Two very nice birding programs on Radio 4 last week: one on Hen Harriers, the other on Ospreys. read the air, presented by naturalist Chris Yates, was a delight, full of sounds (tinkling water, footsteps, tea dripping from a metal container, ash trees clashing at the compass rose), plus the murmur of the flowing and evocative stream of Yates. Producers Dan Shepherd and Phil Smith micked Yates so intimately it was like we had a direct line to his intelligent brain; his descriptions of harriers were nothing short of poetry. “It’s almost like smoke, the way it flies,” he said. The first time he saw a male harrier “it appeared like vapour, the underside very bright silver…the wingtips like black mittens.”
You have to be able to read the air, says Yates, if you want to know when and where a harrier will come. He likened it to reading the water, as he used to do when he went fishing, his hobby until he was 60. Now that he is over 70, Yates has put aside his rod and line and follows the birds instead. His voice and enthusiasm are those of someone less than half his age. Nice background music too, and producer Smith was one of the musicians.
flight of ospreys, a 10-part series, was another gorgeous, if very different, listen. Where read the air was like a sound poem, it was more vividly informative, with a scientific basis. Presenter Emily Knight delivered a pretty amazing story, in just 15 minutes: the story of biologist and conservationist Sacha Dench, who used a paraglider, with a motor and propeller strapped to his back, to get closer of her bird subjects, until she and another conservationist, Dan Burton, crashed in the air. They fell to the ground. Burton is dead, Dench was seriously injured. But she wanted to continue her research project by tracking the migration of ospreys. More flying gear, but we’ll be heading out with Dench, flying with the ospreys, from the Cairngorms to Ghana, over the next few weeks.
And here is another story centered on nature, even if it is humans who dominate. The Paddlefish Caviar Heist is weird: a true crime thread set in remote Missouri countryside and involving paddlefish eggs. Paddlefish are huge, unpretty dinosaur-like fish. It is a protected species and those wishing to catch them during the six-week season are only allowed to take out two fish per day. But a few years ago, poachers started fishing them illegally, killing hundreds of fish in search of their eggs. Why? There was a shortage of caviar in Russia and so fake caviar (the roe of fish other than sturgeon) was needed and sold at a huge profit.
That’s it, really. It’s history. But Imperative and Vespucci, who have a big niche in long-form storytelling, have commissioned food writer Helen Hollyman to investigate the crime. She’s diligent, but it’s not a gripping story and there’s too much time spent establishing what happened and not enough researching the story to continue. I listened to two episodes that could easily have been condensed into one. Maybe things will get spicier if we come across a few caviar-munching Russian gangsters along the way.
Another angle (ho ho) to this fish-based tale is that it’s another example of humans exploiting the planet’s hard-earned natural resources for quick cash. To find out more, you can try Greta Thunberg’s new volume. The climate book, for which she commissioned various experts to take a position on the climate catastrophe. Last week, Radio 4 adapted it for book of the week, Thunberg herself introducing each apocalyptic section, ever so calm and reasonable. Nevertheless, I had to take a break after two episodes, to catch my breath and calm my panic.
The essays were wide ranging, from the chemical basis of life on Earth (essentially photosynthesis keeps everything alive and we take care of that) to the story of a Central American farmer forced to illegally cross states United to look for work because his crops keep failing. Thunberg wondered, in the last episode, if we could solve the crisis through individual action. The answer is no. “Every year,” she says, “about 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into our oceans… Every minute we subsidize the production and burning of coal, oil and gas [with] $11 million. Stunning statistics. If we do nothing, there will be no more harriers, no more ospreys to delight, no more poor paddlefish to kill for sport. Not even us and our useless money.