work and I came away from that
meeting thinking, "Right, I've got to do this."
It would be awful going through life and wondering, "What if?"
Tom looks at the potential weak links in our fight
against livestock diseases.
Seeing this threat coming from the rest of Central Europe, and it is
potentially, potentially, really devastating.
And Adam's day has just taken a bizarre turn.
-I never thought I'd get in a lift with an alpaca.
This is just extraordinary.
These are the Brecklands, or Brecks as they're also known.
A temperate climate and many rare species make this
one of the most distinctive habitats in the land.
The Brecks straddle Norfolk and Suffolk
and covers an area almost 400 square miles.
Cavenham Heath, in the south half,
is an outstanding example of English heathland.
It's a special environment.
So special, in fact, that the Brecks are one of just a handful of places
at the heart of one of the most ambitious
wildlife conservation projects the UK has ever seen.
It's called Back From The Brink,
a five-year project to save the 20 species most at risk of extinction
in England, and to improve the chances of more than 100 others.
It's being run by Natural England,
with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund,
and is bringing together conservation bodies
and volunteers to work on schemes throughout the country.
David Hodd is the programme manager.
-David, this is it - the launch of Back From The Brink.
It's a really exciting moment because we've got so many people
who've put together the thoughts about how we get this right.
It's a big project - never before has species conservation
in England had this much effort to really make a difference.
This is what is going to turn things around for an awful lot of species.
What are the species that are on the brink that you are hoping to help?
Within the project there are 112 species that we are going to
bring back from the brink.
We are going to put them on the road to recovery, of which about 20 are
likely to face extinction within the next few years, if we didn't act.
But the ones facing extinction
are things like the violet click beetle,
the ladybird spider, which was actually thought to be extinct
for 80 years but was rediscovered about 15 years ago in Dorset.
The Brecks are home to more than a quarter
of all the UK's rare species,
and some of them are found nowhere else...
..like the lunar yellow underwing moth.
It's one of the species on the back-from-the-brink list and it's
a vital source of food for another rare species, the stone curlew.
The moth, in turn, depends on another creature for its survival -
the Breckland rabbit.
They've been here since Roman times, nibbling the grass
and shaping this landscape.
In the last ten years, their numbers on Cavenham Heath
have dropped a whopping 96%.
East Wretham Heath is one of their few remaining strongholds.
I'm meeting Dr Diana Bell, from the University of East Anglia,
one of the world's leading rabbit experts,
to find out more about them.
Diana, why are rabbits important to this landscape?
Well, they create this very disturbed surface.
They burrow, they paw scrape, they create areas of bare ground,
and those are important
for a variety of rare plants and invertebrates.
But the rabbits here are vulnerable to a new lethal strain
of rabbit haemorrhagic disease, or RHD for short.
At the moment it's facing not just myxomatosis
but it's also got two new viruses -
one that came through in the '90s and most recently, in the last
couple of years, an even more destructive virus, which is
killing large numbers of the rabbits across the country, as we speak.
But here, on this very patch that we're standing on, they seem to
be doing quite well. I can see them all round us now. Why is that?
This is a good substrate for rabbits to burrow into.
We suspect that the rabbits have not had RHD2 here.
Diana is taking nothing for granted and performs regular
checks on the rabbits' health, which means trapping a few.
Let's get a weight on that.
1,500, a really big alpha male.
If Diana can work out why they're thriving here,
it might help save other populations in the Brecks.
Why do you do this research? Why do you measure their condition?
We want to make sure they've got good body weight,
good body fat on them. This one's got a tear in its ear.
-A bit of fighting?
-A bit of fighting.
The health check also includes sexing the rabbits.
Drumroll... It's a boy.
It is a boy, just as you suspected.
He's actually... These are quite furry.
Yes, you heard right.
And guess who's measuring them?
This is a first for you, Ellie.
I'm measuring testicles.
-This is all in the name of science.
-Don't squash them.
-These are quite small testicles.
The dominant males have large testicles.
Fantastic. So, just another reveal, just the back end there.
There is a full rabbit in there, I promise.
What can be done to help the Breckland rabbits?
We're trying to get them back into the areas
where there are empty warrens.
They're doing this by cutting the grass
and using scrub to create places for the rabbits to take cover.
In time, it's hoped that this will tempt them back.
Time now to let my little friend go.
Oh, it's quite a special moment, this.
Making a few snuffly-truffly sounds.
It's delightful to release him, unharmed. You're free.
You want to hang out. I don't blame you - we've had a good time.
But it's time to go. Go on. Off you go.
Oh, I love that.
Now, while I continue to explore the Brecklands,
here's Tom with a warning about the animal diseases
that are threatening our flocks and farms at this time of year.
Tom's report contains some upsetting images.
Winter - it's the time of year when migrating birds flock to our shores.
But some of them may carry a lethal disease -
avian influenza, otherwise known as bird flu.
Bird flu doesn't respect national borders or farm boundaries.
