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,
your guide to the top wildlife shows that you can see anywhere across the UK.
Now we're right up there in the Top Ten at the moment. But before we go on, here are some of the most
astonishing spectacles that have come before.
Sending sparks up our charts.
Fresh from a fairytale - glow worms.
Wordsworth called them earth-born stars.
They are really very special.
Lolo Williams claimed that rutting goats were even better than deer.
It's full on 100 miles an hour stuff. They go up on their hind legs and then crash.
And, at nine, our biggest entry, a shark the size of a bus.
You would think it doesn't get any better than this,
but, believe me, it does.
So then what's made it even bigger than the basking shark?
Take a look at this and you might be in for a bit of a surprise.
For some people, not a terribly pleasant one because the adder has made it into our charts.
Not because of its secretive or venomous nature,
but because at number eight, we've got dancing adders.
# I said that I bet that you look good on the dance floor
# I don't know if you're looking for romance or
# I don't know what you're looking for... #
Dancing adders, eh?
I bet you hadn't thought of that. But they do dance
and we'll be seeing that later on in the programme. But first...
If you're looking for dancing adders you need to tell the difference between the adder,
and the other common snake, the grass snake. This is a grass snake. It's not an adder.
If it was, I wouldn't be handling it because they're venomous,
and if you do get bitten then you need to go to the doctor.
The grass snake, first of all, they can grow to be about five foot long.
They're nearly always an olive colour and they've got this lovely pattern on the neck there.
Always a band of yellow.
The adder, which I have in the tank here, they're usually shorter and fatter and the easiest way
to tell them apart is to look for the black zig-zag all the way down the back of the adder.
If you're lucky to get close enough to them then look at the eye, the adder has got this vertical slit,
whereas the grass snake has got a round pupil.
Those are the basic differences.
So what kind of habitat at you looking for, Rhys?
We need... quite dry we've got a little bit of...
'Rhys Jones is a man who's mad about adders.
'He's rescued an adder from a building site
'and is releasing it in Parc Slip nature reserve in South Wales.'
It'll be just in time for it to settle in before its winter hibernation.
She's looking a tad...
Very feisty, isn't she?
She's just been moved, Lolo, so she's...
a little bit... I'm sure she'll be a good girl for us.
You're obviously an experienced handler, Rhys,
cos these are venomous, aren't they?
They are venomous, but they're not as dangerous as some people may think.
Generally, this animal will do anything apart from bite you.
You called her "she" earlier, how do you know it's a female?
Well, as you can see, she's an earthen brown colour and the males tend to be a slate grey.
She's beautiful. This is an ideal area for her here?
Yeah, we've got a bit of gorse there. There's plenty of cover.
There's going to be a lot of prey items here and there's...
nice places for her over winter so they'll be fine.
It's getting cooler now, they're going to be hibernating fairly soon.
Indeed, yes. She'll probably be looking to grab a last meal now,
looking for the odd vole here or there, and then she has to empty her stomach contents completely.
She must make sure there's no food at all in those intestines.
As soon as she gets cold that food will rot so she needs to get compete clear of all of it.
And next spring, Rhys, that's when the action starts?
Oh, it is indeed yes, yes.
That's when we'll see our males out trying to impress the females because it's very important
to get prime position in the field to make sure you attract your biggest, fittest females.
It's all about finding and keeping a mate.
Once the smaller, greyer male adder has paired up with a female, he smothers her with affection,
entwining his body with hers and guarding her from other admirers.
If he senses a rival close by, it's action stations.
I've only ever seen it once and that was purely by accident.
I saw two males and they were trying to push each other over. It was like a mad reptilian tango.
It is indeed, it is indeed.
It's far better than your dance earlier!
Nothing wrong with it, nothing wrong with it. Have you ever seen it?
Yes, only once myself, and purely by accident.
It was a big open field and I thought it was a rabbit popping its head up very quickly.
It turned out it was two males really going for it.
They wouldn't have cared if I was stood right next to them.
They were really involved in making sure that they could get
that prime position and push over the opposing male.
This is not a battle to the death, but a test of strength.
The snakes lock together, pushing against each other until one has the advantage.
And there's one golden rule.
The snakes never use their venom on each other.
That's reserved for their prey.
The aim is simply to push the rival's head to the ground and thus defeat him.
Why is it called a dance, Rhys?
Some of these males will actually intertwine with other males,
you can see them going back and forth.
