The joy of nature on BBC R4

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

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