Episode 9 Nature's Top 40


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Episode 9

Nature programme. Mike Dilger is near Marlborough to see a mind-boggling display of bluebells, while Chris Packham prepares to be deafened by one of the UK's noisiest songsters.


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Hello, I'm Chris Packham and this is Nature's Top 40,

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your guide to the top wildlife shows that you can see anywhere across the UK.

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Now we're right up there in the Top Ten at the moment. But before we go on, here are some of the most

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astonishing spectacles that have come before.

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Sending sparks up our charts.

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Fresh from a fairytale - glow worms.

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Wordsworth called them earth-born stars.

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They are really very special.

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Lolo Williams claimed that rutting goats were even better than deer.

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It's full on 100 miles an hour stuff. They go up on their hind legs and then crash.

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And, at nine, our biggest entry, a shark the size of a bus.

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You would think it doesn't get any better than this,

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but, believe me, it does.

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So then what's made it even bigger than the basking shark?

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Take a look at this and you might be in for a bit of a surprise.

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For some people, not a terribly pleasant one because the adder has made it into our charts.

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Not because of its secretive or venomous nature,

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but because at number eight, we've got dancing adders.

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# I said that I bet that you look good on the dance floor

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# I don't know if you're looking for romance or

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# I don't know what you're looking for... #

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Dancing adders, eh?

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I bet you hadn't thought of that. But they do dance

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and we'll be seeing that later on in the programme. But first...

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If you're looking for dancing adders you need to tell the difference between the adder,

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and the other common snake, the grass snake. This is a grass snake. It's not an adder.

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If it was, I wouldn't be handling it because they're venomous,

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and if you do get bitten then you need to go to the doctor.

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The grass snake, first of all, they can grow to be about five foot long.

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They're nearly always an olive colour and they've got this lovely pattern on the neck there.

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Always a band of yellow.

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The adder, which I have in the tank here, they're usually shorter and fatter and the easiest way

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to tell them apart is to look for the black zig-zag all the way down the back of the adder.

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If you're lucky to get close enough to them then look at the eye, the adder has got this vertical slit,

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whereas the grass snake has got a round pupil.

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Those are the basic differences.

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So what kind of habitat at you looking for, Rhys?

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We need... quite dry we've got a little bit of...

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'Rhys Jones is a man who's mad about adders.

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'He's rescued an adder from a building site

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'and is releasing it in Parc Slip nature reserve in South Wales.'

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It'll be just in time for it to settle in before its winter hibernation.

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She's looking a tad...

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Very feisty, isn't she?

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She's just been moved, Lolo, so she's...

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a little bit... I'm sure she'll be a good girl for us.

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You're obviously an experienced handler, Rhys,

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cos these are venomous, aren't they?

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They are venomous, but they're not as dangerous as some people may think.

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Generally, this animal will do anything apart from bite you.

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You called her "she" earlier, how do you know it's a female?

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Well, as you can see, she's an earthen brown colour and the males tend to be a slate grey.

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She's beautiful. This is an ideal area for her here?

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Yeah, we've got a bit of gorse there. There's plenty of cover.

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There's going to be a lot of prey items here and there's...

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nice places for her over winter so they'll be fine.

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It's getting cooler now, they're going to be hibernating fairly soon.

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Indeed, yes. She'll probably be looking to grab a last meal now,

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looking for the odd vole here or there, and then she has to empty her stomach contents completely.

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She must make sure there's no food at all in those intestines.

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As soon as she gets cold that food will rot so she needs to get compete clear of all of it.

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And next spring, Rhys, that's when the action starts?

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Oh, it is indeed yes, yes.

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That's when we'll see our males out trying to impress the females because it's very important

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to get prime position in the field to make sure you attract your biggest, fittest females.

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It's all about finding and keeping a mate.

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Once the smaller, greyer male adder has paired up with a female, he smothers her with affection,

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entwining his body with hers and guarding her from other admirers.

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If he senses a rival close by, it's action stations.

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I've only ever seen it once and that was purely by accident.

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I saw two males and they were trying to push each other over. It was like a mad reptilian tango.

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It is indeed, it is indeed.

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It's far better than your dance earlier!