It's quite spectacular. I suppose that our ancestors saw them and it would just be at the beginning
of spring, lovely and warm, everything started to grow again.
These animals rejoicing at the coming of the sun.
They probably saw it as a dance.
I saw mine right at the beginning of April. Is that the best time?
Yeah, that would have been about right, yeah.
But if you are going to see them dancing, it's well worth it, cos it is a top spectacle.
Oh, spectacular, it's right up there.
Right up there as one of the most spectacular wildlife events in Britain, definitely.
And there we go, you can keep your Strictly Come Dancing,
the adders' dancing - more exciting and far better early evening viewing.
Coming up next is something that was suggested by the listeners to BBC local radio and visitors to our
website, and I have to say it would definitely make my top five. I know I say that about all
and there'd be 50 things in my top five, but this one would be there, number seven, bluebells.
There are lots of wildlife spectacles which we share with
other countries, but there's one that is uniquely British.
It's a spectacle that's on a scale and grandeur you will see nowhere else in the world.
I'm with Fraser Bradbury from the Forestry Commission.
-Fraser, shall we show them?
-I think we should.
Have a look at this.
This is Westwoods near Marlborough in Wiltshire,
reputedly one of THE very best bluebell bonanzas.
There are bluebells for as far as the eye can see -
front, left, back, forward. It is 100% blue. You must be very proud.
I am. It's a sea of blue, and it's here because
-we've managed these woodlands sympathetically for the bluebells.
-How many bluebells?
I'm only halfway through counting!
I would say probably more than millions, we might even be approaching billions here.
Well, we've got maybe 300 hectares of bluebells here so there's quite a large site.
As well as things... It's over so fleetingly, isn't it, really?
The great thing about Westwoods is that you can get different times when you come in, different aspects
so the bluebells will be out in one area, but not in another.
So you can walk through this wood and see bluebells beginning of May, middle of May, end of May.
Some liken this spectacle to a cathedral with a wonderful carpet of flowers below.
Certainly visitors, who come from near and far, are awed by the dazzling display.
I came here with the Ramblers Association in Bath
about five years ago and ever since I've been bringing friends back
to show them because everybody has their favourite bluebell wood,
but I don't think anything matches this place.
-Never been before, but we came because it was recommended and it's brilliant.
..express the English countryside for me in English woods, personally.
I love England, and bluebells are especially beautiful.
So what about the million-dollar question?
Where would bluebells be in the most wonderful spectacles in Britain?
-Out of 40?
-Out of 40, what number would you put it at in the hit parade?
38 or something.
No! No, number one's the best.
Number one is the best.
Number one is the best and number 40 is the 40th best.
OK, number one, we'll give it number one. Sorry, I mix up.
Well, our panel didn't put it at number one, but number seven is pretty darned good.
Although you shouldn't pick wild flowers, I've been given special permission to pick one bluebell
by the land owner to show you their amazing bulbs.
If I have a look at it here and give it a good old squidge,
look how sticky it is! This substance has been used down
the generations for helping bind books, but they found this material
also prevented the books from actually being eaten
by things like moths and silverfish because of its toxic properties.
Really amazing, isn't it? Look at that.
Because it's poisonous, most foraging woodland animals wisely leave the bluebells alone.
But there is one potentially serious threat -
a foreign lookalike.
Don't these bluebells look gorgeous?
Well, they're not as lovely as they might seem because
they're imports from the Continent,
and the problem is they like mixing it with our native bluebells.
I'm meeting Mark Spenser who works for the Natural History Museum.
Isn't this the loveliest spot to sit?
Absolutely fabulous. I mean, where else, indeed in fact nowhere else
in the world, can you come and see this spectacle.
Particularly when you get low, you get the most incredible vivid blue colour the whole way round.
It is stunning. It is a completely unique thing.
The British landscape has got something to go, "This is ours, this is British and we love it."
Is it likely to last? What is the problem with this Spanish invader?
Well, we need to find out. Is there a problem?
There's been concerns raised by conservationists, gardeners and whole parts of the British society
that there maybe a threat from the so-called Spanish bluebell which is a plant which has been
growing in British gardens for about 300 years. But increasingly there are signs that it's moving out of
gardens, partly as a throw-out, from people throwing away excess bulbs. Sometimes it may be because
it's naturally seeding into the local environment.
People are concerned that it's hybridising with the native plant,
and this hybridisation may well affect the ability of our native plants to survive into the future.
