Wild Isles Episode Two: Woodland

Credit: Chris Howard / Silverback Films / BBC

Wild Isles Episode Two: Woodlands premieres at 7pm on Sunday 19th March on BBC One and iPlayer.

The woodlands of the British Isles are magical and mystical places, but as one of the least-forested countries in Europe, they are also under threat. We follow our woodlands through the seasons, revealing a host of spectacular animals and the hidden dramas that rule their lives. From the unusual mating rituals of the ash-black slug to a surprising partnership between reintroduced wild boar and robins, and the network of fungi known as the ‘Wood Wide Web’.

Interview with producer Chris Howard

What would you hope that the audience will take away from watching the series?

I’ve been working on wildlife documentaries about the British Isles on and off for my whole career so Wild Isles was a very personal passion for me – I truly believe if we are to protect and conserve the wider natural world we absolutely must start here, at home. I therefore hope that the audience will have their eyes opened to the riches we have here and that they will be inspired to want to know more about it, to care more deeply for it and ultimately to help conserve and protect it.

How was it travelling around the British Isles for this series?

Surprisingly hard work! I think a lot of the team thought that working in the British Isles would be easy, as things are on the doorstep and you can make them happen quickly and easily…but the opposite is true. The seasons are incredibly unpredictable and the proximity to the subject means that not only can you never switch off as you are literally living/working/holidaying in your own documentary, but also that you can tell yourself that if it doesn’t work once…you can pop back and try again.

One extreme example of that was for my salmon sequence I “popped” back to the north-east of Scotland seven times in total…a trifling 11.5 hour drive each way, every time! And on top of all that, our key spring/summer block coincided perfectly with Covid and lockdowns…so all in all it was extremely hard work, but incredibly rewarding

This episode looks at concerning trends about the condition of woodlands in the British Isles, can you tell us about this?

To tell the truth, the woodlands of Britain and Ireland tell a mixed story. There are positive stories; we have more ancient oak trees in England alone than the rest of Europe put together and a quite remarkable variety of different woodland types given our size. But there are huge negatives too; only 2.5% of the UK is covered by ancient forest* (the richest and most diverse type of woodland) and overall Britain is one of the least forested parts of Europe. So, to fit all these contradictions and issues into one hour-long episode was a massive challenge.

But ultimately, I hope the overarching message we leave the audience with is that we must protect our ancient, native woodlands much better, encourage our woodlands to spread and look to restore the traditional types of woodland that we have lost. If we can do that then we can all benefit; there will be more room for the incredible animals, plants and fungi that thrive in our woodlands, far more carbon will be captured and stored and there will be more woodlands for us to all enjoy and lose ourselves in. I’d call that a big win.

Can you tell us about the technology the team used to film one of our largest butterflies, the purple emperor?

To capture the purple emperor scene, we had to get our cameraman Mark Yates into the world of the male butterflies – which meant hoisting him 20 metres up to the top of the canopy. To do that, we used a cherry picker! The fights happen in a flash – the battles tend to be over in as little as two to three seconds and can occur anywhere in a large space between the trees.

We armed Mark with a super high-speed camera, capable of slowing the action down 40 times so we would have a chance of seeing what was going on. It was then a case of relying on his extraordinary skill – predicting where the butterflies would fight, whipping the camera into position, focusing up and recording the action all in about five seconds flat…all while standing 20m up in the air in a rather wobbly platform.

In the meantime, I gave Oli our other cameraman a slightly less heady task. Purple emperors may look beautiful and have a regal name, but they have some rather unsavoury habits too. Not least is their predilection for feeding on things such as fox scat on the ground. Knowing this, I set Oli the unenviable task of finding a fox poo, moving it to a nice open spot where the butterflies could see/smell it, and waiting to see if any would come down. Oli sat on a popular public bridleway for four days trying to get the shot, for ten hours each day, all whilst having to explain himself to all passers-by…!

Interview with Simon King (Principle Camera and Series Consultant)

Scenes Simon was involved in filming:

  • Episode 1: Our Precious Isles – foxes & June bugs | gannets | puffins & gulls | badgers & bluebells
  • Episode 2: Woodlands – fallow deer rut
  • Episode 3: Grasslands – hares boxing | black grouse lek | adder fight / courtship | thermal fox hunting & cubs | buzzard hunting rabbit & rabbit kits | red deer rut | hen harriers
  • Episode 4: Freshwater – hobby hunting dragonflies | great crested grebe display | peregrine hunting knot

What are your favourite species in this series?

Having worked on the series for the best part of five years as consultant and principle camera, I have had the good fortune to revisit many of the species that were already close to my heart, but which had not had the time invested in filming them until now to reveal the greatest dramas in their lives. I loved working with red deer in southern Ireland, adders in Northumberland, hares in the south east and the Hebrides and puffins on the Farne Islands amongst many others. The behavioural revelations of species like white-tailed eagles, water shrews and predatory leaches all feel like events that occur in exotic locations, not to mention the hunting behaviour of orcas. All this in and around the British Isles. Phenomenal.

What were the biggest technological challenges in this series?

There were many very ambitious sequences in the series, from the visualisation of the “wood-wide web” with the remarkable story of the way the forest communicates via a network of thread like fungi, to astonishing underwater filming techniques in the marine episode. I worked with the most cutting-edge thermal imaging cameras to reveal the world of the fox under the cover of complete darkness. The team had to deploy remote cameras to record the most stunning sequence of capercaillie in remote Caledonian forest and drone and gyro stabilised cameras were used throughout the filming.

Can you tell us about some of the specialist equipment that was used?

I used super high-speed digital cameras to record hobbies hunting dragonflies and peregrine falcons hunting wading birds. Astonishing technical developments were innovated for the macro sequences revealing hidden worlds of solitary bees, butterflies and much more. This series has been a marriage of dedication by a team of knowledgeable and committed people, the time invested to reveal what we knew to occur very occasionally but had never before had the opportunity to reveal, and the technological advances that have allowed us to reveal the beauty, drama and breath-taking natural magic of the British Isles.

What would you hope that the audience will take away from watching the series?

A renewed love and respect for our natural heritage, the will to ensure the survival of the fragments that still exist and a commitment to reverse the trend of loss and degradation that has besieged the wildlife of Britain and Ireland in recent decades.