When Matthew Oates approached me with an idea for radio called “In Pursuit of the Ridiculous” , it was clearly going to be a series with a difference. Combine the eccentricities of naturalists , which are indeed ridiculous to most people, with Matthew’s tongue-in-cheek take on wildlife and you’re bound to have something special. Our aim was to use humour to explain the importance of keeping natural history traditions alive, and to weave in the latest thinking on our chosen subjects. Matthew did have an unhealthy obsession with ending each programme in a tea-shop.
But, given the outlandish practices of many naturalists , where to begin? Matthew had no doubts. Which is why on a wet and blustery day in the New Forest he and his National Trust colleague Andy Foster found themselves grovelling in stream-bed gravel for Andy’s “personal leviathan” , the notoriously elusive brown water-beetle, Agabus brunneus . That occasion did indeed end in a tea-room , but in subsequent programmes, I managed to steer him away from pastry.
In May Matthew pursued hybrids, often ignored in preference to pure species, with Andy Byfield of Plantlife and Chris Raper of BBOWT(Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust) at a reserve where monkey orchids and lady orchids, both vanishingly rare , have met to produce a controversial but very beautiful hybrid.
July saw Matthew “guinea-pigging” himself in an attempt to uncover his own addiction to the purple emperor butterfly. In Surrey woodlands on what must have been the only sunny spell of the soggy summer , Neil Hulme, a butterfly addict, explained the magnetic pull of the emperor which takes him to wild places at the zenith of the nature calendar. In August we indulged in what is to many people the height of ridiculousness—a bird-twitching trip to WWT Slimbridge with naturalist and academic Rob Lambert. The goal, a North American wader called a long-billed dowitcher, failed to impress Matthew, who claimed to have been expecting a “black and white cuckoo-like bird with a long stabby bill for eating ants”. I still don’t believe him.
Our last voyage in an appropriately rain-soaked summer , was to Cheddar Gorge to find out why naturalist choose subjects which are unappealing to most of us . Mary Seddon is a brilliant malacologist, who’s an international authority on slugs and snails and helped Matthew get to grips with a slippery subject. On the way, they deal with Spanish rabbit-eating killer slugs, and a ghostly species new to science in South Wales.
It’s been a hugely enjoyable series to make, confirming that passionate naturalists are brilliant company and we’re hoping that the programmes will lure in more converts to the art of field natural history, but most of all we hope that we’ve shown that getting out there and looking for wildlife is great fun.
And not at all ridiculous.
Brett Westwood is a producer in the BBC Natural History Unit
‘In Pursuit of the Ridiculous’ will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 starting on Monday 12 November at 1.45pm through until Friday 16 November. More details about the programme can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nt3xt