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'Truly remarkable': Barry Gardiner reviews 'Wild Isles'

'Wild Isles': Sir David Attenborough | Image © Silverback Films / Alex Board

5 min read

A captivating celebration of the globally important biodiversity of the British Isles, Sir David Attenborough’s new documentary series is a wake up call to protect our precious natural capital from further loss

My Saturday nights are not usually so full of sex and violence! But when asked if I would like to preview Sir David Attenborough’s latest series, Wild Isles, I felt compelled to renounce my overtly wholesome existence and join the Bacchanalia.

As top predators go Orcas are pretty merciless beasts – and intelligent with it, turning on their side to keep their dorsal fin from showing above the water. I guess stealing up on a sleeping seal and drowning its pup is what earns you the name of Killer Whale. But if you think these guys could give you sleepless nights, just wait until you see the wood ants in the next episode. That is the stuff of nightmares. Operating with the efficiency of a Roman Legion, these tiny creatures will fend off large predators with coordinated “canon fire” of formic acid. Insatiable hunters, they can drag six million unsuspecting victims each year to their deaths so as to provide food for their colony.

So what about the sex? Well some of it is quite tame. Capercaillies strutting their stuff in front of a harem of females and fighting for the privilege, Banded Demoiselle Damsel Flies engaging in their convoluted aerial copulation. But the nation’s favourite grandad gets grotesquely graphic when it comes to Ash Black Slugs. If I told you that the entwining of two 12-inch-long hermaphroditic slugs’ penises could have a beautifully balletic consummation, you might raise at least one eyebrow. But honestly, wait until you see it to judge.

The plants and fungi are just as captivating. The images of fecund fungi that emerge from our woodland floor at 38 minutes into next week, lead you into a secret world of plant communication. And if the psilocybin doesn’t blow your mind then the idea of the Wood Wide Web certainly ought to. But for me, watching a Bumble Bee vibrate the anthers of a Bittersweet flower at just the right frequency to produce an ejaculation of pollen has to be one of the most amazing pieces of photography I have ever seen.

The real heroes of the programmes are the camera operators

And of course what is so captivating about this series is not just the man himself. (By the way, did the BBC take out extra insurance before putting him so close to the edge of the Dover cliffs?) Attenborough would be the first to insist that the real heroes of the programmes are the camera operators. To get this footage they cut tiny holes in the sides of flowers, they sat for hours in stinking forests of bird poo, used every conceivable ingenuity and technical skill, displayed the most extraordinary patience and braved the harshest elements all to bring one deadly serious message to our population: what we have in this country is beautiful and incredible but we are losing it!

Again and again the narrative tells the same message. More ancient oaks than the rest of Europe – but just half of what we had when Attenborough was born. Stunning murmurations of a million starlings – but their numbers depleted in recent years by 80 per cent. Britain: one of the most nature depleted countries in the world!

How could we have let this happen? We have some of the most diverse geology in the world – a bed rock that has given us varied and unique habitats with very precious wildlife. We are custodians to more than 50 per cent of the world’s common bluebells and we have 85 per cent of the world’s chalk streams. Blessed with our mild temperate climate that attracts both winter and summer visitors, how could we let this pearl of great price slip through our fingers?

In a week which will see the Chancellor deliver his Budget we must blame classical economics. Nature has been regarded as a free good. Nature is what classical economics refers to as an externality. Something to be used but not accounted for. Our precious chalk streams like the Chess being pumped dry – abstracted by the very water company that was supposed to look after it. Our ancient woodlands cut down – so people can travel faster from London to the East Midlands Parkway. Successive chancellors have failed to understand the difference between GDP and wealth. Our country’s wealth is more than a measure of productivity. It lies in our natural capital, our soil which is degrading, our seas which are being over-fished and our atmosphere which is being polluted.

These programmes about our wild isles are truly remarkable. Perhaps a final frustrated wake up call from our greatest living naturalist to the people of these islands. I doubt anyone in the United Kingdom today is more beloved than Sir David Attenborough. He must wonder why he is not more listened to.

Barry Gardiner is Labour MP for Brent North and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Nature

Wild Isles
Produced by: Silverback Films
Series producer: Alastair Fothergill
Broadcaster: BBC One on Sundays at 7pm / BBC iPlayer

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