Friday, 26 March 2021

WOW!

                                            

Yes, it’s ‘World Osprey Week’ and these most charismatic of birds are fast approaching on the eternal skyways from the west coast of Africa. Hooray for High Flyers!


We live in sunny Dorset and several ospreys have recently passed by on their way to Scotland, including the famous pair ‘Maya and 33’ that have already arrived at their nest on Rutland Water. Remarkably, after their two and a half thousand mile flight from Senegal they landed on their nest within half an hour of each other. Appropriately, it was at mid-day on March 20th, the vernal equinox and first day of Spring, cause for celebration all round! 

We are also getting increasingly excited here at Poole Harbour, for we had a nest occupied here by our own star female CJ7 for all of last spring. 


She was raised and fledged from Rutland Water in 2015 and in spite of this being her first attempt at breeding, she behaved impeccably, building up her new nest and defending it in the hope of attracting a mate. Sadly it wasn’t to be but ‘The Birds of Poole Harbour’ team and all us locals have our fingers X’d that this year will be the first time ospreys have nested on the south coast since their extinction here a hundred and eighty years ago. We were treated to daily excitement by watching her on the camera the team had set up on the nest. We hope that this image from Scotland is replicated in Dorset soon.

Being just six miles from our cottage, it is an extraordinary success, for it was only in the late 1950’s that ospreys successfully returned to nest in Scotland after being driven to extinction, the last pair nesting in 1916. The same happened along England’s south coast and it’s thanks to our friend Roy Dennis and his team and the translocation of youngsters from Scottish nests that they have every chance of returning here too. You can read the whole story by visiting the excellent Birds of Poole Harbour website - www.birdsofpooleharbour.co.uk/osprey/

It seems like only yesterday that Sue and I were living in Scotland for two years, [it was actually in the late ’70's], to make a film about ospreys for the RSPB and with the help of Roy [seen mending one of our nests], we completed the task so successfully that the film sold to forty six countries. This neatly goes to show what truly remarkable and exciting birds ospreys are and just in case you are unaware how remarkable these big birds are, I’ll quote the opening lines of the film Roy and I made all those years ago. The BBC even honoured us with a Radio Times front cover.

                                - THE RETURN OF THE OSPREY -

“The Scottish Highlands, a wilderness of rock and heather, providing refuge for many wild creatures, and one bird in particular, a very special bird, one of the world’s most spectacular hunters - the osprey.

Evolution has set the osprey in a class of it’s own, equipped it with a unique anatomy for supremacy in it’s watery world : five foot wingspan, exceptional eyesight : from it’s sickle beak to it’s strong legs and raking talons, everything about it is designed for a purpose, the only bird of prey in the world to feed exclusively on live fish”.


Our children grew up under their wings so it is no wonder that one of Katie and Peter’s first words was ‘Osprey’! It was in the early years of the osprey’s re-colonisation of Scotland and we lived alongside these charismatic birds for two years. Our love for them is deep in our souls and we pray that this year will see them nesting just down the road in Dorset.


Katie and Peter still get excited whenever they see an osprey, as do Sue and I, so we can’t admire the Birds of Poole Harbour team more for their brave and exciting initiative to re-establish the breeding of ospreys just six miles from our home. These are trying times but if you want the best possible news, the osprey’s imminent return is it! We're all watching and waiting - every day! So far only crows ...


***She's back now though, arriving for a mullet lunch on April 1st and on the nest most mornings. We're praying that she attracts a mate this year, even if it means I'll be wasting hours watching her every move and hopefully, the growth of her chicks. Our fingers are firmly crossed.
But that’s not all the good news. Thanks to Roy’s energy and foresight, another high flyer is now winging around above us here on the south coast, the sea eagle.


This remarkable picture was taken from Hengistbury Head in Christchurch Harbour on March 23rd, just a couple of days ago! It shows two of the youngsters that Roy and his team have translocated from nests in Scotland in the hope that they can recolonise their old haunts around the Isle of White.


