Epic fights for survival, romance, squabbles and everything in between - when it comes to drama, Springwatch rivals the soaps. Ahead of the 10th series, Keeley Bolger observes presenters Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games in a typical display of teasing and silliness.
Next time you tune in for Springwatch, take a moment to check what expressions the three presenters Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games are pulling.
If they’re grinning, it might not necessarily be the result of a rare wildlife spot.
“Sometimes, with 20 seconds before we go live, Chris will embark on a joke,” explains 58-year-old Hughes-Games, who for many years worked as a TV producer before venturing in front of the camera.
“He’ll start with, ‘Did I ever tell you the one about...’ The punchline comes with about three seconds to live.
“Oh, it drives us absolutely mad but it does get everyone in a jolly mood.”
Today, the three wildlife enthusiasts’ wide smiles give the impression that Packham, who’s fresh from his self-funded trip to Malta where he campaigned against the hunting of protected birds, might have just cracked a funny.
As always, the trio assume the roles they take on the popular TV show: Strachan keeping the other two in line, posing questions and brimming with an unwavering friendliness; Packham waxing lyrical about bird life, refusing to “boom” like an avocet when asked and chiding Strachan for saying she likes puffins (“They’re really chavvy”); and Hughes-Games wheezily laughing along and interjecting with interesting titbits and anecdotes.
This year, filming will take place in Minsmere, Suffolk. It’s the 10th series and, to mark the occasion, there’ll be a video from original presenter Bill Oddie, who for many years hosted the show with Kate Humble, about the changes in wildlife.
And it’s not all bad news.
“In the last 10 years there have been significant changes in animal populations and distribution,” explains Packham, who releases his new wildlife photography book, 100 Things That Caught My Eye, in June, and credits Oddie and Humble for building a “legacy” for himself, Strachan and Hughes-Games to “work on”.
“It’s not all negative. Everyone always thinks it’s in decline but, of course, we’ve had species that have colonised during that period and expanded their ranges, so Bill is going to provide us with an overview of that. I’m very excited that he’s coming back.”
One of the changes the presenters have noticed is the way the nation now reacts to the natural world.
“I think we have definitely dealt with more difficult subjects over the years,” says Hughes-Games. “The audience has come with us and are willing to accept that it’s not all, I hate this word, ‘cute’.”
By way of example, Packham explains the behaviour of avocets, a wading bird who nests on the ground near black headed gulls – because the gulls chase the predators away.
But the trouble is, doing so still leaves the avocets vulnerable, as sometimes the gulls “nick the avocets’ young”.
“They’re all on the brink and it’s all about getting at least one of their offspring to adulthood. That process is exciting for us to explain because a lot of people get quite sentimental about the little chickie wickies,” says 53-year-old Packham.
Strachan, 48, who lives in South Africa with her partner and son for much of the year, chuckles.
“Last year we had a snake come in and eat the chick,” she says. “My reaction was, ‘Oh no, the poor chicks’, and of course these two were like, ‘That’s great, amazing telly!’”
The difference between the presenters’ outlooks on life prompts Strachan to quiz the other two on which species they most closely resemble; a pigeon, a sparrowhawk or a bullfinch?
For herself, she chooses the bullfinch (“I think both of them would have a go at me!”) but changes her mind to a “comical” puffin, while Packham – who Strachan worked with on kids’ wildlife series The Really Wild Show in the 80s and 90s – takes the “dashing” sparrowhawk, who you “never see enough of”.
“So, Chris is saying he wants to see more of himself and he looks beautiful and Michaela, you want to say you’re tough and comical,” observes Hughes-Games.
“The animals you choose to be are a bit too revealing of yourself!”
With the cameras at the ready, camaraderie and nature’s soap opera ready to unfold, there’s just one thing left for the team to work on: Packham’s music game.
Over the years, much has been made of his habit of dropping song titles into conversation live on air.
So far, songs by the Manic Street Preachers, The Clash and The Damned have all featured, but it’s getting trickier to think of appropriate titles.
“My taste in music is quite narrow and dated.
“It’s punk rock basically. I don’t know enough ABBA tunes to do ABBA and I didn’t particularly enjoy their music.
“I don’t even follow The Beatles and The Rolling Stones so I’m running out of bands,” Packham notes. “It needs to be someone broadly known with interesting titles, someone like Elvis Costello.”
There’s laughter in the ranks at this admission. “Mate, I think you might have given something away there,” says Hughes-Games.
Strachan adds: “That’s definitely exclusive to our older audience, there aren’t going to be many young people who know Elvis Costello song titles.”
“Well, I’m not doing One Direction,” quips Packham.
“Nonsense. What direction are they moving in?
“Obscurity, one might hope!”
Whichever band’s hits make the cut, one thing’s for certain, they won’t outshine the wildlife.
“In our lifetimes, we’d never see things like the snake eating the chick if we didn’t have a camera on that nest,” says Packham. “To be able to see those events is an extraordinary privilege.”