Wrapping up the survey season with special visitors from the BBC

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Snapshot from Countryfile

Wrapping up the survey season with special visitors from the BBC

*This blog was written in October… sorry for the late posting*

Having 30 field sites has been very taxing at times, during the fieldwork season. With butterflies needing perfect weather conditions to survey; dummy caterpillars to put up and take down within 24 hours; and moth pheromone traps to check 3 times per farm in the summer, my survey team and I have been very busy! I couldn’t have got through the survey season if it wasn’t for my amazing team of surveyors: Billy Dykes and Kirsten Hunter, who looked after the butterfly surveys, and Carlton Parry and Paul Leafe – the ornithologists. These guys spent most of their spring or summer driving around Herefordshire – either at dawn for the bird surveys or rushing out last minute in good weather conditions for butterflies. So they deserve a mention here, because we managed to get all the surveys done before the cold set in, so thank you all!

 

Butterfly survey assistants

Furry butterfly survey assistants

Although fieldwork proved logistically tricky at times, the lucky thing about having so many farm sites is being known by 30 growers. So when Countryfile were in Herefordshire, looking for people to talk to about Perry pears and apples for their harvest-time episode, my name was kindly mentioned by four separate growers. They basically couldn’t get away from me and I naturally plugged my research in the most exciting way possible. I figured, not many people on Countryfile have talked about plasticine caterpillars, so I emphasised this as my main research method. They seemed interested and wanted to film me!

Countryfile is one of the most watched television programmes in the UK, with record viewings of 8.1 million earlier this year – a great way to advertise my research to a very large, captive audience. I tried not to think about exactly how many people might be tuning in, while the cameraman was unnervingly close to my face.

Not many people get to experience talking about their research, and its importance, in front of a television crew, so I thought I would share my experience of the ‘things I enjoyed’ and ‘things I hadn’t expected’.

(I am in the process of getting the video posted here, so stay tuned.)

Things I enjoyed:

Feeling really important – For the duration of my time “on set” I felt very welcomed and relaxed and people seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing. This rarely happens in everyday life and usually it’s just funny looks I receive, for fiddling around with plasticine caterpillars.

I didn’t actually realise that Countryfile have a very small budget, that is, in relation to other high viewing programmes or nature shows like Planet Earth, so they rely on people like me – who want to be on TV – to give up the best part of a day talking to a presenter about what they do, in a few ways and a few settings. This is probably the reason I felt important, but it was a nice feeling nevertheless.

Having a genuinely good chat – The presenters need to really understand the ins and outs of everything that is being talked about. Mainly, so that they don’t look unwise and incur repercussions from Twitter, but also because some topics are actually very complex and need to be simplified into a 4-5 minute clip. The only way this can be done is by asking very detailed questions to ensure they are getting the full story, of which they can later cut down but without losing vital information. Trying to simplify 4 years of research is very tricky, so it was great practice for me and I hear is a very “transferable” skill to have. A tick for the CV.

Giggling fits – You know when you’re not allowed to laugh and that makes you want to laugh more? This happened quite a few times during the morning of filming. No idea why, perhaps it was the mix of friendly people and nerves! This is a very unusual thing to happen in the orchards, as it’s normally just me wondering around looking for my dummy caterpillars, on my own.

Snapshot from Countryfile

Snapshot from Countryfile

 

Things I hadn’t expected:

How difficult it would be to condense my research – One of the final questions asked, that I just couldn’t answer, was “so, what’s the whole point of your PhD, then?” This is a very daunting question as a PhD student. You’d think I would know that by now, but when you are so focussed on one aspect of the work for a while, you forget the “big picture” and the reason why you are doing all this work. So on the day, I just couldn’t answer this, and especially couldn’t answer it in the same way twice. In the end, Joe Crowley – the presenter, could answer the question better than I could!

The amount of miming involved – I didn’t realise that nearly all of the talking scenes on tele, that are shot from a distance, are all being mimed. They did say I could say my answers out loud again if I wanted, but the majority of the time I was actually saying “blah blah blah” whilst moving my hands, as if I was having a very in depth conversation. So that was fun.

The random emails I received afterwards – I know there are probably more weird people in the world than normal (I’m probably one of the weird ones!), but I didn’t expect to get random emails from people telling me “The Daily Mail spelt your name wrong: it’s Selvey, not Selby” … yeah, I know. Or strange people telling me that they actually came up with the idea about bats on orchards, so I should have spoken about their work – I didn’t even talk about bats, and my PhD is about birds. Not bats.