So, Mark, what is the difference between our native bluebells,
which I have here, and the Spanish conquistadors which you have?
Oh, right. The British plant has classically got a rather Gothic arch just here on the flower spike.
This one's wilting a bit, but the flower spike on the Spanish and hybrid tends to be more upright.
The native plant also... Each individual flower,
each individual flower is tubular, straight-sided...
whereas the Spanish, they're much more wide and opened out.
Leaf width is also a really useful feature.
You can see here straightaway that this leaf is much, much wider than the native plant.
And also, it tends to be a much more vigorous plant.
Often you find that these really are kind of quite large compared to these plants here.
But rest assured, here at West Woods, the British bluebell rules supreme.
I've just invented a new word for the Oxford English dictionary -
Bluebell-tastic, what is he on?!
He's on the ball, it was a blue haze. But if that was blue, how about this for a purple haze?
This is the New Forest at the end of summer with
all the heather in flower and this didn't even make it into our charts.
Still, if you'd like to see some bluebells,
then why not check out our website?
We tend to think of them as a woodland species,
but there are plenty of places in the UK
where they grow on open cliff tops.
One of the best is Skomer Island, off the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales.
That can be bluebell-tastic!
Still, moving on, we've got another spectacle for you.
It's not really a spectacle in the true sense,
because it's not something you need to see,
it's something you need to hear.
Straight in at number six is a birdsong extravaganza.
Get up nice and early in May, and in gardens, woods and parks, you'll hear the delightful dawn chorus.
Spring is in the air and the birds are singing their hearts out.
All the usual suspects are at full volume:
Defending their territory...
And trying to attract a mate.
-From one of our tiniest birds, a very powerful sound.
The big song of the little wren.
There are also plenty of migrants, like the whitethroat,
They've come all the way from Africa, to add their voices to the chorus.
The fluid song of the willow warbler.
And last, but not least, the easiest call to recognise, "chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff..."
Sung, of course, by the Chiffchaff.
As the day goes on, many birds will quieten down, but not all.
When the sun shines, this bird really kicks off and it'll treat you to an iconic aerial display as well.
And this is a perfect place to find a skylark,
a bird which has charmed authors, poets and romantics over the ages,
and, for once, the best way to get to grips with these birds,
on a beautiful spring day, is to lie down on the job.
It's just a question of waiting for the lark to ascend, but the thing is the males at this time of year
rise into the sky and drip down this cacophony, a cascade of trilling notes to attract the females.
I shouldn't be speaking. I'm spoiling it, I'm spoiling it.
Just listen. There's something about lying down in warm grass
with a waft of that dry sense of old England
and just listening, with your eyes closed, to a skylark.
Its song isn't perfect, but it's its sheer exuberance.
It's just the idea this little bird is rising up there, raining all of these notes down to Earth.
That's what makes it special.
For the finale, a bird with a very loud voice indeed.
The best time to hear this one is at dusk,
and I've come to do that at Woods Mill, a Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve.
This fluffy monstrosity that I've got here is a parabolic reflector,
and, basically, beneath this camouflaged and woolly exterior
is a bowl which acts like a giant ear.
It captures the sound and focuses it on the tip of the microphone, which is inside here.
I plan to listen to the most celebrated songster of them all...
This bird uses an impressive range of different sounds, making an extremely complex song.
I know I look a complete berk, but I don't care, because...
..just listen to that.
For me, it's not about the complexity of that song - complexity, that's classical music.
I'm an old punk rocker. For me, it's about the volume and just...
listen to that.
You know, the loudest nightingales can sing at nearly 100 decibels.
That's as loud as you putting your ear up to a motorcycle exhaust
or a massive truck going past you on the road.
The human ear can cope with 85 decibels, so if you exposed yourself to nightingales very close to your
ear for a prolonged time, you could go deaf.
The sheer volume makes this bird easy to hear, but hard to spot, as it skulks in the bushes.
But it's that great sound that's put it in our top ten.
To test it, we asked one of our researchers, Neil,
to bring along his daughters, Anya and Kaya, who are both nightingale novices.
Will the song knock their socks off?
Hear that one bird over there and then this one.
(Hear them arguing now?)
(First, it's one, then that one.)
(I like this one best.)
Have you ever heard a bird singing like that before?
Go on then, marks out of ten?
-Ten out of ten.
-Ten out of ten? Marks out of ten?
