Time to ‘Spring’ into action

As a new series of Springwatch begins, we speak to Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games about their exciting new home in the Cotswolds, nearly losing a member of the team and whether Packham's going to insert anymore song lyrics into his live delivery
Time to ‘Spring’ into action
Undated BBC Handout Photo from Springwatch 2017. Pictured: Martin Hughes-Games, Michaela Strachan, Chris Packham, Gillian Burke. See PA Feature TV Springwatch. Picture Credit should read: PA Photo/BBC/Glenn Dearing. 

Whether it's a photo of blue tits nesting in the garden or squirrels somersaulting through treetops, Springwatch fans avidly post their observations on social media.

But when it comes to audience interaction, the presenters' most frequently asked question has nothing to do with wildlife.

"It's usually about what we're wearing," sighs Michaela Strachan, who today is sporting a T-shirt with a rather cute illustration of a badger.

In fact, this very item of clothing caused a Twitter storm when she appeared on TV with it last year.

"I just said, 'Oh look, I can scratch my badger'," she protests with wide-eyed innocence, while co-star Chris Packham sniggers in the background like a naughty schoolboy.

"Sorry, but that's not an innuendo. I have a badger T-shirt. I can scratch it..."

Such is the camaraderie and comedy of Springwatch, which is back on our screens for a new three-week wildlife watching bonanza (peppered with entertaining banter) from Monday, May 29.

Described by the BBC as a radical change, the team has swapped pristine nature reserves for a working countryside estate, with a new home at National Trust property Sherborne Estate in the Cotswolds.

Built as a grandstand in the 17th century, the area is now used for farmland and tourism.

By choosing a location accessible to the public, series producers hope to connect viewers with common animals from childhood books such as The Wind In The Willows and the Beatrix Potter titles, and for the first time, the team will also have a base for a full year, enabling them to chart the adaptations of wildlife to different seasons.

"One of the problems that blights us right now is that we partition our expectations," explains Packham, who's been with the programme since 2009. "If we want to see art, we go to an art gallery; if we want to see history we go to a stately house museum.

"We've got ourselves into a state of mind where if we want to see nature, we go to a nature reserve, and that depresses me because we should have an expectation to see wildlife wherever we are."

One of the team's major aims is to give viewers a reality check on the health of the UK's countryside, and look at how it can be managed in a sustainable way.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people look outside, see it's green and think it's OK. But I'm afraid it isn't," says Packham.

"The exciting thing is that we have the knowledge and technology to make changes. But we can't do it without public support and awareness.

"We want viewers to take a second look at the countryside, to recognise the good bits and ask for more of them."

Fortunately, Sherborne has plenty of good bits... "We wouldn't go to some agricultural desert in East Anglia with an overgrazed mono-culture," scoffs Packham.

Strachan hints that the typically over-critical Springwatch film crew are already getting uncharacteristically over-excited about what's in store for the next few weeks.

Nest boxes have been erected around the site, with the hope remote cameras will deliver live footage of barn owl chicks. Swallows and buzzards are also likely to have starring roles, while a river cam aims to capture footage of otters and water voles.

But there's one avian species that roving reporter Martin Hughes-Games is desperate to encounter. "For the last three years, I've tried to see lesser spotted woodpeckers, which I now think are made up," he admits with frustration.

"It's a woodpecker the size of a sparrow... apparently."

Packham, of course, has seen several in his time and assures Martin luck may be on his side this season.

While he and Strachan hold fort at Sherborne, Hughes-Games will be travelling up and down the UK, filming pine martens and beavers in Scotland, meeting reintroduced red squirrels in the Scilly Isles, and tagging jellyfish. "I had no idea you could do that!" he admits.

The former producer, who is now part of the Springwatch furniture, has been overwhelmed by his growing fan base. Last year, when rumours hinted he might be dropped from the show, a furious Twitter petition was launched to keep him on screen.

He jests it may have had some bearing on his continued employment, although the BBC insists there was never any question mark hanging over his role.

"The real story is he was never going to be kicked off - he was just feeling unloved," says Strachan mischievously. "He wanted his ego massaged!"

The team's relative newbie Gillian Burke has also been out and about on location creating animal diaries, and says filming emperor moths on Dartmoor was a reminder she has one of the best jobs in the world.

"I got completely absorbed," she gushes, recalling the recording of the UK's only silk moth in breeding season.

"Hang on Gilly," says Packham, interrupting her momentary idyll. "You were working with our best crew, the moths turned up and did their thing and it didn't rain. You've just got lucky so far!"

It's typical Packham tongue-in-cheek sarcasm.

The quick-witted 56-year-old presenter is well-known for his on-screen game playing, going off on a tangent and inserting song lyrics into conversations.

"I thought I might do it again this year," he muses. "The problem is my interest in music is relatively narrow in its scope, so there are lots of bands which I could do but no one else would know.

"I did run through a few where I thought there was sufficient crossover between my music and that of the wider public. Now we're left with just a few bizarre indie bands. So I might do film titles..."

Music references will still appear in this Springwatch edition, though.

One of Packham's projects on the show is to collar badgers and foxes with the help of Dr Dawn Scott from the University of Brighton.

"The collars will last at least until the end of Winterwatch, so we'll get some consistency throughout the year and we'll know them as individuals," he enthuses.

"We've started naming them. I've gone for pop icons, and the first badger I've named is Madonna.

"It was that or Gaga, and I thought I'd start with a more senior figure."

So the Springwatch fascination with badgers continues. But the question is: will Michaela be keen to scratch her Madge? Twitter is waiting...

:: Springwatch starts on BBC Two on Monday, May 29

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