Like the osprey, sea eagles were exterminated from Scotland, the last ones nesting in 1916 on a steepling sea cliff on the Isle of Sky. I enjoyed the privilege of making a film for David Attenborough’s BBC One series about their remarkably successful reintroduction to Scotland between 1975 and 1985. Our film followed a few of the 75 translocated youngsters on their journey from nests along the cliffs of Norway to the Isle of Rum on Scotlands’ rugged west coast. Here they were raised by John Love and learnt the skills necessary for their survival and it is the same techniques that will hopefully prove triumphant down here on the Isle of White. They last nested here on Culver Cliff in 1780!

These two great pics were taken by friend and ace lensman Mike Read in Mull.

There are now one hundred and thirty territorial pairs of sea eagles in the UK and in spite of continuing persecution, numbers are increasing and providing substantial support for rural economies. These dramatic birds help raise £2.4 million on Skye and an impressive £5million on the Isle of Mull. You can read all the detail on Roy’s Wildlife Foundation Website - https://www.roydennis.org/

This splendid pic was taken by ace photographer Laurie Campbell for our Catching the Impossible book

Yet another high flyer is also helping stressed rural economies, the extraordinary success of the recolonisation of red kites across much of its’ former range. Their numbers have reached an unbelievable 1,800 pairs and they are increasing every year. 

In fact, it still shocks us that not so long ago we had to travel to remote valleys in West Wales to see one of only a dozen surviving red kites but can now look up and see red kites circling over our Dorset garden. Every one is a moment of magic.
So thanks to all these inspiring conservation initiatives and years of hard work, there is a lot of good news out there, so instead of walking head down, look up and be amazed by all these high flyers overhead. These truly are exciting times - WOW indeed!







Thursday, 11 March 2021

SAVING WILDLIFE - SNOW LEOPARD




“Some parts of our planet are so brutal that any animal surviving here acquires an almost mythical status.
 

This is the greatest mountain range in the world - the highest, the toughest, the most hostile - the Himalaya. Towering above India’s northern borders, these remote mountains are home to what may be the most glamorous animal on earth.

Just to see one is a dream, to film one nigh impossible - this ghost like creature is the Holy Grail - the ultimate wildlife challenge - the snow leopard”.
 
 

Those above are the opening words of narration for my film on this legendary cat, the first ever attempt at making a film about them. I have always loved cats and having made films about lions, leopards, tigers and mountain lions I had to try an even greater challenge. However, having read lots of scientific research and books, I was in no doubt about just how difficult it was going to be.


Recognised by many as the world’s pre-eminent field biologist, George Schaller described the mountains in which snow leopards live as “a land of just enough” and that refers not just to the animals but the human inhabitants too.
 The tracks of a snow leopard can be seen on the right of this photo and shows just how difficult it was to follow them with camera gear.


Like many mountain adventures, our quest was to end in tears and triumph and for one of us, the dream became a nightmare, his determination driving him close to death, no surprise I guess when trying to conquer this Everest of the natural world.

Ex Australian marine Mitchell Kelly was my main cameraman and in the first couple of years he achieved great success. For instance, snow leopards had never been seen mating, let alone filmed but Mitchell rose to the challenge and succeeded, along with many other firsts. We also managed to film a lot of intimate scenes and got to know how and where they moved around in their precipitous terrain.

However, he had to be evacuated from the mountains three times, once for torn stomach muscles from carrying heavy camera equipment up steep mountain sides, then more seriously, from altitude sickness twice, the last time nearly killing him. It was an immense relief that he survived but from then on the film became a damage limitation exercise.


We had already suffered tragedy when my original colleague and close friend on the quest, Chip Houseman was killed in a Thai Airlines crash just days before we were due to start filming. We had made an Academy Award winning film together on tigers in India and it was during the filming that we hatched a plan to tackle this unconquered challenge.

 

This is not going to be a story of how we made the film, even if we did manage to complete a film about these beautiful cats and learn a lot about how they lived in the unforgiving Himalayas of Ladakh in NW India.


I would lay awake at night, not because I couldn’t sleep in a tent with a broken zip in minus twenty temperatures but because it was the best time to hear the mating calls of the cats. Their high pitched screams would carry a long way through the valleys and give us an idea of where they were located and interestingly, those descriptions by mountaineers thinking they were hearing the yeti calling in the night were actually snow leopards!

