25 memorable Countryfile moments

John Craven takes you through 25 memorable moments from a quarter of a century of Countryfile.

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Don’t forget to have a look at the photos that were captured during the filming of this Sundays special 25th anniversary episode, here.

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1. In the beginning…

On Sunday morning, 24 July 1988, the British countryside got its own weekly television show. Countryfile replaced the long-running Farming programme that, as its name implied, largely concentrated on agricultural matters. While farming would still be a core ingredient, the new programme held a much wider brief – to investigate rural issues, to celebrate the beauty and diversity of the landscape, to feature its wildlife, crafts and skills, and to showcase the leisure opportunities available to everyone. The original presenters were Chris Baines, Anne Brown, Ian Breach, Caroline Hall and Roger Tabor. Items on the first programme included the right to roam, the shortage of low-cost rural housing and the dilemma of cats killing wild birds.

2. Red kites return

Red kites are perhaps the greatest wildlife success story over the past 25 years. Once widespread in the UK, persecution reduced numbers to just a few in mid-Wales. Countryfile played a part in their reintroduction. I travelled to Madrid to collect a young bird that joined a dozen or so others from Europe at a special site in the Chilterns. After a few weeks’ acclimatisation, they were released, and from that small beginning there are now around 2,000 pairs across the nation.

3. Two me’s?!

On the 20th anniversary programme in 2008, the team sprung a real surprise. TV impressionist Jon Culshaw suddenly appeared behind me, as me, while we were filming in a field in Swaledale. It’s very strange to hear yourself, then turn round and see yourself!

4. Atlantic chills

Fresh from rowing the Atlantic with fellow adventurer James Cracknell, Ben Fogle picked up the oars again for Countryfile in 2007, when he competed in the Isle of Man tin bath race – and got mild hypothermia.

5. Organic questions

My first appearance on Countryfile was in July 1989, a year after it started, when I filed a report asking whether organic farming could really take off in the future. It’s a question still being asked.

6. Adam joins the team

In 2001, Countryfile held a contest to find a new presenter. Many hundreds of viewers sent in videos they’d made on all aspects of country life, which had to include them talking to camera. The final few spent a weekend with the production team and made films using the show’s camera crews. The stand-out winner, for his knowledge, charm and natural ability, was a young Cotswold farmer named Adam Henson – and he hasn’t looked back since!

7. Hunting for protests

Around 400,000 people marched on London in September 2002. The Liberty and Livelihood March, organised by the Countryside Alliance, brought together many rural grievances, in particular the proposed ban on hunting with dogs, which became law in England and Wales two years later. Countryfile covered the march live, as it did an earlier Hyde Park protest, as part of its even-handed coverage of the hunting debate.

8. Home and away

The furthest rural outpost visited for an entire programme was the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles away, shortly before the 25th anniversary of the 1982 conflict. As well as meeting locals and examining the economy, we got close-up to endangered black-browed albatrosses, which breed there. We also spotted a rare species of bird of prey, the striated caracara… and one of them stole my sandwiches! The team stayed at, would you believe, the Malvinas Hotel in Port Stanley. The landscape seemed strangely familiar – it was a long way to go to feel you were still at home.

9. Foot and mouth

During Britain’s biggest-ever farm animal crisis, the foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001, Countryfile went live every Sunday to report the latest developments. Devon farmer Paula Wolton sent in heart-rending video reports as farms all around her were struck down – miraculously, her animals were spared. Altogether, 10 million sheep and cattle died – Cumbria was the worst affected county with more than 800 cases – and the final cost was reckoned at £8bn.

10. Rural nudity

Over the years, presenters have taken their kit off for rural artistry. Charlotte Smith posed nude, her modesty protected by a Countryfile logo, when she reported on a risqué calendar, while Adam and I have been filmed in (separate) baths.

11. Treasured awards

Twice in the past three years, Countryfile has won the Television and Radio Industries Club award for best factual programme, and in 2011 the show received The Voice of the Listener and Viewer award for broadcasting excellence.

12. Twice the fun

In 2003, Countryfile spread its wings from 30 minutes to an hour. The location for the first longer edition was Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel.

