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Filming Wildlife for TV During the Blizzards of the Beast from the East
I was probably one of the few people in the country pleased to see the recent forecast for snow. More than two years ago BBC’s The One Show asked me to film a five minute piece about wildlife in winter and I have been praying for ‘proper’ snow ever since!
I kept a close eye on the weather forecast. A camera crew and The One Show presenter, Mike Dilger, were poised to set off from Bristol as soon as they got the signal that the predicted snowfall had arrived on the Yorkshire Wolds. Phone calls and emails bounced back and forth between us. As the first flurries of snow fell, we tried to gauge whether it would stay long enough for the TV crew to make it here.As the landscape transformed, I set off to find out where the wildlife was hiding, in preparation for their arrival. The severe weather front, which blasted in from Russia, was nicknamed ‘the Beast from the East.’ But on that first day, the ferocious ‘Beast’ was a bit lame. The landscape was beautiful, but there was barely enough snow to create a drama worthy of a piece for TV.
The following day, I watched as the snow disappeared from the countryside surrounding my art gallery. I wondered whether to call off the whole project. But the weather forecasters insisted that the worst was still to come. So, I told the camera crew to set off straight away, worried in case the snow came down so heavily that they couldn’t actually get here. And the snow really was as predicted. High up on the Wolds strong winter easterlies hit hard. It was so bad that the crew were unable to reach the gallery. I picked them up from a hotel in Pocklington and we only just made it back in my Landrover before five foot high snow drifts blocked the road.
As we drove, the countryside was completely obscured by the whiteout and the blizzards showed no sign of abating. We didn’t want to waste any time so I took the crew directly to a valley where I knew we would find barn owls. We filmed these graceful birds as they struggled to fly and hunt in the ferocious winds until 10pm. By now every road leading in and out of Thixendale was blocked by the ever-growing snow drifts and conditions were getting worse by the second. There was nothing for it but to offer them all a bed for the night. Snow storms buffeted the house and the wind howled down the chimney. I woke at 4.30am and looked out of the window. I could see fresh stoat tracks in the snow. I woke up the presenter Mike and we went to see if my wildlife cameras had recorded the movements of a white ermine stoat that visits my garden. The playback showed that we had missed her visit by 15 minutes.
I headed back to bed but I couldn’t sleep. I worried how we would get to the wildlife if we were snowed in and how we were we going to film in such extreme conditions. From my upstairs window I can usually see more than three miles across the Yorkshire Wolds. But as I opened the curtains just before 7am I watched a blizzard heading across the valley towards us. Field by field, wood by wood, the storm engulfed the landscape in a 100 foot high wall of white drifting snow.
The blizzard hit the house and we were surrounded by white. As we ate breakfast, one blizzard after another blew in. An email arrived from the crew’s Bristol office. A full risk assessment would need to be filled in before the crew could step outside. While the forms were completed, signed and filed, I rang friends, farmers and snow plough contractors to find the best roads to get out. I wanted to get the crew to a particular field where, just the day before, I had seen around 35 hares courting. The cameraman wanted a shot of us setting off in the Landrover and stood at the gate to capture it. But my 4×4 wouldn’t budge. It was frozen to the ground and wouldn’t go backwards or forwards. After revving hard, it came unstuck with a jolt.
It is normally only a 10 minute drive to get to where I had planned to take the crew. But I had to take a 15 mile detour down the valley because of the snow drifts. It took us an hour to get there and I felt the pressure mounting. I scanned the fields with my binoculars and thankfully could see 16 hares on a distant arable field. They were boxing and chasing one another over the snow in a bid to mate. Even in these conditions!
The closest I could get by car was three fields away. As I opened my Landrover door, the wind nearly blew it straight off its hinges. We got out, all dressed from head to toe in white so that we would blend in with the snow. It was minus four, but the wind chill factor made it closer to the -13C that the forecasters had predicted. Forget about trying to operate the cameras, it was virtually impossible to actually stand up in the wind! Nevertheless, we headed out across the fields with gusts of blowing snow, ice and even soil from the fields blowing us backwards and stinging our faces.
The wind nearly ripped my cumbersome camera and tripod right out of my hands! We arrived at the field and hunkered down behind a snow drift that had gathered along the hedge line. The microphones on the TV camera were so cold that they had already stopped working. We planned our approach while the hares had a short chase and box, waiting for a whiteout to disguise us as we moved closer. A good idea, but it was difficult to pinpoint their whereabouts. As the blizzard cleared, we froze to the spot – sometimes, quite literally. Then we would get our bearings again and head off as fast as we could during the next white-out in a straight line towards the hares with our clumsy gear in tow.
We gradually crept closer until we were just 30 metres away from five brown hares that were hunkered down with their backs to the wind. Their fur was encrusted with snow and ice which one tried cleaning from its face with its front paws. It made no sense for them to be out in such an exposed field in this weather. You would have thought they would have given themselves a day off from courting in these conditions. But the urge to breed is strong and females are only in season for a short length of time. So in spite of the bitter winds, the hares began boxing and the males raced the female to earn the right to mate.
You need either pure luck or a lot of time and patience to see hares boxing. The TV producer had set a time limit for being out in this brutal weather so sadly we had to go. Luckily I had some good footage of the hares mating from the previous day that could be used with these clips.
In spite of the harsh conditions it had been very exciting and we were all in good spirits as we headed home. We had captured the drama of the day and got some good shots of myself, the presenter Mike and the hares reappearing and disappearing as the snow blizzards came and went. Our walk back was easier too now that the wind was behind us. We had one last bit to film. But the camera completely stopped working. It was just too cold for the equipment. We drove back and finished the piece with a backup camera. It was such a relief to finally have the wildlife snow safari on film.
I had enjoyed being out filming wildlife in extreme conditions but I also felt concerned about the well-being of the wildlife. My fears were confirmed when I got home and began to write this article and there was a knock on the door. It was the first visitor to the gallery in four days and he was cradling a barn owl. It was limp, its eyes closed. But as I took it I noticed a tiny movement. I warmed up some critical care food and put it in a box by the stove to warm up. But within half an hour it was dead. I had wanted snow, but the ‘Beast from The East’ had been savage to wildlife.
This owl and many others have been unable to hunt in the snow and howling winds and have starved. For other birds, the snow has come at a devastating time – right at the end of winter. Berries, seeds and nuts have already been depleted and the frozen ground has been too hard for them to hunt for worms and invertebrates. I have done my best to help them. I left extra food out to supplement the diets of the barn owls, kestrels and tawny owls in my area. I have left extra seeds out for the garden birds, apples for the fieldfares and thrushes and mealworms for the wrens and robins. Don’t forget to keep topping up your bird feeders too.
Enjoyed this? Read about the first time I went out to photograph hares in snow and see the paintings it inspired here:
Author: Robert E Fuller