Who doesn’t love Countryfile?

Countryfile is not loved by everyone – some view the programme “betrays the countryside” or that it paints an ersatz picture of the countryside. I don’t understand how it “betrays” the countryside – especially as the majority of farmers in my study regularly watch Countryfile, and enjoy it. But I can understand how it paints this artificial image of the countryside: showing stunning, picturesque views that surge waves of nostalgia in the nation and focusses a lot less on the cold, long, rainy days of farming in Britain. But is this not what natural history programs do too? Trying to portray the wonders of nature (or the countryside in this example) to inspire the public? Most viewers of Countryfile do not live in the countryside, so may find it difficult to otherwise connect. This connection to the countryside is really important for the future of farming – if we don’t understand where our food comes from, why would we care about how it is produced?

I think Countryfile, for all of its corny-ness, reconnects “urbanites” to our agricultural landscape. For this reason, it was such a privilege to broadcast my research on the show and hopefully I enlightened some, and confused others just enough for them to look up what biodiversity is. Or maybe it inspired people just to be outside and explore more, and that is never going to be a betrayal to our countryside.

 

Image: http://www.countryfile.com/countryfile-tv/explore-wye-valley-countryfile-sunday

Image: http://www.countryfile.com/countryfile-tv/explore-wye-valley-countryfile-sunday

 


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Sam and Pig

Curly haired pigs, cow panic and a bird dilemma

We are half way through our orchard bird surveys now with all 31 orchards surveyed once already. Early mornings are very hard for me on a normal day, but with dawn getting more and more towards the 4.30am mark and some farms nearly an hour away, I am beginning to wonder if camping on site may be a better idea. Unfortunately, birds are most active at dawn so this is the time we have to be there ready with a GPS and expert ears (as shown below) to count those birds!

Searching for points

Searching for bird survey points

Sam, the bird expert, has been keeping his keen eye (and ear) out for rare birds, as do all birders. So far he has ticked off a few cuckoos, which although aren’t rare as such, it seems to be a competition as to who hears the cuckoo first in spring. I didn’t know this was a game until now! A few willow warblers, black caps and green finches have been heard and seen on a handful of orchards but chaffinches seem to be following us everywhere.

Pigs and Cows

We’ve made some new friends along the way including some curly haired pigs and a herd of young cows. I think Sam was a little jealous of this curly blonde with its luscious locks at first but they became friends pretty quickly nonetheless.

Piggy love

Piggy love

We had another hairy moment at a farm when our trusty GPS led us to a point count location into a field of young cows. Wearing a bright pink coat may not have been the best item of clothing as they were certainly more attracted me, but this could also be the fact I was waving my clipboard and making loud noises to try and deter them. After getting completely surrounded at one point at the same time Sam exclaims “cows have killed people by trampling them before”, I decided we should do the point count – where we stand still for 5 minutes to listen and look out for birds in a 100m radius – behind a safe hedge on the outside of the field instead. After speaking to that farmer about the cow problem we quickly felt unprepared for the countryside, as we learnt that the tell-tale signs of being trampled was waving of the head and kicking the ground, which they weren’t doing. I’m sure the Zoo’s Health and Safety people will be proud of me though.

young cows

Birdy Quarrels

Often in the birding community people tend not to believe others of rare bird sightings unless there is a clear picture to back their story up. So you could say it wasn’t birding if there wasn’t a bit of debate in this fieldwork. The culprit of the debate was right at the top of a birch tree and looked suspiciously to Sam like a Red Backed Shrike. But later when we checked other possibilities, I thought it was more like a Wheatear. Both are unusual sightings for the area but the Red Back Shrike is a bit “more rare” and Sam is sticking with it. Luckily, the sighting wasn’t within our 5 minute point count window as we saw it on the way back to the car. So we can continue to discuss at our leisure.

Early Results?

Unfortunately there have been no big trends in the species found or quantity of birds on different farms yet. I haven’t yet statistically analysed the data so will probably not find anything until that has been tackled. The only early variation I will have to be aware of is the difference between the type of orchard, whether a dessert apple orchard, juice or cider orchard will most likely need to be taken into account when analysing. Stay tuned for next steps in fieldwork and preliminary results soon.

Written by Charlotte Selvey and first posted here in May 2015.


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