Almost a year ago, outbreaks across the country meant
thousands of birds had to be destroyed.
So to prevent the disease devastating our livestock
farm animals are subject to special laws on bio-security.
There may be a chink in our armour.
Hobby farming - where just a few pigs, chickens,
or ducks are kept - is extremely popular.
It feels like natural, healthy living - the good life, if you will.
It's estimated there are 750,000 back-yard poultry keepers in the UK.
Those people who keep fewer than 50 birds
don't even have to be registered - but they can play a crucial
role in outbreaks of disease, and that's often overlooked.
About a year ago an outbreak of the serious strain of bird flu
known as H5N8 was discovered among the chickens
and ducks on this smallholding in Carmarthenshire.
The birds here used to wander freely.
But the stable where they lived now stands empty.
It's a painful reminder to Stephanie
and something she has never spoken about publicly.
So, tell me about when you first realised you had a problem here.
Well, we had a chicken that had died overnight.
I came up here to see what was going on
and found one that was a bit poorly and not coming out
and just sitting on the perch, which is not usual for that chicken.
I just noticed that it had a bit of swelling on its face.
So I phoned my mum, who was in work, and she said to ring the vet's
and speak to them.
The vet contacted the Animal And Plant Health Agency
and within a couple of hours they had arrived at the farm.
They came dressed from head to toe in their suits and oxygen
and things that they have on, which was quite daunting.
They then did an autopsy on the dead chicken we already had.
They also did tests on the ducks while they were here.
And what happened to the birds shortly after that?
A couple of days later they came back with all the results
and that was it - they were confirmed with bird flu
and all were retested and put to sleep.
How did you feel when this was all going on?
It was awful. Horrible.
Just... There was no control -
we had no control over what was going on.
And it was heartbreaking. They were our pets.
We didn't have them for any other reason, we just enjoyed having them.
Every year they would have ducklings and that was brilliant.
The children loved them.
They were just pets more than anything else.
While they may be pets, sadly they're still a risk as this
strain of bird flu can spread extremely quickly.
While H5N8 is highly contagious, it is not spread
to us, nor is there any risk of it spreading through food.
But bird flu is constantly mutating and another strain, H5N1,
which broke out in Asia in 2003, has killed 450 people so far.
The disease spreads through contact
with contaminated body fluids and faeces.
But it can also be transmitted through contaminated clothing,
feed and water.
That all means measures to contain an outbreak are severe.
Infected birds are slaughtered, a two-mile protection zone
and a six-mile surveillance zone are placed around the premises
from which all trade is banned.
Understandably, many farmers are worried about the impact that
back-yard livestock could have on their businesses.
The problem may be that hobby farmers don't really consider
themselves part of the industry and may be unaware of restrictions
if disease breaks out.
It turned out Stephanie's birds caught the disease
by sharing their pond with an infected wild duck.
Her mum, Joan, thinks it had probably flown in
from the local wetlands.
At that time, Defra had given instructions about keeping
your own birds and wild birds separated. You hadn't done that?
I wasn't aware of that because I didn't get
anything from Defra before the outbreak.
Eventually there was something, obviously, hit the headlines.
But you don't spend all your time watching television
and reading newspapers.
If you say to someone, "Well, keep your chickens in if you can,"
well, I can't, so I don't.
I still wonder if you should have been a little bit more
-proactive at finding out what the risks were.
But that's no different to an awful lot of other people.
Yes, I was a bit complacent, probably.
It wasn't going to happen to me. But it would have been nice
if there had been more publicity.
Do you think Defra need to improve the way they get their messages across?
Yes, there are plenty of organisations about for
poultry keepers and the ideal thing would be if they got in touch
with a smallholding group,
let them know and let them dispense it to their members.
So for domestic keepers, watching the programme,
what's the key message you would like to get across to them?
Perhaps be a little bit more aware of what can happen and they're not
very nice consequences, particularly for the animals concerned.
It's an awful thing that Joan and Stephanie went through.
Later on, I'll be speaking to Defra about what
they are doing to improve communications
and finding out about another infectious disease that's
threatening our shores - and this one has farmers really worried.
-These acres, straddling the border of Norfolk and Suffolk,
are known for their dry conditions.
The fast-draining sandy soils make them
an unusually good place to grow crops.
And it was this sandy soil that inspired one farmer,
many years ago, to take a huge leap of faith for his family.
Before the Second World War, Russel Abrey was farming in Suffolk.
It wasn't until the mid-70s that he tried growing veg
in the Brecklands of Norfolk.
It paid off. Today, the farm produces
over 100,000 tonnes of root vegetables a year.
His grandson Giles and his cousins now run the business.
Giles, I cannot believe how sandy this is.
I mean, you know, I was expecting it to be loamy but this is remarkable.
-Incredible, isn't it?
-It's like a beach.
I think we're very lucky that our grandfather sort of moved
up here in the early '70s.
Yeah, so how did that happen, then?