I met an English school teacher in Bhutan who described seeing a yeti in a snowstorm on a high pass. It stood by the road edge looking at him, similar to a large grey langur monkey but more like human size, then shuffled off into the trees. When you consider that Bhutan is covered by 60% of dense forest and bamboo and impenetrable, it is easy to hide a large primate from prying human eyes. So yeti’s do exist!
 

That’s a story for another time, so back to snow leopards and our struggles to film them and though our story only scratched the surface, the film was shown on prime time ITV and around the world to big audiences. However, our main achievement was to prove to the wildlife film-making world that snow leopards could indeed be filmed and like my previous story about pumas in the Andes of Patagonia, several film crews followed.





Most notable was cameraman Mateo Willis, the son of a great friend, David Willis who took the wonderful Radio Times pic. I was able to help Mateo a bit on location details etc. and he and his colleagues from the BBC filmed some amazing behaviour for David Attenborough’s series ‘Planet Earth 2’ and if you saw it, you would never forget. The images of three snow leopards and their violent behaviour as a mother defended her cub from an aggressive male were magical.

The result of all this filming success in our chosen valleys in Ladakh is the direct way it has saved snow leopards from persecution, for just as with my pumas, tourists want to see the mythical cats. The local people are as delightful as humans get and were extraordinarily helpful during our filming and they have since become the perfect hosts for tourists seeking snow leopards.

This is our terrific team of Ladakhi helpers who were wonderful companions, some of whome are guiding tourists up there right now. The high ridge above them was a favourite patrol route for snow leopards in the evenings - sometimes!

Attracting tourists was the brain child of the world’s leading snow leopard scientist, Rodney Jackson [who is on the right of our happy snap] and who took this picture of our star cat with his remote cameras. He rightly argued that if the wildlife was worth lots of dollars to the rural economy, they would be looked after by the locals instead of persecuted for killing their sheep and goats. So he encouraged the locals to set up ‘home stays’ for tourists in the tiny mountain villages near the main travel corridors of the cats.
 

One entertaining story from the village which I'm assured is true is of a young girl who took out the family's sheep and goat herd for their daily feed int the hills. It wasn't long before a snow leopard rushed out of the mountain side and grabbed a sheep and the girl, instead of running away, rushed forward and grabbed the other end of her sheep. A tug of war followed and eventually the snow leopard let go and slunk away into the mountains. One sheep saved by a young girls bravery!
 

My friend Mateo Willis who filmed the wonderful snow leopard behaviour for Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth’ close to this village told me recently that the remote mountains where we filmed in the ’90’s have now become a honey pot for wildlife seeking visitors from abroad and the valleys are full of tents and telescopes. 

 

He also said that the cats have become more tolerant of humans, just as our pumas did in the Andes Mountains and this has now made them easier to see. So it's a win win result all round.

Given the recent skirmishes between the Indian and Chinese armies on the Ladakhi border nearby, this tourist hot spot wouldn’t be a healthy place to be right now, but we are praying that all the snow leopards survive and flourish as they have done these last few years.

 

 

Our films legacy was a small contribution to start the ball rolling in environmental tourism in our chosen patch but you could argue that the peace and tranquility of the area has been spoilt. Maybe George Schaller would think that ‘the land of just enough’ has become ‘a land of too much’, but a lot of wildlife has been flourishing, including the rare and endangered snow leopard and this in turn has allowed many folk to enjoy seeing this mythical creature for the first time.


Given the increasing climate crisis makes me wonder if an increase in wildlife tourism is such a good idea but that’s a debate for another time. However, it’s a likely truth that if wildlife isn’t worth money it’s unlikely to survive and for better or worse, that’s a contribution that television has made a reality.

The wonderful drawings of snow leopards are by that leading artist Gary Hodges, so thank you for sending them to me Gary.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

SAVING WILDLIFE - PUMA

                               

                  SAVING WILDLIFE - PART ONE - PUMA

 

Having been passionate about wildlife since childhood, it seemed natural to want to help it flourish, so once I'd achieved my goal of becoming a wildlife film-maker, it was a no brainer to try to benefit the animals I was lucky enough to make films about for broadcasters around the world.

