Matt Gaw feels optimistic about the future of our wildlife thanks to programmes like Autumnwatch

Autumnwatch presenters Martin Hughes-Games, Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham.

Autumnwatch presenters Martin Hughes-Games, Michaela Strachan and Chris Packham. - Credit: PA

I don’t know how long I have been standing by the reed beds.

The rain is beginning to fall. Lightly, at first, almost like sea spray, then heavier; causing thick beads of water to race down the back of my neck.

My feet are cold inside my boots and I’m fighting the urge to stamp them warm, fearful the crunch of the gravel will scare away my quarry.

“Ten more minutes”, I think to myself. “Just ten more.”

Then, finally, I see her. A vision of buff and grey, the bearded tit’s bouncing flight takes her across the path and back into the cover of the reeds.


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“Ping” she says.

“Ping”, I say happily back to her.

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It is a sighting that lasted just seconds, but already I have forgotten the cold, the rain, everything.

I move my frozen feet and set off towards Dunwich, slowly at first then picking up speed to try and catch my wife who stalked off soaked to the skin some time ago – eager to reach the pub where we’re staying.

There’s hardly a soul on the marsh. I see egrets, a kestrel hovering by the water-line – head held perfectly still as its wings fan the air – but no walkers; no half-term families; no wife.

The solitude is peaceful, but my mind turns to Martin Hughes-Games, who, ahead of this year’s Autumnwatch, told The Guardian that there are still not enough people fighting for nature, describing his shows as a “form of entertainment, a utopian world that bears no resemblance to the reality.”

He went on: “We were hoping that by making these terribly popular programmes we might have had some positive effect on conservation. But sadly the peak of wildlife film making – Trials of Life, the most successful blue chip series – has coincided with an appalling crash in the number of wildlife around the world.

“We always used to say what Sir David [Attenborough] used to say, which was that by making people aware of wildlife and conservation issues – that’s the first step – they will get involved.

“That’s been the plan, but clearly that has not worked.”

Despite the lingering excitement of my encounter with the bearded tit, it’s hard not to feel negative.

According to a study by the WWF, half of the planet’s species on land, rivers and seas have been wiped out since the 1970s. The State of Nature report, released a year previously by a coalition of conservation and research organisations, including the Wildlife Trusts, found that 60% of UK species were in decline.

The once common barbastelle bat and lesser spotted woodpecker were all found to be in retreat, while perhaps most shockingly, hedgehog numbers were down about 37% – a decline comparable to the disappearance of the world’s tigers.

I stop and pick up a piece of brick rounded and polished by the tumble of infinite tides.

It seems to me Hughes-Games is being a little bit hard on himself...and maybe the public at large. After all, a programme like Autumnwatch was never going to solve the UK-wide problems posed by pollution and habitat destruction. Indeed, The Response for Nature document, released last month as a follow up to the State of Nature, claims that action is needed in every Government department in Whitehall to protect nature by 2040 and to offset harm.

But that’s not to say wildlife programmes don’t have a role to play in fostering an understanding that conserving nature is a key to solving some of our most pressing problems. Filming live in familiar locations does help people to engage, raising awareness and encouraging them to become conservationists locally.

And whether it is an Autumn or Springwatch effect or just people’s love of nature, there is clear evidence that the public are fighting for wildlife. Indeed, even if the State of Nature report makes grim reading, it was also created by a network of passionate conservation groups that only exist because of public support.

On our own doorstep, more than 8000 people have taken part in Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s pioneering citizen science survey to locate the county’s hedgehog populations. The Suffolk Community Barn Owl Project, which advised on more than 1,800 owl boxes across villages, hamlets and towns, has helped turn the prospects of the barn owl around – from about 68 breeding pairs in 2005 to over 400 now.

The pub is busy when I get there. My wife is by the fire reading. I explain excitedly about the sighting, about Hughes-Games, about hope.

“Are you laughing?” I say.

Her book is wobbling.

“Oh for God’s sake,” I mutter haughtily. “There’s nothing funny about a bearded tit.”

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