How did your grandad end up down here?
When he was a child he was at Tuddenham, which has
a soil type a bit like this.
So I think, having then farmed on some heavier soil, I think
he thought maybe things might be easier coming here.
-He knew what he was letting himself in for?
Did people think he was mad for doing this?
A few thought he was a bit barking mad.
What is it about this soil that makes it
so good for growing root veg?
Because it's such a nice profile of sandy soil, when we're growing
our carrots and parsnips, we get
a nice, long, straight carrot or parsnip.
When you look at onions, what we're aiming for is a bright, stain-free
onion, which we get because we don't get any water logging.
And potatoes - this soil does give lovely smooth, bright skins.
Another advantage of these quick-draining soils
is that they can be worked all year round.
That means a steady supply to the supermarkets.
Onions do particularly well in these sandy soils.
Being able to crop them throughout the year
has given the business a real boost.
Giles's cousin, Tom, certainly knows his onions.
Tom, they tell me that you're the onion man of the family.
-Am I really?
-Is that right?
Well, I mean, there are literary onions as far as the eye can see.
How many roughly? How many tonnes would you say are in here?
There's about 1,200 tonnes at harvest in this field.
And the aim is that we are doing
an all-year-round supply into the markets and supermarkets.
When you say an aim, is that a reality at the moment,
or is that something you are very close to?
Yeah, we've nailed it for the last four years.
We used to import six weeks of New Zealand onions every year
from June and July.
We've closed that to nothing,
meaning less food miles when we're importing onions
from the other side of the world. We're not doing it any more.
It's also more sales for us.
Yeah, I mean, I was going to say,
that must mean that you have quite a large proportion
of the onion market.
I think we're about 7%, 8%, now of the UK supplies.
-So, yeah, it's, er...
Keeps me out of the pub!
Producing this much veg in this dry part of the country
means there's a big demand for water.
So the farm has built huge reservoirs and installed
technology to make sure the crops get water just when they need it.
Farming on this scale has changed the face of much of the Brecklands.
In the past, a lot of this vital habitat fell under the plough.
That had a big impact on wildlife.
But in recent years, farmers like the Abreys have been making
a huge effort to turn things around.
What are you doing, then, on your farm as far as that
relationship between food production and wildlife is concerned?
We do winter bird food so we plant a sort of a cereal crop
and a brassica crop.
It matures, produces seeds which provide winter feed,
winter, autumn, spring feed for things like grey partridge,
turtledove, corn bunting.
And the stone curlew, one of the UK's rarest birds.
Back in the '80s, numbers in the Brecklands had fallen
to fewer than 100 breeding pairs.
Now, thanks to a big conservation push,
their numbers have almost tripled.
What are you putting this increase down to?
Here we have a stone curlew plot.
So this area is about two hectares,
about two football pitches,
and basically what we do we try and create their ideal habitat,
which is sandy, dry soil.
They like stones because the stones are sort of similar to
-the eggs - it's a bit of camouflage there.
And it's just a perfect environment for them nesting
when they come over in March.
You've got machinery going on around us here.
There's so many tractors - it's incredible.
And yet everybody is mindful of what's going on below the tyres.
Yeah, and it's everything from the sort of birdlife right
through to the rare arable plants, the insects, bees, everything.
Yeah, it's a combined effort.
And later I'll be seeing how these soils
have been good for livestock, too.
MARGHERITA TAYLOR: It's not just farmers and conservationists
working in this landscape.
There are others, drawn by the sheer beauty of the Brecks.
Jonathan Yule has been in love with this landscape
since moving here more than three decades ago.
So much so that he gave up his job as a shepherd to become
a professional artist.
Jonathan, this is such a stunning landscape.
What was it about it that first made you want to paint it?
It's one of the last wild places in this part of the country.
When you look around, it's completely unaffected,
-seemingly, by man now.
-It feels like a hidden gem.
The habitat here is incredibly important -
it's very important it's preserved.
This is a lovely spot here.
-Looks good to you?
-This looks good.
I haven't picked up a paintbrush since school, so I'm a bit nervous.
And we're painting with watercolours,
a notoriously difficult medium.
You've picked this beautiful setting for us to paint today.
-Do you already see the picture in it that you want to paint?
-I do, yes.
It is, for me, a quintessential Brecklands landscape.
We've got all the elements here.
These gorse in the foreground with a little bit of flower, still.
All year round there are some flowers on gorse.
The old Scots pine trees, which are quintessential Breckland trees,
and the sheep.
We're lucky enough to have these sheep here, which now,
with some of them under the trees in deep shadow and some
in the foreground with the light on them, makes a really lovely picture.
How would you begin painting this
and how shall I begin painting this?
With watercolour, you start from your palest colour working
towards your darkest colours.
So, looking at this landscape, the palest colours are the grassland
in the foreground and, of course, the sky.
-What we do... Let me just show you - you can copy what I do.