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Nothing wrong with it, nothing wrong with it. Have you ever seen it?

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Yes, only once myself, and purely by accident.

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It was a big open field and I thought it was a rabbit popping its head up very quickly.

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It turned out it was two males really going for it.

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They wouldn't have cared if I was stood right next to them.

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They were really involved in making sure that they could get

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that prime position and push over the opposing male.

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This is not a battle to the death, but a test of strength.

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The snakes lock together, pushing against each other until one has the advantage.

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And there's one golden rule.

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The snakes never use their venom on each other.

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That's reserved for their prey.

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The aim is simply to push the rival's head to the ground and thus defeat him.

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Why is it called a dance, Rhys?

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Some of these males will actually intertwine with other males,

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you can see them going back and forth.

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It's quite spectacular. I suppose that our ancestors saw them and it would just be at the beginning

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of spring, lovely and warm, everything started to grow again.

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These animals rejoicing at the coming of the sun.

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They probably saw it as a dance.

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I saw mine right at the beginning of April. Is that the best time?

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Yeah, that would have been about right, yeah.

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But if you are going to see them dancing, it's well worth it, cos it is a top spectacle.

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Oh, spectacular, it's right up there.

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Right up there as one of the most spectacular wildlife events in Britain, definitely.

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And there we go, you can keep your Strictly Come Dancing,

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the adders' dancing - more exciting and far better early evening viewing.

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Coming up next is something that was suggested by the listeners to BBC local radio and visitors to our

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website, and I have to say it would definitely make my top five. I know I say that about all

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and there'd be 50 things in my top five, but this one would be there, number seven, bluebells.

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There are lots of wildlife spectacles which we share with

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other countries, but there's one that is uniquely British.

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It's a spectacle that's on a scale and grandeur you will see nowhere else in the world.

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I'm with Fraser Bradbury from the Forestry Commission.

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-Fraser, shall we show them?

-I think we should.

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Have a look at this.

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This is Westwoods near Marlborough in Wiltshire,

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reputedly one of THE very best bluebell bonanzas.

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There are bluebells for as far as the eye can see -

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front, left, back, forward. It is 100% blue. You must be very proud.

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I am. It's a sea of blue, and it's here because

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-we've managed these woodlands sympathetically for the bluebells.

-How many?

-How many bluebells?

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I'm only halfway through counting!

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I would say probably more than millions, we might even be approaching billions here.

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Well, we've got maybe 300 hectares of bluebells here so there's quite a large site.

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As well as things... It's over so fleetingly, isn't it, really?

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The great thing about Westwoods is that you can get different times when you come in, different aspects

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so the bluebells will be out in one area, but not in another.

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So you can walk through this wood and see bluebells beginning of May, middle of May, end of May.

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Some liken this spectacle to a cathedral with a wonderful carpet of flowers below.

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Certainly visitors, who come from near and far, are awed by the dazzling display.

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Absolutely gobsmacking.

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I came here with the Ramblers Association in Bath

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about five years ago and ever since I've been bringing friends back

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to show them because everybody has their favourite bluebell wood,

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but I don't think anything matches this place.

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-Never been before, but we came because it was recommended and it's brilliant.

-It's so...

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..express the English countryside for me in English woods, personally.

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I love England, and bluebells are especially beautiful.

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So what about the million-dollar question?

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Where would bluebells be in the most wonderful spectacles in Britain?

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-Out of 40?

-Out of 40, what number would you put it at in the hit parade?

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38 or something.

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No! No, number one's the best.

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Number one is the best.

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Number one is the best and number 40 is the 40th best.

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OK, number one, we'll give it number one. Sorry, I mix up.

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Well, our panel didn't put it at number one, but number seven is pretty darned good.

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Although you shouldn't pick wild flowers, I've been given special permission to pick one bluebell

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by the land owner to show you their amazing bulbs.

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If I have a look at it here and give it a good old squidge,

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look how sticky it is! This substance has been used down

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the generations for helping bind books, but they found this material

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also prevented the books from actually being eaten

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by things like moths and silverfish because of its toxic properties.

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Really amazing, isn't it? Look at that.

