The latest BBC landmark natural history production – Wild Isles, with David Attenborough – has brought blue chip wildlife film-making to our own back yard.

The five parter for BBC One and iPlayer is made by Silverback Films, co-produced by The Open University, the RSPB and WWF. It tells the story of the wildlife of the British Isles, mixing concerns about environmental threat and celebrating the wonder of our own part of the natural world.

The form of the series is traditional, closed episodes. With the first episode introducing, giving an overview of flora and fauna in Britain. The other episodes each take a different habitat: woodlands; grasslands; freshwater; and marine.

The series was commissioned by Jack Bootle, BBC Head of Commissioning, Science and Natural History. The Executive Producer is Alastair Fothergill and the Series Producer is Hilary Jeffkins. The episode producers are Chris Howard for episodes two and four, Jeffkins for episode one, Nicholas Gates for episode three and Gisle Sverdrup for episode five.

Simon King, Principle Camera and Series Consultant, has worked on Wild Isles for best part of five years. “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,” he says. “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.”

Asked about the most ambitious filming challenges, he references the visualisation of the “wood-wide web” – the story of the way the forest communicates via a network of thread like fungi, as well as 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.”

King 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,” says King, “revealing hidden worlds of solitary bees, butterflies and much more.”

Working on some of the macro capture, cameraman Alastair MacEwen shot behaviour of voles running through tunnels and the inside of an ants nest, by setting up sets, overseen by relevant wildlife experts.

Wild Isles composer is George Fenton. He contrasts scoring scripted film with natural history: “In film, you very often have to deal with performance or plot points. In the natural world world, you may have to deal with a plot point if they’re telling a long story, but the characters in the plot are flawless because they are not acting. They are so natural so you get these incredible moments, insights into the ways animals think and behave and move.”

Fenton aims to make the music underpin the characters. “You can’t help smiling at a puffin, they’re plucky,” he says. “I try to set all these things up as characters and then involve them in the story and try not to give the ending away. The geese story is about two things: about the geese, the importance of their stopover; but also about the eagles that try to hunt them. Eagles have been so rare and now they’re back and they’ve had to learn these behaviours, how to catch a barnacled goose… It’s tough for a young eagle because they’re so heavy, so even if they catch them, can they hang on to them? It’s a real will he, won’t he kind of story, with a lot of anticipation and tension. So I try to get the sense of panic in a flock of  geese.”

He recognises that BBC viewers will be familiar with the sounds of their home country. “I want the music to feel deep down like it’s from the British Isles, the natural sounds of our island are very poignant for us, we relate very strongly to them.”

Filming locations:

Golden eagle: Cairngorms

Robins & wild boar: Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire / Wales

The flowering forest: Chichester

Capercaillie: Cairngorms, Scotland

Wood ants: Buckinghamshire

Roe deer: Woking

Purple emperors: Sussex

Slug mating: Dartmoor

Red squirrels: Scotland

Honey buzzard: New Forest, Hampshire

Fallow deer: Sussex;Cheshire

Autumn forest & fungi: Somerset; Scotland; Suffolk

Starling murmuration: Bodmin Moor

Producer on episodes two and four, Chris Howard says: “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.”

He cites a salmon sequence where he had to visit the north-east of Scotland seven times in total, an 11.5 hour drive each way.

The production’s key spring/summer block also coincided with Covid and lockdowns.

Several scenes involved ambitious filming techniques. To capture the Purple Emperor butterfly fighting,  cameraman Mark Yates was hoisted 20 metres on a cherry picker, up to the top of the canopy to join the world of male butterflies. Fights between males 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,” says Howard. “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.”

Meanwhile, another cameraman was positioned on a public bridleway for four days, 10 hours a day, to catch the Purple Emperors eating fox scat on the ground.

Three stories of ambitious capture

Starling roost

The roost of one million birds on Bodmin Moor attracts night-time predators, allowing the crew to film barn owls moving in to take advantage of the winter opportunity. The team used remote, low-light cameras to get into the roost and film with the birds, designing bespoke rigs to attach to trees or scaffolding and leave in the roost overnight. However, the starlings would move to different patches of the woodland, and it took 24 nights of filming to get the right shots in the roost, and double that to get the thermal footage of the birds!

Purple emperor butterflies

One of our largest butterflies, the males battle to hold territories at the top of oak trees where they hope to attract a mate. Filmed on the Knepp Estate, West Sussex, the team used a 20m high cherry picker to film in the tree canopy. With the whole battle lasting just seconds, it was filmed at 800 frames per second. The male can be very aggressive and will chase off almost anything including birds (which usually prey on them!), but despite this they remain one of our most elusive butterflies. One technique used by the crew was to wipe their clothes with strange smells, including fish paste, to attract the butterflies.

Honey buzzard

Honey buzzards are a summer visitor from northern Africa that break into wasp nests to feed its chicks on wasp larvae. The team used a remote camera rigged 15m up a tree in the New Forest to film this incredibly rare footage – which allowed them to get intimate moments between the chicks without disturbing the birds. The crew used DIY skills to make a bespoke camouflaged box for the camera with a remote-controlled sliding door that opened when they filmed.

Banijay Rights handles distribution for the series.

Image: Cameraman Hamza Yassin and producer Chris Howard watching for golden eagles (BBC/Silverback Films/Lily Moffatt)

Pippa Considine

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