So I'm going to wet the paper, plenty of paint on it.
It's been a while since Jonathan gave up shepherding
but he still looks back on it fondly.
Did you enjoy your time as a shepherd?
I loved it, absolutely loved it.
Sheep farming has changed a bit now but it's still the least changed
of all the livestock farming systems and particularly here in this area.
So the sheep are fundamental in helping to mould this landscape
and keep it in this sense, sort of timeless sense that it has.
As a budding artist, Jonathan was encouraged by one of Britain's
greatest naturalists and renowned wildlife painter, Sir Peter Scott.
He wrote two wonderful books, Morning Flight
and Wild Chorus, which inspired me hugely to pick up a brush.
So I wrote to Peter Scott.
After a while I got a reply from him and he said,
"Yes, I'd be very happy to see you,"
and he said, "Bring some work down and I'll have a look."
-What a moment.
-It was fantastic.
And he spent a lot of time with me
and said very kind things about my work
and I came away from that meeting thinking,
"Right, I've got to do this. I've got to try it."
You know, it would be awful
going through life and wondering, "What if?"
Now, nice steady, even strokes
across the page.
Don't take the brush from the paper.
..let the water carry the pigment.
-Use the flat of the brush.
You're getting lines in the sky a little bit but it doesn't matter.
Everyone struggles with watercolour skies. Even the great
Peter Scott said to me, "I wish I could paint skies like that."
It was huge encouragement to me, as you can imagine.
It must've meant an incredible amount to hear that
-from someone who you so admired.
I have to say, I'm really enjoying this.
Jonathan's a fantastic teacher.
Since we've been sitting here,
there's some nice cloud appearing in the sky
which we haven't... We painted our lovely, clear washes
and if we were painting properly in watercolour you would
leave white paper for the clouds which, of course, we haven't done.
But this is a field sketch and the finished picture
I produce - I think there will be more cloud in it.
So you'll use this as a base?
Absolutely, this is just...
These are notes which will mean a great deal
to me when I sit in my studio and start to paint the finished picture.
-How are you getting on?
-What do you think for my beginner's effort?
I think you've done... For someone who's never used
watercolour before, you've done really, really well.
-Continue with it. I hope you will.
It's not easy.
-If I can have a go, anyone can.
Whilst my artistic skills need a bit more brushing up,
Jonathan's painting has captured the beauty of the Brecks perfectly.
ELLIE: Earlier, we heard how hobby farmers might be
the weak links in our fight against infectious diseases like bird flu.
But, as Tom's been finding out,
there could be another devastating disease on the horizon.
We have more than 3,200 back-yard pig keepers in the UK
and what you may or may not know is that a highly contagious
and incurable disease is sweeping across the continent.
If it arrived here, it could wipe out the British pork industry.
African swine fever
is the most infectious virus known to affect pigs.
Also called pig plague, this incurable disease
has gradually been creeping westward across Europe,
turning up this year for the first time in the Czech Republic.
If it were to get into Germany,
there would be little between a worrying outbreak and us.
What worries scientists in the Czech Republic case
is the disease had effectively jumped hundreds of miles.
That suggests it was either introduced on contaminated food,
or by the illegal movement of pigs.
Mick Sloyan, who is at the forefront of our pork trade,
wants all pig farmers, including those on small back-yard farms,
to be aware of the dangers.
So, how bad would it be for the pork industry in this country
-if we got African swine flu?
-It would be absolutely devastating.
The real issue would be with our exports.
We have a market that's worth £400 million a year,
exporting out of this country,
and if we got just one outbreak, we'd lose that market overnight.
Given that we don't import many live animals,
how could the disease get here?
Well, we know from what's happened in continental Europe
that some of the meat from infected pigs
is made into traditional products
like salamis, dried sausages, that sort of thing.
So the virus can survive in prepared meat?
Yes, it's a very tough virus,
it can survive in frozen meat for a year or more.
What we've heard is that
a lot of lorry drivers who are coming over here
like to bring their own food with them and, of course, who wouldn't?
And the trouble is, if you've got a products that contain the virus -
perfectly safe for humans, by the way,
so they can eat it quite happily.
But if they discarded a sandwich or left it somewhere
where it could be picked up by carrion
and then that could find its way into either the wild boar population
or even onto farms.
That's exactly what happened the last time
we had swine fever in the UK.
A different strain, classical swine fever,
broke out on a few farms across East Anglia 17 years ago
and resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of pigs.
Since 2002, there's been a blanket ban across the UK
of feeding food waste of any description to pigs,
but that still leaves the problem of wild boar.
It's been estimated there are now between 2,000 and 4,000
wild boar living in the UK.
These free-roaming animals could be a reservoir for the virus
and could easily introduce it to commercial herds,
or pigs kept by small back-yard farmers.
On the advice of the APHA, Defra has recently
raised the risk of African swine fever from very low to low.
It doesn't sound like much, but for head virologist
Professor Ian Brown, it's a significant change.
