Autumnwatch and Winterwatch At Aigas
Autumn can be a dramatic time at Aigas, the red stags rut in the fields all around the house. Their lustful battle-cries amplified by the dark so much that, in the past, friends visiting from ‘down south’ have emerged at breakfast looking somewhat shell-shocked!
This year the drama was multiplied by the arrival of ninety-five BBC crew members and the two week production of Autumnwatch, based at Aigas. The show was an enormous success, with wildlife footage from the Field Centre that we could never have dreamed of. However the process of reaching that point was a long one; paved with trepidation, hard work, hurdles and triumphs. This is the story of that journey.
In May 2012 the Springwatch team came to Aigas to film our pine martens and it became clear they were already on the lookout for a new location for Autumnwatch. Warwick explained that we have buildings large enough to be production offices, wildlife galore within a very small radius (so that cable runs to remote cameras need only be a couple of hundred metres), a highly experienced catering team and a beautiful loch-side location in the form of the Illicit Still. The seed of an idea was planted. After lying dormant for some months, that seed germinated and the cry went around the staff – “Autumnwatch is coming to Aigas!
For three months prior to the arrival of the Natural History Unit team Sir John and Alicia took the lead in preparing the wildlife. They built from scratch a new feeding station for the pine martens, they spend many hours very gently exploring the beaver lodges in order to find a way to insert a probing camera into one of them, they set up a series of bird feeders and red squirrel feeders and they used a range of camera traps to keep an eye on the movement of animals all over the Field Centre.
Throughout this period various reconnaissance teams from Bristol came and went on whistle-stop visits to measure, muse and discuss. The wildlife recces were relatively straight forward - what could realistically be filmed where and how can we best make that happen? However, a huge array of technical issues had to be planned in intricate detail too and it was mildly perturbing for us to watch small huddles of men, armed with trundle wheels and clipboards, pointing at buildings and saying things like, “well, we can probably just remove that window” or “we’ll need to strip everything out of there.....”
Meanwhile Lucy was planning the mammoth catering task of feeding up to ninety-five crew. She was pre-ordering ingredients and pre-cooking vast quantities of quiches, lasagnes, risottos, stews, pies, puddings and pavlovas. She was also co-ordinating the return from Poland of her trusty team of kitchen helpers.
There was a great deal of upheaval too. We moved our charitable arm - Naturedays - lock, stock and barrel out of its custom built woodland classroom and office and into a much smaller space above the rangers’ bedrooms. We re-jigged the furniture in the main house in order to sit everybody down to three meals a day. We stripped the Illicit Still - a highly rustic fishing hut that juts out over the Aigas Loch - back to its weatherboard walls so that it could be converted into.....a highly rustic fishing hut! This was to be the main set from which Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games would present Autumnwatch and Winterwatch.
Arrival & Set Up
At last in late October, as the rut was tailing off and the autumn colours were reaching their climax, the Natural History Unit team arrived. The vanguard consisted of a small number of people and a vast number of deliveries. A transporter load of Toyota Hiluxes was off-loaded unceremoniously in front of the house, delivery vehicles streamed up the drive and parcels of every shape and size accumulated in corridors and offices. Technicians went to work - reeling out miles - literally miles - of fibre optic and electrical cables to remote cameras, which swiveled and focussed as they were positioned and tested. Furniture consignments arrived and were fashioned into two open plan offices in the Magnus House. Tens of laptops and sophisticated editing computers were set up underneath banks of monitors, satellite dishes sprung up like mushrooms on the lawns and huge trucks with tinted windows and unusual ancillaries were parked in banks outside....and so it went on - an operation of such scale, complexity and purpose as to be nearly military in its character.
As more and more people arrived, so for us the feeling of being overrun grew. Initially there was some irritation - Sir John was heard to mutter, “some bloody truck driver just drove on the lawn edge.” However, acceptance followed and we tried to stay out of the way and help where we could. There were a fair number of unusual requests too. Warwick’s phone would ring several times a day. “Do you have any concrete slabs?” “Do you have an anglepoise lamp?” “Do you have a stag’s head?” “The sinks in the Magnus House seem to be blocked.” “Do you have a magnet?”
A BBC set designer spent many hours in the newly denuded Illicit Still carefully building up layer upon layer of furniture and bric-a-brac so that it looked cosy and comfortable and a bit like Gerald Durrell or Gavin Maxwell’s sitting room might have.
