There’s a goldfinch nest in my garden. It’s at the top of a butterfly bush. It’s domed, neat and compact. I notice the birds have placed a few leaves on the more exposed side for warmth and shelter. I’d love to look into it but it’s too high up and I’m worried I’d disturb the nesting chicks. Luckily, Springwatch has started this week, and it has footage of baby birds galore.
The Springwatch series first aired 15 years ago, and in that time has grown to include Autumnwatch, Winterwatch and a panoply of digital offerings to satisfy its audience. This year, however, it has taken on new importance and meaning. At a time of horror, grief and loneliness for many, spending time in the natural world has become a comfort, with constraints on other restorative activities.
“People are grieving, struggling and battling with the most tragic situations that they will ever encounter in their lives, and this series is not to take away from any of these realities,” said Chris Packham, in the opening speech, a welcome repudiation of the whiff of “humans are the virus” mentality in the eco fringe. “But there is one thing that’s happened this year that’s offered solace to everyone: the power, the therapy, the existence of the natural world.”
From the jazzy theme tune to Packham’s snazzy shirts (he is too cool to be a national treasure but frankly that’s what he is becoming), Springwatch has become a familiar seasonal highlight. It’s also a means of connection, to the rest of the living world around us, and thousands of other viewers who engage on social media during the show.
It’s a gem for a variety of reasons. First, the footage is top-notch. Most of us will never be able to see the sleek curve of a tree creeper’s bill or the liquid brown of its eye up close. Or the marshmallow fluff of just-born goshawk chicks. Or a leucistic badger cub gambolling around in broad daylight. Or a hobby munching on a mayfly in flight.
Second, there is plenty of science crammed in and the presenters don’t talk down to the viewers. This week we learned the extraordinary fact that a wren sings 740 notes in one minute.
Bee flies hover like drops of gold suspended in the air, the strawberry-sorbet bulge of the bullfinch’s breast swells, but this isn’t pure wildlife porn. Springwatch doesn’t shy away from the ecological crisis. Yes, it’s primarily about the joys and beauty of the natural world, but that doesn’t mean it sweeps biodiversity loss and the climate emergency under the carpet. The lack of rain is set in the context of how it affects a dipper family on the river. Without enough water to wash away droppings and nest materials that might give their location away to predators, the dippers must adapt to protect their chicks, which resemble Rik Mayall from Drop Dead Fred.
We hear about the benefits of overgrown and untidy habitats and the catastrophic decline of the cuckoo. Steve Backshall talks frankly about how less boat traffic during lockdown has meant the river environment where he lives is thriving and flourishing with coots and moorhens building their nests all over the place. His T-shirt – “Because there is no planet B” – spells it out.
I remember watching Springwatch for the first time when I was 20 or so, home from university in a funk, and finding the geniality between Bill Oddie and Kate Humble winsome and soothing. Through my early twenties I couldn’t be bothered with badgers or brimstones, but, during a health crisis at 27, I reconnected with the natural world around me, and found a peace and a calm in the wild things that I’ve drawn from since. Springwatch was still there on the television, laying out the beauty of the natural world. Since the series began in 2005, our wildlife and natural spaces have continued to diminish, which gives the series an added urgency today.
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While researching my book Losing Eden, I explored the evidence for the mental health benefits of connecting with nature through modern technology, via screens, videos and VR headsets. Studies have shown that just looking at a picture of the natural world can give stress-reduction and wellbeing benefits. Especially for those who are unwell and unable to leave their houses, or shielded in the current situation, accessing nature through shows like Springwatch could be therapeutic.
Springwatch is lovely to watch in the moment, but I find it also influences my daily walks in parks, woods and by rivers. It deepens my knowledge and helps me feel connected to others who I know are enjoying spring across the country. I might never see an otter in England, but it’s cheering to know that they’re about. The more we know about the psychology of connection to nature, the more it becomes clear that feeling a kinship to the living world can improve mental health.
The BBC Natural History Unit is rightly renowned around the world for its blockbuster wildlife documentary series narrated by David Attenborough. But Springwatch is a jewel in the crown of its programming. It corrects the prominent idea of wildlife being something “out there” that you go to “visit” in a far-flung country, if you’re lucky, or simply through a television screen. Springwatch makes worms and moths and blue tits magical, “common” species you might spot walking around your local urban park. Perhaps the BBC should screen it all year round.
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