If it did come here, it is a terrible disease, isn't it?
Yes, it's very devastating, it's highly contagious,
it spreads rapidly, it has a big impact on the animals
that are infected, so there are big welfare concerns, and, of course,
it has a big knock-on effect for the pig industry in the UK.
So, what's the key message for...
This is for all of us, isn't it, it's not just for pig-keepers?
Don't feed your kitchen scraps to livestock species.
Legally, it's prohibited anyway, and it is a genuine risk pathway.
Foot-and-mouth disease arrived here in 2001
through cake and rice finding its way into the animal sector.
But, of course,
the more immediate threat at this time of year is from bird flu.
What is your message to back-yard bird-keepers?
It's to be vigilant and it's to do the little things that you can do
to best protect your birds.
We don't know whether the virus is going to arrive here this winter.
What we do know is, over the next few weeks, we are in a risk period.
Migratory waterfowl will be coming into the UK in quite large numbers,
so we need those people that keeps their birds
in their back yard or back garden
to just follow a few simple good-practice rules
which will help protect.
And do you think the communication with back-yard keepers
-has been good enough?
-I think there's a gap,
which is why Defra have produced an information sheet,
they've put a lot more effort into their web pages,
there is easy-to-access advice.
The chief veterinary officer has produced a video
about back-yard keepers and how they can best protect their animals
and, you know, that's had a lot of hits,
so we are getting the message out there,
but actually, the things that are being recommended
are probably good practice for animal welfare anyway,
because these are good steps
to prevent any disease getting into your birds.
Whether you keep poultry or pigs for a hobby,
you need to be aware of the risks.
Early action is critical in tackling any animal disease outbreak
and back-yard keepers should know that they could have a role
in either limiting or spreading infection.
If you're concerned about this,
have a look at more details on our website.
ELLIE: I'm in the Brecks in Suffolk, looking at an ambitious project
to save some of our most vulnerable species
and to see how rabbits have played their part.
Pioneering plants and specialist insects have benefited
from the way the rabbits have shaped this landscape.
Even on a freezing cold night like tonight, I've been told I've got
a reasonable chance of spotting some pretty rare caterpillars.
Not just any rare caterpillar -
the caterpillar of the lunar yellow underwing moth,
now found in just a handful of places.
It's holding on in the Brecks,
but to see these caterpillars means braving the cold and dark.
Sharon Hearle from Butterfly Conservation
is leading a night-time bug hunt.
Sharon, a lot of people can't really imagine
caterpillars being active in the winter,
or any insects for that matter, but some of them are?
Yes, they are, yeah.
Even in your own garden, they are active, but out here,
we are looking for the rare one, the lunar yellow underwing.
So, tell me a little bit about their life cycle.
The adult flies in June, June or July, sometimes into August,
and lays its eggs.
And the amazing thing about this particular moth
is how it spends the whole winter as a caterpillar -
against the odds, in all this cold, the snow, the ice, the rain,
it continues to feed slowly all through the winter.
The Brecks is a national stronghold for the lunar yellow underwing
and we will be surveying for that throughout the winter months
to find out how it's doing and the type of habitat it prefers.
Is that with a view to understanding how better to protect it?
Indeed, and to know what is working.
Certain treatments that different landowners are applying -
is that a good treatment? What type of grazing works best?
Let the search begin.
-Are we ready?
-Let's go looking.
-Ellie, I've got one, I've got one.
-You've got one? Good!
-Yes, at last!
-I was starting to lose hope.
Let's have a look.
So, there it is, perched up.
-Striking the pose!
-Striking a pose.
-In a sort of question-mark shape.
-On the piece of grass there.
I found the searching process really calming
and, actually, you really observe far more than you normally would.
-You see it completely differently.
-Tell me about the bare patches -
they're pretty important, aren't they?
They really are important. You see all the stones poking through
and this is why we need our rabbits because they create all this
and they are continually turning over the ground
and it is just what we need.
You know, there will be beetles out here,
little tiny wasps out here, all sorts of things.
People may see you out in the middle of the night, in the cold,
and think, "Why do this?
"Why care about them at all? Why do they matter?"
These will be food.
They're food, as caterpillars,
to a whole host of different creatures and birds.
In the summer, when they are adults, they are adult butterflies,
so they could be food for nightjar a whole host of other... Bats.
You know, they are really vital.
I am so delighted to have seen this one.
I now feel like I know exactly what I'm looking for,
-so the search goes on.
Well, now, what's this,
blowing in a Breckland breeze in the middle of the night?!
It's the Countryfile calendar! Who would have thought?!
And, on the month of December,
to remind us that it is a great Christmas gift for someone you love.
Here's John with the details.
It costs £9.50 including UK delivery.
You can go to our website, where you will find a link to the order page.
Or you can phone the order line on...
If you prefer to order by post,
then send your name, address and a cheque to...
A minimum of £4.50 from the sale of each calendar
will be donated to BBC Children In Need.
