Ellie Harrison: Let us lift up the true heroes of our countryside
Selfless wildlife protectors who dedicate their lives to conservation should be recognised, says Countryfile's Ellie Harrison
Two clear moments stood out amid the selfies, smiles and jolly customary questions, asking “Have you come far?” and “How are you doing?”, to which British tradition dictates a minimum of “Not too bad”, even if you’ve just had your heart broken.
One was an autograph Matt Baker made on the bicep of a fan who revealed that he was now on his way to a tattooist to make the event more permanent. The other was a woman who wanted only to ask a single question: “With everything you see, do you feel optimistic?”.
At Countryfile Live, I’m well versed in what I would be if I could be any animal in the world and where my favourite place in the country is. But the queue was being moved efficiently on and this question-for-our-time needed more than the 10 seconds I was allowed. It wasn’t the show’s setting, it was the backdrop of uncertainty – the unfortunate phrase of the year – that had brought this question up. A perpetual motion machine of mistake upon misfortune, exploited by opportunistic demagogues from across the political spectrum, amplified in our media.
I flicked through my mind’s Rolodex of stories filmed in the last few years on beaches, in artist’s studios, on moorlands and at kitchen tables. In my mind’s eye David Steel is moving fast among the tern nests, collecting chicks scattered in all directions during last night’s storm. Left exposed in this wild wind and rain, most will die. As the warden on the Isle of May, his allegiance lies with the birds and not with researcher’s impartiality.
He knows from a long career on our islands that numbers are in decline so every chick he can get to, he scoops up and sets to work with hairdryers, giving them one last chance of survival. I first met David on the Farne Islands where his accommodation had no running water, heating or flushing loo. He filmed with us that long day through queasy labyrinthitis, lighting up the screen with his devotion to the seabirds.
I flash back to a blustery escarpment above a Cotswold view not used in the brochures, of industry, fast roads and city lines. For 30 years, Mark Gale worked on social housing estates in Gloucestershire, helping the poorest neighbourhoods recognise their assets as people and environment. He turned the M5 – where drivers came in one end of the county and out of the other leaving only pollution and noise to the communities it passed by – into a benefit by setting up the elegant Gloucester Services, employing local people and local producers.
My mind flickers to Nigel Jarrett on a project to save spoonbills from extinction, spending days finding nests in remote Arctic Russia, describing the anxiety of responsibility when he took each egg out of the nest before spending many nights in a sleeping bag on the floor of the lab under the incubator, waking hourly to check their progress.
Unobserved, without fanfare or good pay, these are a few of the people who fuel a steady flame in the darkness while the fireworks of charlatans blaze bright and loud, then burn out.
I was asked recently to put names forward for the role of president of a conservation charity. I replied with two lists, one with selfless wildlife protectors who have dedicated their lives to conservation and who truly live it; and the other with wildlife lovers who emote and showboat on TV, like me. I wince even now when on a live daytime show I was introduced as a “wildlife expert”. Even Sir David wouldn’t lay claim to that.
But even the charlatans and demagogues – who believe they’re trying to do good in the world – are individuals suffering their own stuff. I believe I’m a storyteller; leaders believe in their sense of injustice that brought them into politics in the first place. No matter where we are along our mid-life crisis, it’s worth us all asking ourselves where our true talents cross over with the needs of the world. Therein lies the touchpaper.
The answers were yes, Orca and Scotland’s West Coast, by the way.