Three programmes stand out as examples of how television can directly help wildlife, the local people and their rural economies. One on Snow Leopards in the Himalayas was a success, a film about Newfoundland's fishing industry very moving and one about Pumas in the Andes Mountains of Patagonia a life saver for those big cats.

Yes, I know the common attitude is that ‘it’s only television and all the programmes are rubbish’ but no-one can deny that the many BBC films with David Attenborough are wonderful and have not only entertained but educated us about wildlife around the world and the increasing challenges that so many species now face. Global warming is a threat to us all and Sir David is making us increasingly aware that we need to act and we need to act now. 

I’ve been privileged to contribute to several of David’s films and though the three examples I’ll tell you about were my own productions and less 'important', they did directly benefit the local wildlife in ways that make me proud.

   

                        “PUMA - LION OF THE ANDES” 


Heading into the mountains in Southern Chile in 1993 to try to make a film about pumas for National Geographic TV and the BBC was a daunting task, not only because they had never been filmed before but because they were persecuted relentlessly by the local gauchos for killing sheep. 

These big cats are notoriously shy everywhere, so much so that the world’s leading authority on them, who goes by the wonderful name of Maurice Hornocker only saw them four times during his eight years of study in North America. Up in the Rockies they are called cougars or mountain lions and in South America by the native name puma, meaning ‘strong and powerful'.


 

I was camping out in the glorious wilds of the Torres del Paine National Park but despite the protection this Unesco site provided for wildlife, the gauchos would come into the park and kill the pumas to protect their sheep, then claim the bounties from their estancia owners. 

My sole companion and assistant Donaldo McIver, himself a gaucho from Argentina, found the early stages of our two year quest really difficult, for the big cats would flee at the mere hint of a human presence. Finding out where the cats might be and how to creep around without being seen was a steep learning curve and after our first few weeks we had only a few sightings and hardly any worthwhile film. 

Failure wasn’t an option, so I decided to try to concentrate on one particular young female we'd located. She seemed slightly less scared than all the others and playing on the theory that ‘curiosity killed the cat’, I started a game of cat and mouse to try to habituate her to my presence … and no prizes for guessing who was playing the mouse. Progress was slow but after about four months she allowed me to walk in the mountains with her, even sleeping just a few metres away from my camera. Being trusted by a big cat that is normally terrified of humans is as good as life gets for a wildlife film-maker.


Sadly, her life hung by a thread, for one day two of the local gauchos illegally entered the National Park on horseback. They were armed with rifles and fifteen assorted dogs to hunt and kill pumas and judging by the blood and spent cartridge cases in several caves, they were successful. Our cat we called Penny disappeared and we sat on a mountain side fearing the worst, tearfully accepting that if she was dead, our dream of success was over. 


The park authorities called the police, including a firearm specialist from Santiago to analyse the spent cartridge cases but no gaucho would be fool enough to leave out the gun that killed the pumas, so there was no prosecution. 

Luckily, Penny had survived the onslaught and after our two weeks of desperate searching, she reappeared in her regular haunts and though more nervous, we were once again in business. Fearing that our film was threatened, Donny and I decided to bribe the leading gaucho in the hope he would leave our precious cat alive until the film was finished. So armed with armfuls of pesos, my assistant Donny’s experience as a gaucho and speaking their language, he was able to negotiate a stay of execution and Penny was left alive. So, to cut a long story short, after 250 days out in the wilds with my cat, spread over two and a half years, the film was completed and went on to win numerous awards.

However, the real success achieved by this film was the way it attracted the attention of broadcasters from around the world and many film crews followed my tracks to make films about the cats. Torres del Paine became a mecca for photographers and wildlife film-makers and this publicity of the park’s wildlife and beauty has attracted thousands of tourists and their dollars. 

This sounds like bad news for shy cats but as the money flowed in to the rural economy, the estancia owners realised that pumas were worth a lot more than sheep so stopped shooting the cats and set up lodging for wildlife tourists instead. The dollars flowed in, the number of pumas increased and they slowly became more habituated to humans which allowed great film and pictures to be taken.