Now, Christmas is just around the corner
and when you think of festive animals, what do you think of?
A red-nosed reindeer, maybe a little donkey?
Bet it's not one of these!
-Hello, can we come in?
Adam is finding out how alpacas are helping lift the Christmas spirit.
There are many ways of making a living from keeping livestock
and lots of animals to choose from, but it's not often you come across
a herd of alpacas grazing in the countryside,
like these ones.
These adorable animals belong to Wendy Williams.
It was always her dream to raise alpacas.
She's now been farming a herd in Dorset for seven years.
-Can I squeeze in?
Lovely to meet you!
Aren't they gorgeous?!
-They are, they really are.
-How many alpacas have you got?
There's 30 on the property.
But you're trained in keeping pigs, I understand?
At the age of three, I told my parents I wanted to be a pig farmer,
I never changed my mind and I did qualify,
I do have a craftsmanship in pig husbandry,
but time has gone on, the pig market goes up and down
and the alpacas are just great.
-Bit different to pigs!
As intelligent, though.
30 alpacas is a lot - it's more than a hobby -
so how do you make a living from them?
We do make money on the wool,
-but I myself do alpaca walking here on the farm.
We have a group coming this morning
-so if you'd like to join us, you'd be very welcome.
-Yeah, love to.
I also take them to weddings.
-We've taken the rings in for a couple of brides.
Yeah, it surprises the guests.
I like that - amazing.
The other thing we do is we go to care homes with them,
which is my principal income.
-To care homes?!
-Why do you do that?
They're very calming animals.
People with dementia, who don't tend to look down,
we can get them in the eye line,
which means if we can just get them to look, it's a fantastic thing.
-We sometimes get tears.
It's a lovely, lovely job.
So, if I'm going to join you on a walk, how do you catch an alpaca?
We need to just put them in the pen
and then I'll show you how to put the head collar on and off we'll go.
OK, right. Come on, then, you lot.
What do we do, drive them in like sheep?
Yes, except they'll go where we want them, unlike sheep.
And he'll actually put his head in for you.
Oh, look, he likes it. What a good boy!
The group of alpaca walkers arrive.
If you'd like to take Hurricane, thank you.
-Off we go.
Come on, Prince.
And we head out to the fields.
How often are you doing these walks, then?
I probably have had about 300 people through the doors this year.
They are quite peculiar animals, aren't they?
-They are so different and their wool is lovely.
-It is, isn't it?
They all seem to get on very well with one another, as well.
-They do seem to be enjoying it, don't they?
-They do, definitely.
They originate from South America, don't they?
Peru, Chile and Bolivia. His mother was actually from Chile.
It's a bit different to taking the dog for a walk, isn't it?
It's a funny noise they make, isn't it,
-that little sort of murmuring, communicating to one another?
After a good countryside stroll with the alpacas,
it's back to the farmyard for a spot of lunch..
..before taking two of them on a visit to a local care home.
Yes, you heard right, a care home!
Good boy, in we go.
Well, I've loaded lots of animals in my time, Wendy,
but what do alpacas travel like?
The actually sit down to travel, which makes them very easy.
They sit down? Fantastic.
So they don't rock the trailer, so it's really, really good.
-Well, they went up there very easily, didn't they?
It's a short drive to Newstone House, just one of 120 care homes
that Wendy frequently visits with her alpacas.
-Can I help?
As it's Christmas, we're going to put their Christmas bow ties on.
Alpacas with bowties on. Whatever next?
-They look very smart.
-Come on, Ollie.
What a good boy!
Do you need a wee before we go in the care home?
-I don't want you going on the carpet.
-Should be OK.
-In we go.
-There we are.
-Going towards the lift
-because we are going up in the lift.
-Up in the lift?!
Yes, we've got to go to the upper floor.
Do they mind going in the lift?
They don't, no, it's like a horse box to them.
-In they go.
Good boy, well done.
They are so well-behaved, aren't they?
Well done, Ollie. Good boy.
Well, I never thought I'd get in a lift with an alpaca.
This is just extraordinary.
-What number are you going to press?
-Here we go, boys. Here we are, then.
Come on, Ollie, good boy.
Look what we've got for you here.
I like your Christmas ears.
There we go, we've brought you some wonderful animals.
There we are.
Look at his bow tie!
It's his Christmas bow tie.
They like their neck to be stroked, but not their heads.
"No," he says, "I don't want to be."
It's your ears, I'm afraid!
-He thinks you're a strange Christmas-looking alpaca.
Shall I take them off for you, darling? There we are.
-Look at him!
-He's having a little lie-down, making himself at home.
Yes, Ollie's here. It's nice to have a bit of a roll.
All right, Jimmy.
-Come on, Jim, up you get.
Do you enjoy them coming in?
Any diversion is a good idea.
Are they easier to handle than your pigs?
Well, they are a lot easier, yes.
