August 8, 2008

Television Review: Warriors on the Wildlife Frontier

By Andrea Mullaney

Born to Be Wild, BBC4

THERE'S a man up a ladder, halfway up a cliff, using a long stick to grab seabirds so he can put rings on their feet and keep track of them. This is Bob Swann, a naturalist, and I suspect that when he goes to the fair he cleans up on the hook-a-duck stall. One of the enthusiasts featured on Born To Be Wild, the aptly named Swann has spent almost a quarter of a century checking nests.

His invaluable record has noted a vast decline in their numbers: in the last decade, he says, nest numbers here have shrunk from 46 to about 11, due to warmer seas and sand eel fishing taking the birds' food supply.

"My family say I'm obsessed ... but I've got a very low boredom threshold and it keeps me out of mischief," shrugged Swann, who visits them every few days. Well, if your idea of fun is ducking guano and listening to the screeches of shags, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, I guess it does. Though come to think of it, it's not so very different from walking down Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night.

Meanwhile, in the Moray Firth - or just nearby - is Pete MacDonald who is known, apparently, as Dolphin Pete (though Dolphin Billy Connolly might also work, due to his strong resemblance. I kept expecting him to go "Ooh, dolphins, they're brilliant, aren't they, when they do those wee jobbies..."). Anyway, Pete and his several hundred Friends Of The Moray Firth Dolphins are basically cetacean stalkers, keeping an eye on the creatures and logging all their appearances from land and sea with the fervour of a tabloid tracking Amy Winehouse.

The poor things never get any privacy and, if this were a Pixar movie, the dolphins would doubtless be consulting a shark lawyer in order to have a restraining order imposed. "They follow us everywhere, your Honour!" they'd tell the judge (a whiskery walrus). "We cannae even nip out to get a squid supper without some big beardie guy writing it down in a notebook and then playing the banjo at us."

Since, however, this is real life, the Moray Firth spotters are actually doing sterling work logging the evidence that can be used to lobby for the dolphins' protection - and being intelligent animals, no doubt they're grateful.

If you think that's whimsical, what about the group of volunteers in Pembrokeshire, who on the one hand should be admired for saving sea urchins, crabs and the like from the waste dumped into the sea ... but, on the other, choose to call themselves Neptune's Army of Rubbish Cleaners - or NARC. Yeah, I see how they got there, but that is one embarrassing name; though perhaps Poseidon's Organisation Of Purifiers would have been worse.

Then again, perhaps we should be more embarrassed that what they do is necessary and that people have to spend their free time cleaning up after eejits who dump plastic bags, shopping trolleys and wire where it can tangle up innocent sea creatures.

A low-key series, Born To Be Wild has nevertheless revealed something that, in its quiet way, should be as much a source of national pride as anything that may (or may not) happen in Beijing this week: all the fine people who doggedly devote their time to protecting our wildlife. Generally unfashionable, perhaps slightly obsessed, they just get on with it. Maybe, amidst the rising alarms about pollution, waste and the end of the world as we know it, we could celebrate them, maybe even make them sound cool: the Wildlife Warriors, perhaps?

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