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Because it's poisonous, most foraging woodland animals wisely leave the bluebells alone.

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But there is one potentially serious threat -

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a foreign lookalike.

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Don't these bluebells look gorgeous?

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Well, they're not as lovely as they might seem because

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they're imports from the Continent,

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and the problem is they like mixing it with our native bluebells.

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I'm meeting Mark Spenser who works for the Natural History Museum.

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Isn't this the loveliest spot to sit?

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Absolutely fabulous. I mean, where else, indeed in fact nowhere else

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in the world, can you come and see this spectacle.

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Particularly when you get low, you get the most incredible vivid blue colour the whole way round.

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It is stunning. It is a completely unique thing.

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The British landscape has got something to go, "This is ours, this is British and we love it."

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Is it likely to last? What is the problem with this Spanish invader?

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Well, we need to find out. Is there a problem?

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There's been concerns raised by conservationists, gardeners and whole parts of the British society

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that there maybe a threat from the so-called Spanish bluebell which is a plant which has been

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growing in British gardens for about 300 years. But increasingly there are signs that it's moving out of

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gardens, partly as a throw-out, from people throwing away excess bulbs. Sometimes it may be because

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it's naturally seeding into the local environment.

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People are concerned that it's hybridising with the native plant,

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and this hybridisation may well affect the ability of our native plants to survive into the future.

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So, Mark, what is the difference between our native bluebells,

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which I have here, and the Spanish conquistadors which you have?

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Oh, right. The British plant has classically got a rather Gothic arch just here on the flower spike.

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This one's wilting a bit, but the flower spike on the Spanish and hybrid tends to be more upright.

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The native plant also... Each individual flower,

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each individual flower is tubular, straight-sided...

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whereas the Spanish, they're much more wide and opened out.

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Leaf width is also a really useful feature.

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You can see here straightaway that this leaf is much, much wider than the native plant.

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And also, it tends to be a much more vigorous plant.

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Often you find that these really are kind of quite large compared to these plants here.

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But rest assured, here at West Woods, the British bluebell rules supreme.

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I've just invented a new word for the Oxford English dictionary -

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"bluebell-tastic".

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Bluebell-tastic, what is he on?!

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He's on the ball, it was a blue haze. But if that was blue, how about this for a purple haze?

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This is the New Forest at the end of summer with

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all the heather in flower and this didn't even make it into our charts.

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Still, if you'd like to see some bluebells,

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then why not check out our website?

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We tend to think of them as a woodland species,

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but there are plenty of places in the UK

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where they grow on open cliff tops.

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One of the best is Skomer Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales.

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That can be bluebell-tastic!

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Still, moving on, we've got another spectacle for you.

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It's not really a spectacle in the true sense,

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because it's not something you need to see,

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it's something you need to hear.

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Straight in at number six is a birdsong extravaganza.

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Get up nice and early in May, and in gardens, woods and parks, you'll hear the delightful dawn chorus.

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Spring is in the air and the birds are singing their hearts out.

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All the usual suspects are at full volume:

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Defending their territory...

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And trying to attract a mate.

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-From one of our tiniest birds, a very powerful sound.

-CHIRPING

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The big song of the little wren.

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There are also plenty of migrants, like the whitethroat,

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They've come all the way from Africa, to add their voices to the chorus.

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The fluid song of the willow warbler.

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And last, but not least, the easiest call to recognise, "chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff..."

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Sung, of course, by the Chiffchaff.

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As the day goes on, many birds will quieten down, but not all.

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When the sun shines, this bird really kicks off and it'll treat you to an iconic aerial display as well.

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And this is a perfect place to find a skylark,

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a bird which has charmed authors, poets and romantics over the ages,

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and, for once, the best way to get to grips with these birds,

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on a beautiful spring day, is to lie down on the job.

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It's just a question of waiting for the lark to ascend, but the thing is the males at this time of year

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rise into the sky and drip down this cacophony, a cascade of trilling notes to attract the females.

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I shouldn't be speaking. I'm spoiling it, I'm spoiling it.

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Just listen. There's something about lying down in warm grass

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with a waft of that dry sense of old England

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and just listening, with your eyes closed, to a skylark.

