The next BBC six-part wildlife epic is Mammals, from BBC Studios, narrated by David Attenborough. It launches on 31st March.

The series will show how mammals have taken advantage of every major environment on earth. They are found in every ocean, and on every continent, from frozen wildernesses, dense jungles, baking deserts, even the dark depths of the open ocean and the skies above our forests.

The six episodes cover Dark, Heat, Cold, The New Wild, Forest and Water.

“It’s just a dream cast of animals,” says executive producer Roger Webb.  “I went straight into my boss’s office and said, ‘I want to do that series. I’m just so pumped and excited about it!’… Mammals are just really relatable. You look another mammal in the eye, and it’s looking back at you. And obviously, we’re mammals. I was a big fan of the original Life of Mammals series, which was 20 years ago, and lots has changed in that time. I also felt there’s a story to be told about mammals today, and how they’re adapting to us and all the changes that are going on in the world.”

The series films new animal behaviour, including polar bears hunting reindeer, rather than seals. And chimpanzees, where they’re able to sniff out honey from underground.

“The way we film things has evolved,” says series producer Scott Alexander. “Originally, we used gimbal cameras attached to helicopters. Then it was drones and the amazing long lens, which has become the main staple for us. So the technology helps us constantly reinvent ourselves. We can always film things better. The only thing that has really changed is that the storytelling has improved. We have a much more character driven approach now.

“There’s much more emotion. We don’t just present an encyclopaedic look at mammals. We really see the lives and the emotions and the struggles of the animals. So, with the animals providing us with new stories, and technology, editing and storytelling all evolving, the natural history documentary is always going to find itself a good home.”

The first episode, Dark, is produced by Stuart Armstrong: “Nocturnal mammals have mastered a time we avoid: the dark. 80% of mammals are active at night, and more than two thirds are solely nocturnal. So it’s the majority of mammals, but then you’ve got the problem of trying to film them at night. Technically, filming at night is the biggest challenge.

“In recent years, though, technology has moved on so much that we have a range of different nocturnal filming techniques at our disposal. One of the key ones for this series is the development of extremely sensitive cameras that enable us to film under moonlight. So where I could, I use that technology to bring a different visual and reveal an animal that probably hasn’t been filmed much before outside of controlled conditions.”

It took a bit of persuasion to get the camera crew together. “All these camera people have been spoiled,” says Armstrong. “They like sunlight to make everything look beautiful. So trying to persuade people to come and do the night shift was a challenge. Nobody wants to do a night shift, but I managed to find enough great people to make it work.”

The first main post-title sequence is a sequence of leopards hunting roosting yellow baboons as they slept 20 metres up in ebony trees at the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. “We did two shoots and I was there for both,” says Armstrong. “I have to say it is the most astonishing thing to witness. In complete darkness, all you can see is the screen of your camera and spotting scopes which we use to highlight to the cameraman what’s going on. The leopards only hunt on the darkest night.”

Another sequence – of the fennec foxes – was always going to be a challenge. “Usually, we rely on amazing teams of researchers and scientists scattered around the world who’ve been putting their whole lives into this one particular animal,” says Armstrong. “But because fennec foxes live in very politically unstable regions of the Sahel and across the Sahara, no one studies them.

“But I got in touch with a wildlife photographer, Bruno D’Amicis, an Italian who had spent the last 10 or 15 years with his own funding trying to tell the story of the fennec fox. He found a location in Tunisia that he was willing to share with us. We went to the most amazing landscape in the Sahara, the Grand Erg Oriental, which is one of the largest sand dune deserts in the world. It’s just this spectacular landscape of nothing. You occasionally find these footprints seemingly leading nowhere. You speak to the locals, and they say, “I’ve seen one fennec fox in my life” – and they live there. So locating the animal was an immense challenge.

“We had two cameramen who were doing the hard yards throughout the night. But we also put out a lot of these camera traps with these incredibly sensitive, low light cameras to film under moonlight. We got footage showing what fennec foxes do, which is use their amazing ears to find food that’s hiding underground. They listen to where animals are living under the sand and then dig up insects and gerbils. The foxes are omnivores. There’s not much to eat there, so they’ll take advantage of most things.

“We placed the cameras in known spots near to bushes or where there might be a gerbil borrow or signs of insect activity and left them there for a long, long time. The fox’s hearing is astonishingly sensitive. Bruno always tells the story that as he took photographs in the old days, when the shutter clicked, the fox would disappear – even when it was a hundred metres away. Their hearing is that good. So I’m hugely proud of the footage we achieved.”

Picture: A leopard’s vision is specialised for hunting at night. A reflective layer behind the retina called a tapetum amplifies the smallest amount of light, enabling them to hunt on the darkest nights. (Image: BBC Studios)

Pippa Considine

Share this story

Share Televisual stories within your social media posts.
Be inclusive: is open access without the need to register.
Anyone and everyone can access this post with minimum fuss.