In what seemed like no time the equipment was all set up and Autumnwatch went live on the red button and webcams. At this point the Aigas Rangers came into their own. They were invited to come and comment on the red squirrels, the bird feeders, the best of the footage from overnight and anything else of interest. This commentary went so well; the rangers proved to be so knowledgeable and interesting, that in no time at all they were appearing ‘on the red button’ several times a day.
During this time several camera men were heading out into the autumnal mountains, lochs and estuaries of the Highlands to film scenery, wildlife behaviour and landscape shots. Warwick headed out with Jessie Wilkinson into stunning local remnant Caledonian pine wood on one of the best days of the year and a few days later Warwick found a family of otters, which ended up featuring in the final show. Meanwhile Sir John, Alicia and the other Rangers were rushing around advising, assisting and suggesting ideas to the army of researchers and story developers who were sifting through huge quantities of concepts and footage from which to pull together coherent wildlife stories.
Of course a lot of the stories had been pre-planned and pre-filmed - the grey squirrels of parkland, the red deer on Rhum, the golden eagles on Uist etc - however Autumnwatch is a live show and so the pressure that we felt to provide live wildlife during transmission was enormous (albeit mostly self-inflicted.)
At the same time Martin, Chris and Michaela had arrived and settled into their accommodation at Aigas. They applied themselves to studying notes and going through a series of rehearsals, culminating in a dress rehearsal the day before transmission.
By this point Lucy and her team of Polish kitchen staff were feeding up to ninety-five people at every meal and servicing accommodation for about thirty-five. The other sixty stayed in local holiday cottages and hotels.
At last the moment of culmination of three months work arrived as the opening credits rolled on the first of five live shows. The Aigas team were huddled in a circle around their television in their house just forty yards from where the production team were concentrating on monitors and radios were crackling instructions to the film crew and presenters at the Loch. Breathes were bated and fingers crossed all over Aigas.
At the end of the first pre-filmed piece - a live pine marten! A cheer went up in the Rangers’ sitting room so loud that I’m sure the pine marten cocked its head in our direction momentarily! The sense of relief was palpable. In that one brief appearance a huge weight had been lifted and our mission had been achieved, our concept proven, our work rewarded. However, little did we know, at that early stage, what incredible wildlife spectacles the sophisticated BBC equipment would reveal. Here are just some of the highlights of the Aigas wildlife filmed on location during Autumnwatch.
Three nights out of four (the fifth live show being Unsprung) our pine martens appeared live during transmission and on at least one occasion we had two pine martens feeding simultaneously.
The camera inserted into the beaver lodge successfully filmed a beaver inside a lodge for the first time ever in the UK (as far as we are aware.) It lifted its snout to the lens and had a right good old scratch!
The remote cameras also captured superb beaver behaviour, such as feeding, squabbling between the kits, swimming and grooming. We were also surprised to discover that this year our beavers have given birth to three kits, not two as we’d previously thought.
Of course we’ve always known that otters visited the Aigas Loch. However, our perception was that these visits were infrequent or episodic - according to what food might be available there. What the Autumnwatch cameras revealed was that otters make regular (perhaps nightly) forays to the loch. The remote camera crew captured superb footage of them hunting and fishing through the beaver dams and even a wonderful moment of indignation between a curious otter and a defiant beaver as they nosed each other in open water.
The red squirrels have had a bumper year and we watch them all over the Field Centre every day. However, the remote cameras allowed fantastically intimate insights into their lives. We all grew to love ‘Stumpy’ with his strange hairless nose and the sequence of the squirrel practising woodland parkour to see off a marauding jay was replayed in slow-mo many times over!
It must have a surreal moment for whoever it was that first saw the water shrew scaling the inner-wall of the beaver lodge, disappearing and then falling from the ceiling into shot again. Not only was this unexpected behaviour but also a completely unexpected animal. The Aigas Rangers keep a log of every animal seen at Aigas every day of the season and in thirty-six years of biological recording we have never seen a water shrew. In our defence they come out at night, are small and black and mostly live in the water! However, it was a real revelation that emerged from the black hole of the beaver lodge that night.
Conclusion & Winterwatch
In conclusion the Autumnwatch experience was an excellent one and a superb training experience for us all; most of all for our fantastic team of rangers and support staff, who drew praise from all departments of the BBC team. The BBC returned in January and we did it all again for Winterwatch.