I don't think I'd ever take my pigs in a lift
and bring them up in here,
and certainly, my pigs are not house-trained.
They would just go on the floor.
-Isn't that lovely?
That's their little noise they make.
He's talking to you.
I had no idea what he was saying,
but luckily Wendy speaks fluent alpaca
and realises they're saying something very important.
OK, that's all right, that's all right.
They need to go for a wee-wee now.
Going to have to take them to the toilet.
He's telling Wendy that's what he needs to do.
We need to get out of the building as soon as possible.
We've just got to go to the loo - he's desperate.
How do you know? Cos he's making funny noises?
He's making noises and he's wiggling.
OK, crikey, come on, quick as you can.
Come on, Jim, good boy. That's it.
-Come on, then, boys.
-In you go.
In you go, Jimmy. He can genuinely pee for ten minutes.
It's just brilliant that you could spot the signs.
It's just knowing your animals.
Just as well you knew it was going to happen, cos we wouldn't want
-alpaca wee all over the carpet, would we?
-No. They do a lot!
After a quick comfort break,
we head back in to finish the Christmas rounds.
Here they are, look.
-Can we come in?
-Will you fit past that?
-And what's your name?
Lovely to meet you. And how old are you, Arthur?
99! When are you 100?
Have you seen alpacas before?
Oh, yes. I've seen these two before.
Oh, you're a bit like that, are you?!
Do you think this interaction with animals helps some of the residents?
I really do.
It's vital for a lot of the residents,
particularly those who used to keep animals themselves.
We are in a very rural community,
where people used to have pets and sometimes farms,
so to reconnect is just a wonderful thing to be able to do.
Do you enjoy seeing them?
Oh, very much, yes.
May I touch?
Like that. Yeah, that's it.
It's a lot better like that, isn't it?
The residents really do seem to respond well to the alpacas.
Ooh, yes, a little lick, that'll do.
And it's lovely to see them put a smile on so many faces.
I think Wendy is doing an absolutely marvellous job.
Not only is she making a living out of alpacas
but when she brings them to a place like this,
she is enlightening people's lives.
And certainly for the residents of this care home,
I think she's made their Christmas.
Come on, boys.
It's a job well done.
The sandy soil here on the Norfolk/Suffolk border
has been a blessing for arable farmers.
And this sandy soil is just as good for livestock, especially pigs.
Lots of pigs.
This is just part of the 5,000-strong herd
belonging to farmer Chris Fogden and, thanks to the soil,
you won't find any mucky pigs here.
Well, Chris, this is incredibly orderly.
It's kind of like a pig version of Glastonbury, but without the mud.
-The sandy soil - that's what does it.
-That's the key, isn't it?
It is the key. It'd be impossible on heavy land.
We can get round and feed them every day of the year without bother.
They are not up to their bellies in mud
and they can get on with the job of looking after their babies.
Yeah, because they are a very clean animal.
People often think that they're quite mucky but they're not.
Yes, they don't make a mess inside their house, it's always outside.
They come ready house-trained.
So, as far as the kind of make-up or the system of your farm here
is concerned, how is it working? Because there's pigs everywhere.
This is the farrowing field, about 20 hectares.
There's 330 farrowing paddocks on here.
It's the maternity wing.
We're farrowing pigs every day of the year.
No, we're not like these sheep farmers!
We have two other fields where the sows run when they are pregnant
-and running with boars.
Chris's pigs are a crossbreed called Landroc.
They're a hardy pig with good, strong maternal instincts.
The piglets are all destined for market, so at four weeks,
they are weaned and sold on to another farm in Yorkshire,
who fattens them up for sale.
To make sure Chris's pigs are in prime condition,
they get plenty of good food and fresh clean straw to sleep on.
-There's some nice straw for your bed.
-Come to clean up your bedding.
I'll hang that up. How many...
Whoops! There's a little one in there, is there?
-Don't mind us.
You can do the next hut, I think.
-Is that enough in there?
-That's plenty, yes.
Let's move in next door.
Well, Chris, I understand that you are not from a pig-farming family.
-No, no, I brought this all on myself!
Why pigs, then?
Well, I was desperate to start in farming and I didn't have any money
and it was something I could start quite small and build up.
And I rented...
I was fortunate, very fortunate, to be able to rent about four hectares
from my landlord here, following a harvest job, and it went from there.
Chris is one of several tenant farmers here.
The land he is on is rotated,
so that some years it's used for livestock, other years arable.
We are a crop in the rotation, in effect.
We occupy a site for two years
and then they have four years of cropping, so we're putting a lot...
We're the fertility break,
so we're putting a lot of fertility back into the land,
helping them grow good crops.
And what are your pigs getting in return?
They are getting clean land to live on,
so we are getting parasite-free land
and every two years I get the chance
to completely redesign the farm and have a new farm.
One day I might get it right!
For now, though, Chris can just settle in and call this patch home.
It'll be two years before he has to up sticks for the next rotation.