'What a feast for your ears.
'Truly a great number six.'
So, here we are with the first entry into the UK's top five greatest wildlife spectacles
as voted by our panel of wildlife experts.
They've been Anthony McGeehan from Northern Ireland, Lolo Williams from Wales,
Gordon Buchanan form Scotland and myself representing the English.
Number five, the thoroughly British and extraordinarily diverse
summer wild flower meadow.
If someone were to ask you what's your idea
of a summer spectacle, would you go for rugged cliffs
with thousands of nesting sea birds
or dolphins and seals frolicking in the sea?
Or would you go for something completely different,
rather more gentle but equally glorious -
a meadow full of beautiful wild flowers?
This is Yarnton Mead near Oxford. A wonder of different colours and a breathtaking variety of flowers.
This Monet in Middle England is the result 1,000 years of farming in a very special and sympathetic way.
Rosie Smith is one of the people who's lucky enough to own a piece of this fabulous meadow.
Rosie, so which is your patch?
Well, it could be anywhere in this field.
This all goes back to the open field
traditional system of strip farming and each owner would draw lots
as to where the owner would then have his strip to cut his hay
and then to graze the cattle afterwards.
-So you'd get a different strip each year.
-Oh, you could do, yes.
So, principally, it would be about owning the hay crop off that strip?
-Yes, and then grazing it afterwards with cattle.
-How have you ended up owning a piece of this then?
I inherited it from my father and he was head meadsman for 20 years,
-so I took a great pride in the management.
-It sounds very mediaeval.
-What's a meadsman?
Well, they actually manage the meadows on behalf of the owners and cos it is a responsibility
to try and maintain the meadows as best they can for the...
obviously, the wonderful species that we see here,
but also to get some funding for the owners,
because they would like it to produce a little bit of an income for them.
When you walk in here and see it on a day like today, what do you actually feel?
I think when you step in here, it's wow.
I don't think anything more can express
that it is certainly very special and I think words can hardly express how I feel when I come in here.
Are you quite proud of being part of all this?
I am. I am very proud. I'm proud that my father spent 20 years.
Obviously he loved it and he enjoyed managing it for everyone
and I think he'd be proud that I'm taking it on for him.
In amongst the flowers, there's another spectacle.
Insects galore, feasting on the plants.
Look at this damselfly, its head covered in yellow pollen.
There are butterflies, and day flying moths like these burnet moths.
It's bug heaven.
But enough entomology. What most visitors come to see are the flowers.
The sheer variety of flowers and grasses here is just amazing and it's not only the big and bold,
like the ox-eye daisy and this purple knapweed.
There are lots of smaller grasses and flowers in there as well.
In fact, supposedly, you can find 60 species in a 5-metre square area,
so I need the help of a top botanist, Camilla Lambrick.
Camilla, this is just the most beautiful meadow I've ever seen.
Gorgeous. It's a quite an extraordinary diversity out here.
Are you ready to take the five-metre challenge?
I'll see what I can find.
Right, I'll let you set out your area and start counting.
Ah, here's meadowsweet, yellow rattle,
Here's devil's-bit scabious.
That's the yellow oat,
I'm no expert botanist, but even just sitting here,
there's meadow buttercup, there's great burnet and this is quaking grass,
so I've just ticked off a few species just in this small patch.
I'm hopeful that Camilla will do really well.
that's the dog's tail...
-How are you doing, Camilla?
-I've got to 44.
Not quite the 60 mentioned, but it is a huge diversity to have in a very small area.
I'll settle for 44. Why is it that there's just so many species here?
Well, it's a series of factors.
There's long continuity.
The Romans, they started cutting hay for their horses
and we've been doing almost exactly the same thing for thousands of years ever since.
And I'm guessing no fertiliser, nothing like that?
That's right, no fertiliser. As soon as you get the nitrogen phosphate,
you get lots of grasses like this Yorkshire fog and it would all come up dense grass.
So it's been documented as being managed like this for thousand years,
-but if it was the Romans, that could take us back 2,000 years, couldn't it?
-Yes, it's a long time.
It's completely irreplaceable and it's a great privilege to be part of the team looking after it.
Well, that's number five, but if you like what you've seen so far,
you really don't want to miss out on finding out what is the UK's greatest wildlife spectacle.
In the meantime, though, don't let us have all the fun.
Get out there and enjoy a few of them for yourselves.
Until next time, goodbye.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
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.