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Its song isn't perfect, but it's its sheer exuberance.

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It's just the idea this little bird is rising up there, raining all of these notes down to Earth.

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That's what makes it special.

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For the finale, a bird with a very loud voice indeed.

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The best time to hear this one is at dusk,

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and I've come to do that at Woods Mill, a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve.

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This fluffy monstrosity that I've got here is a parabolic reflector,

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and, basically, beneath this camouflaged and woolly exterior

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is a bowl which acts like a giant ear.

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It captures the sound and focuses it on the tip of the microphone, which is inside here.

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I plan to listen to the most celebrated songster of them all...

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..the nightingale.

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This bird uses an impressive range of different sounds, making an extremely complex song.

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I know I look a complete berk, but I don't care, because...

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BIRD SINGING

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..just listen to that.

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For me, it's not about the complexity of that song - complexity, that's classical music.

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I'm an old punk rocker. For me, it's about the volume and just...

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listen to that.

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You know, the loudest nightingales can sing at nearly 100 decibels.

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That's as loud as you putting your ear up to a motorcycle exhaust

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or a massive truck going past you on the road.

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The human ear can cope with 85 decibels, so if you exposed yourself to nightingales very close to your

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ear for a prolonged time, you could go deaf.

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The sheer volume makes this bird easy to hear, but hard to spot, as it skulks in the bushes.

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But it's that great sound that's put it in our top ten.

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To test it, we asked one of our researchers, Neil,

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to bring along his daughters, Anya and Kaya, who are both nightingale novices.

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Will the song knock their socks off?

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Hear that one bird over there and then this one.

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LOUD CHIRPING

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(Hear them arguing now?)

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(First, it's one, then that one.)

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(I like this one best.)

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Have you ever heard a bird singing like that before?

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Never.

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Go on then, marks out of ten?

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-Ten out of ten.

-Ten out of ten? Marks out of ten?

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-Ten.

-Yeah, ten.

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'What a feast for your ears.

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'Truly a great number six.'

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So, here we are with the first entry into the UK's top five greatest wildlife spectacles

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as voted by our panel of wildlife experts.

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They've been Anthony McGeehan from Northern Ireland, Lolo Williams from Wales,

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Gordon Buchanan form Scotland and myself representing the English.

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Number five, the thoroughly British and extraordinarily diverse

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summer wild flower meadow.

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If someone were to ask you what's your idea

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of a summer spectacle, would you go for rugged cliffs

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with thousands of nesting sea birds

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or dolphins and seals frolicking in the sea?

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Or would you go for something completely different,

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rather more gentle but equally glorious -

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a meadow full of beautiful wild flowers?

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This is Yarnton Mead near Oxford. A wonder of different colours and a breathtaking variety of flowers.

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This Monet in Middle England is the result 1,000 years of farming in a very special and sympathetic way.

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Rosie Smith is one of the people who's lucky enough to own a piece of this fabulous meadow.

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Rosie, so which is your patch?

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Well, it could be anywhere in this field.

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This all goes back to the open field

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traditional system of strip farming and each owner would draw lots

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as to where the owner would then have his strip to cut his hay

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and then to graze the cattle afterwards.

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-So you'd get a different strip each year.

-Oh, you could do, yes.

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So, principally, it would be about owning the hay crop off that strip?

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-Yes, and then grazing it afterwards with cattle.

-How have you ended up owning a piece of this then?

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I inherited it from my father and he was head meadsman for 20 years,

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-so I took a great pride in the management.

-Head meadsman.

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-It sounds very mediaeval.

-It does.

-What's a meadsman?

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Well, they actually manage the meadows on behalf of the owners and cos it is a responsibility

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to try and maintain the meadows as best they can for the...

0:23:060:23:10

obviously, the wonderful species that we see here,

0:23:100:23:13

but also to get some funding for the owners,

0:23:130:23:15

because they would like it to produce a little bit of an income for them.

0:23:150:23:20

When you walk in here and see it on a day like today, what do you actually feel?

0:23:200:23:24

I think when you step in here, it's wow.