13. Whatever the weather

Despite being entirely outdoors for 25 years, the UK’s unpredictable weather has never stopped the show, which is filmed on two fixed days of the week, all year round. So Julia has been stargazing on a cloudy night; it was raining heavily as I reported the Cumbrian drought; and despite the country being deep in snow, Matt managed to return from the Western Isles to compete on Strictly Come Dancing.

14. Snap happy

The programme’s annual photographic competition started in 1990, and after 10 years a decision was made to feature the best entries in a calendar sold in aid of Children in Need. Many thousands of entries are sent in by viewers every year. The first calendar raised £40,000 and the current one, with a quite brilliant image on the cover of a badger trotting down a lane in broad daylight, broke all records by handing £1,345,940 to the charity.

15. Bee aware

Three years ago came an award for a pioneering report into concerns that neonicotinoid pesticides were threatening bees.

16. Sunday funday

In April 2009, Countryfile switched from Sunday morning to Sunday evening. Julia Bradbury and Matt Baker joined the show and other newcomers included Jules Hudson and James Wong. Later Ellie Harrison, Helen Skelton and Tom Heap also came on board. The new look and time proved an instant ratings hit and Countryfile is regularly the most popular factual programme on television.

17. Cruising on camels

Domesticated animals are a mainstay of Countryfile, but there’ve been some unusual ones… buffaloes, ostriches, llamas and alpacas and even camels. Ellie, Matt and I caused a bit of a stir when we rode three camels into the Warwickshire village of Clifford Chambers to join the Christmas celebrations.

18. Animal heartache

Sadly, farm animal illnesses have brought heartache to British agriculture over the past 25 years and Countryfile has reported on them all, including BSE, bovine TB, salmonella, listeria, anthrax, foot and mouth, bird flu, bluetongue and the latest threat, Schmallenberg virus, which causes deformity in sheep and cattle.

19. Ambridge all the way 

When The Archers celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2011, Julia and Ellie went behind the scenes, visiting the Worcestershire villages that inspired the world’s longest-running soap opera. Julia chatted to Charles Collingwood, who plays Brian Aldridge, and Ellie learnt how to create rural sound effects.

20. Lighting Hadrian’s Wall

In one of the show’s most spectacular films, Julia and Matt lit up a section of Hadrian’s Wall to test the beacons that would illuminate its entire length to mark the departure of the Roman legions, 1,600 years ago.

21. Royal ties

Just for one week, the programme had a guest editor when the Prince of Wales reigned over us. A true countryman, he set the agenda for the show and met the team on his Highgrove estate for a string of informative, convivial conversations. He told us he was at his happiest in the countryside, which was “an essential link with the magic of nature”. The much-mended jacket he wore for hedgelaying caused a lot of comment and we got the impression he and the Duchess of Cornwall are Countryfile viewers. A few days later, Prince Philip told me at a reception that he’d watched his son’s programme.

22. The start of British farmers markets

Countryfile helped kick-start farmers’ markets in the UK. There were very few here when we reported from California on the success of the concept in the US, where every town had at least one.

23. World record woodlands

In 2012, Julia Bradbury and I, helped by teams of firemen and young female farmers, created the quickest-ever wood for the Woodland Trust, by planting more than 5,000 saplings in an hour. We did it at world-record speed as part of the Trust’s project to convert 460 acres of Leicestershire farmland into a broadleaf forest to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

24. Skoda bombs 

After an IRA truck bomb made from fertiliser devastated parts of the City of London in 1992, Countryfile bought an old Skoda for £50 and, with the help of an explosives expert, blew it up in a field. The result was spectacular and viewers were shocked that such potential carnage could be created so easily.

25. Back to our roots

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In 25 years, the programme has visited almost every corner of the British countryside, but us presenters love sharing the places where we have our roots. For Matt, it’s back to the family farm in the Durham Dales; Julia headed to her home in Rutland; Ellie bumped into her old teacher while filming in her native Gloucestershire; I grab any chance to take the cameras to the Yorkshire Dales; and Adam, well he doesn’t have far to go – he was born on his Cotswold farm.