I'm told by friends who visit the park regularly that the pumas have thrived ever since and everyone is happy, though I’m not so sure that guanacos, their main prey will share my enthusiasm.


However, they too have benefited from the more relaxed estancia owners and all the parks wildlife has increased too, so this is good example of how a ‘mere’ television film can directly save wildlife. 

Snow Leopards in the Himalayas and the benefits our film and BBC ones made for these charasmatic cats and the local economy will follow when I've finished preparing our marsh for the imminent spawning of our frogs.


The pics of our Penny the Puma are by my friend and ace photographer Laurie Campbell who joined Donaldo and I for a couple of weeks and who owns the copyright. Thank you Laurie.

Friday, 25 December 2020

HAPPY DAYS WITH FRIENDS

                         


Christmas - a time to celebrate our days of joy with family and friends during these past years and to look forward to many more wildlife and fishing adventures during this next year.

Yes, we’re well aware that a virus is running riot so for now, all of us will keep ourselves isolated from our nearest and dearest and try to stay alive … and if Sue and I don’t succeed, this could serve as a goodbye!


But before we leave … and contrary to most people’s attitude to writing Christmas cards, I really enjoy the process because it means our friends are instantly on my mind and the more I write in each card, the longer I’m with them in spirit, regardless of not having seen them for years. This enables us to pass on our news and love and every card is rewarding because for a moment, they’ve been right there with us.


Sue and I are blessed to have so many to write to and I for one know it’s a privilege to share the fun of fishing with all my worm dangling friends. So I hope you enjoy sharing this selection of catches they’ve made during these past few years. And I'll start with those I fish with most, my computer guru and good pal Chris Wild, with whom I shared the excitement of stalking this beautiful 22lb common carp in the shallows of a local lake.


Next up is Steve Derby for he allows me the privilege of sharing his rig for mullet fishing in Christchurch Harbour and we had a splendid year of success, catching quite a few up to six and a bit pounds, along with some lovely roach. I know I’ve banged on about how hard mullet fight but if you’ve ever tried to land one, you’ll know that they never give up and in shallow water, the battles can be seriously exciting.


Also a fan of mullet madness is Steve’s long time friend, Brian Naylor, an ace angler who delights in making me jealous by telling stories of battles with giant sea trout in South America. We’ve shared a few scares together too as the feisty mullet try to break our line among the anchor chains.

Another fish that pulls a bit is the Indian Mahseer and I enjoyed some wonderful holidays there in winter sunshine, having been invited to join Steve, Brian and not least that ace barbel angler who helped us with our TV series ‘Catching the Impossible’, Pete Reading. 


He caught us a twelve pound barbel to order and had lots of big mahseer during our adventures and it’s such a shame that those holidays together are no longer possible because the great wildlife and birding we enjoyed was only matched by our laughter.
Another friend sharing our Indian trips was Gerry Higham. He got lucky and caught a fifty pounder that
for half an hour, dragged him all over the river in his coracle. He's an all rounder so is just as keen on catching delicate crucian carp in one of our local lakes.


Gerry is a lifelong follower of Manchester United and he kindly invited close friend Chris Yates and I to enjoy a match with the club we support, Southampton. Being in ‘The Theatre of Dreams’ was dramatic, with 70,000 fans cheering their teams and it must be very odd for the players today to compete in front of empty stands.


Chris and I love our crucian fishing and have shared many memorable days trying to spot their sneaky bites ... and sometimes succeeding.

Chris also loves his perching but on this occasion he’d forgotten his rod so, shock horror, he had to fish with one of my carbon ones and I promised not to tell anyone that he’d broken his tradition never to use such a modern monstrosity.

Though I do enjoy crucian fishing, especially with Chris, my first love is roaching and I particularly like this pic of Stuart Wilson, the legendary keeper at the LAA’s Britford fishery with a sparkler. 


I have many friends who love their roaching, including Malcolm Swinfen and luckily we've shared several two pounders. We also exchange fishing stories by email and with Malcolm being a good writer, they make enjoyable reading.