0:23:240:23:27

I don't think anything more can express

0:23:270:23:30

that it is certainly very special and I think words can hardly express how I feel when I come in here.

0:23:300:23:37

Are you quite proud of being part of all this?

0:23:370:23:39

I am. I am very proud. I'm proud that my father spent 20 years.

0:23:390:23:43

Obviously he loved it and he enjoyed managing it for everyone

0:23:430:23:49

and I think he'd be proud that I'm taking it on for him.

0:23:490:23:54

In amongst the flowers, there's another spectacle.

0:23:540:23:58

Insects galore, feasting on the plants.

0:23:580:24:01

Look at this damselfly, its head covered in yellow pollen.

0:24:010:24:07

There are butterflies, and day flying moths like these burnet moths.

0:24:070:24:12

It's bug heaven.

0:24:120:24:14

But enough entomology. What most visitors come to see are the flowers.

0:24:160:24:22

The sheer variety of flowers and grasses here is just amazing and it's not only the big and bold,

0:24:240:24:31

like the ox-eye daisy and this purple knapweed.

0:24:310:24:34

There are lots of smaller grasses and flowers in there as well.

0:24:340:24:37

In fact, supposedly, you can find 60 species in a 5-metre square area,

0:24:370:24:43

so I need the help of a top botanist, Camilla Lambrick.

0:24:430:24:47

Camilla, this is just the most beautiful meadow I've ever seen.

0:24:470:24:52

Gorgeous. It's a quite an extraordinary diversity out here.

0:24:520:24:56

Are you ready to take the five-metre challenge?

0:24:560:24:59

I'll see what I can find.

0:24:590:25:00

Right, I'll let you set out your area and start counting.

0:25:000:25:03

Ah, here's meadowsweet, yellow rattle,

0:25:100:25:13

meadow barley.

0:25:130:25:14

Here's devil's-bit scabious.

0:25:140:25:17

That's the yellow oat,

0:25:170:25:18

black knapweed.

0:25:180:25:21

I'm no expert botanist, but even just sitting here,

0:25:230:25:26

there's meadow buttercup, there's great burnet and this is quaking grass,

0:25:260:25:31

so I've just ticked off a few species just in this small patch.

0:25:310:25:35

I'm hopeful that Camilla will do really well.

0:25:350:25:39

Meadow grass...

0:25:430:25:45

that's the dog's tail...

0:25:450:25:47

-How are you doing, Camilla?

-I've got to 44.

0:25:540:25:58

Not quite the 60 mentioned, but it is a huge diversity to have in a very small area.

0:25:580:26:04

I'll settle for 44. Why is it that there's just so many species here?

0:26:040:26:08

Well, it's a series of factors.

0:26:080:26:11

There's long continuity.

0:26:110:26:13

The Romans, they started cutting hay for their horses

0:26:130:26:16

and we've been doing almost exactly the same thing for thousands of years ever since.

0:26:160:26:22

And I'm guessing no fertiliser, nothing like that?

0:26:220:26:25

That's right, no fertiliser. As soon as you get the nitrogen phosphate,

0:26:250:26:28

you get lots of grasses like this Yorkshire fog and it would all come up dense grass.

0:26:280:26:33

So it's been documented as being managed like this for thousand years,

0:26:330:26:37

-but if it was the Romans, that could take us back 2,000 years, couldn't it?

-Yes, it's a long time.

0:26:370:26:42

It's completely irreplaceable and it's a great privilege to be part of the team looking after it.

0:26:420:26:47

Well, that's number five, but if you like what you've seen so far,

0:27:060:27:10

you really don't want to miss out on finding out what is the UK's greatest wildlife spectacle.

0:27:100:27:16

In the meantime, though, don't let us have all the fun.

0:27:160:27:19

Get out there and enjoy a few of them for yourselves.

0:27:190:27:22

Until next time, goodbye.

0:27:220:27:24

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:27:410:27:44

E-mail subtitling@bbc.co.uk

0:27:440:27:47

A countdown to the very best displays staged by the birds, animals and flowers of the UK. Mike Dilger heads for a wood near Marlborough to see a mind-boggling display of bluebells, while Chris Packham prepares to be deafened by one of the UK's noisiest songsters.