Now, the good news for these sows and their piglets
is they have insulated pig beds because, let me tell you,
there is a nip in the air here at the moment.
But the question is, is it going to get any colder?
Listen up, it's time for the five-day forecast.
We are in the Brecklands, also known as the Brecks,
the mix of sandy soils and heathland
that straddles the Suffolk and Norfolk border.
It is home to some of the UK's rarest wildlife,
where a major new conservation effort has just got underway.
But nearby, one town is making
a very special conservation effort of its own.
I've come to Ipswich to meet a mother-and-daughter team
who are pulling out all the stops for one animal in particular.
Earlier, I was looking at the Back From The Brink project,
a big push to help save some of England's most vulnerable species,
including the hedgehog.
Hedgehog numbers are reckoned to be down by a third
on where they were a decade ago.
Today, there are thought to be fewer than one million left
in the whole of the UK.
Suffolk Wildlife Trust is running
various community projects to make Ipswich
the most hedgehog-friendly town in the country.
Eight-year-old Daisy Donald and her mum Emma
are hedgehog champions who have turned their back garden
into a hedgehog haven.
Emma also volunteers at the local hedgehog rescue centre.
Here at home, mum and daughter are caring for three hedgehogs
brought in as hoglets.
What should people do if they see a hedgehog
in their garden in the daytime?
If it looks like it's sunbathing on the lawn,
it really needs to get to a rescue centre ASAP
because it will be genuinely unwell.
There's been instances where people have kindly rescued a hedgehog
and then fed it bread and milk en route to us
and that's actually killed the hedgehog.
If you are going to feed a hedgehog out in the wild, cat food, dog food.
-And you... Who is this, Daisy?
-This is Ernest.
He was brought in when he was 100g
and now he's been brought here to be fostered for the winter.
-And I've heard you've got a very hedgehog-friendly garden.
Shall we take a look at it?
Hedgehogs like to roam far and wide,
but roads, garden walls and fences
have made it increasingly difficult for them to get around.
But the Donalds have created a great stopping-off spot,
complete with bug hotels, nesting sites and hedgehog highways.
Talk me through some of the features.
So, here we've got a pond and over the pond we've got grates
so the hedgehogs won't fall in and then get stuck.
And over there we've got a ramp
so they can get out if they do fall in.
Have you ever seen one swimming?
Not in this pond, but in videos, yes.
Yes, they do swim, don't they?
This is a hedgehog feeding station.
If the wild hedgehogs need some food,
they will come in, get their food, but cats and foxes won't be able
to get in because we've got that at the front, which will stop them,
and a CD-sized hole, which means only a few animals can get in.
-And do you see them eat from here?
They do, they like it.
And I see you've got a few cameras around.
-Do you know that the hedgehogs are definitely using it?
-And do you see the cats have a go?
-Have they managed it?
-So that works perfectly.
So, over here, we've got a hedgehog highway,
so we've just got a hole underneath the fence.
We've got one of these cos the hedgehogs need to travel through
garden to garden, so they can get through and under to other gardens.
-Because the travel quite far, don't they?
-Do know how far they go?
Two or three kilometres a night.
And the good thing about your design is you don't have to cut the fence
and make somebody upset - you just dig a little tunnel through.
-Just dig a little hole.
Daisy and her mum have even built a special enclosure
so that fostered hedgehogs can safely get used to the outdoors
before being released back into the wild.
What is your kind of general take-home message for people
who want to maybe have rehabilitated hedgehogs in their garden,
or want to just do a bit more?
Leave a little bit of your garden untidy,
make sure you've got access in and out
and perhaps provide a little bit of extra support
in the way of food and water.
Easy to do and very rewarding.
Yes, very rewarding,
especially if you see them at night-time in your garden.
If you have a hedgehog-friendly back garden, we'd like to hear about it,
so tweet us...
So, from little hogs to some slightly bigger.
Aren't they gorgeous?!
And she's come just in time to say goodbye,
because that is all we've got time for this week from the Brecklands.
Next week I'll be celebrating the countryside I grew up in
and hearing from some famous faces about their favourite places.
-I've been wanting to see an otter for years and I've finally seen one.
-I'm so pleased.
-From all of us here...
-Including these guys.
Ellie and Matt are in the Brecklands on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. Ellie finds out all about a major conservation effort to save two Brecks species at threat of extinction. She also hears how the Brecks rabbit is playing a key role in this effort. Later, Ellie meets the mum-and-daughter team helping to make Ipswich the most hedgehog-friendly city in the UK.
Matt joins an arable farmer who is able to harvest veg all year round thanks to the Brecks' sandy soils and temperate climate. He also meets the pig farmer who swears by the soil for rearing his livestock.
Margherita joins a shepherd turned artist for a lesson in watercolours out in the Brecks, and Adam has got his hands full with two alpacas who have an unusual job to do.
Tom Heap looks at the animal diseases worrying farmers at this time of year and asks if there is a chink in our armour.