Many of our friends love catching big roach - of course they do, they are the best fish - and one who has done more than most for us anglers this last year by enabling us to start fishing again after lockdown is pal and Angling Trust guru Martin Salter. I was pleased to be alongside him when he caught this great big roach from the River Test. It wasn't quite a two pounder but it looks it!


I can't mention roach without acknowledging the lifetimes work of Trevor Harrop and Budgie Price and it's partly due to them that we can now trot the Hampshire Avon for roach again and stand a reasonable chance of catching one. Here they are landing a big chub! Sorry about that but I couldn't find the one of Budgie landing a roach of nearly two pounds.

I have friends who sometimes prefer bigger fish than roach and I was so lucky to be invited to join those ace angling archivists, Keith and Sandy Armishaw for a holiday sturgeon fishing in Canada. What's more, we had such a good time I was invited again and boy, did we catch a lot of big fish. 


This monster of Keith's took him 1hr 28mins to land and I caught one close to that size. We got very wet when it flapped and being  stuck in the mud, we had an early bath - cue laughter.


We also visited Vancouver Island, fishing not far from where Prince Harry and Megan lived for a while, and the salmon fishing was a bit special, Keith landing this monster King Salmon on trotted salmon eggs and I caught several beautiful fresh run silver bars on a fly.



Luckily I'd been taught to cast by John Slader, an Orvis guide on the Test and stalwart of the Salmon and Trout Conservation Trust, so I was extremely fortunate to catch fish instead of trees. We had shared a grand bone fishing holiday out west and now we share roach fishing on our poles alongside the Avon and enjoy that just as much.

I have other pals that love fly fishing too, non more so than Jim Wreglesworth. He catches some gorgeous big brownies from our local rivers on the fly, loves roach fishing and shares a love of tench, catching lots of fiesty smallish ones with me one evening. He was quite happy!

I have another great friend who I've fished with for many years and he's an inspiration because he makes such a commitment to achieve success and nearly always does, Mark Woodage. Only two years ago he caught a roach of 3lb14ozs from an 'impossible' water and helped me to catch one of 3lb10ozs so we were both rather happy chappies. He loves his tenching too and we've shared many happy days in the summer sun along with blanking on frosty mornings.

One angler I always look forward to joining for our trips down memory lane is Martin Bowler. We spent four years together creating our Ch4 series 'Catching the Impossible' and amazingly, after all that pressure to catch big 'uns, we remain the best of friends. 


I helped him out with a bit of filming for one of his productions a few years back and we will never forget the day when he caught giant perch of 4lb5ozs, followed soon after by a true monster of 5lb4ozs. He is arguably the finest all round angler in the UK and a lovely bloke too so I count myself lucky to call him and his wife Jo friends.
I haven't been fishing much this last year due to a need to hide away and I've missed our journeys into the wild, not least to the Hebridian Island of Islay where nearly thirty thousand barnacle geese spend the winter, the scenery is stunning and the malt whisky from the islands' eight distillaries is delicious ... but dangerous.

Here we are with our close friends, ace wildlife cameramen Michael and Penny Richards and the legendary John Aitchison who was trying to film golden eagles catching geese! They do you know.

We go to Islay together as often as possible, along with other birding holidays but our annual New Year celebrations with Michael and Penny and Rick and Jen is cancelled this year for obvious reasons. It's sad as we've never missed the get together for the last thirty nine years. This pic of us on the West Somerset Railway makes me think of that exclamation in panto "it's behind you"!

We'll just have to be patient and wait for 'together time' when the worst of the virus is over. Finger's crossed it won't be too long, but in the meantime, Sue and I are lucky to have a lovely big garden to look after and keep us fit. Our wildflower meadow is butterfly heaven.



Our daughter Katie and partner Simon love their gardening too and are joining us for Christmas lunch from just up the road but very sensibly, our Pete decided it was too risky to come from Plymouth as he didn't want to kill the old folk!

 


We'll hopefully be seeing him in the Spring when everything is smelling of roses and our world slowly returning to normal. ... and it won't be long before summer glows with life and we're picnicking on the top of Dorset's Golden Cap.
Until then, have a great Christmas and stay safe always ... and thank you to all my fishing pals for their great company and all the laughs. 

With our love and best wishes, Hugh and Sue.