December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College


I expect we all put off our Friday night plans to watch Wild Britain with Ray Mears. He’s a funny beast, Mears. He seems never to have grown out of that boyish make-a-den-in-the-woods phase. This is not a criticism. I think it’s part of his charm. His programmes are not sensational and neither is he. He’s too paunched, pudgy, pasty, puffy.

But he is unassuming and sincere, reflexive and slightly gimpy – good qualities for a nature presenter – and he rouses the forager in us all. He transforms dull undergrowth into a wonderfully edible,medicinal world. Jack-by-the-hedge tastes like garlic and mustard. Mugwort fends off moths.

This week he canoed down the wet Wye Valley through the Cambrian Mountains. The highish highlights: a mollusc, two lampreys, a vole.

Compared to a lot of nature programmes it felt pleasantly understated. There were no tricks, no artificial python nesting burrows, no highly dramatized male-on-male frog feuds.

Mears was not in search of extremely rare footage (a year of sand dune migration seen in 14 seconds, for instance) but he was in search of an extremely rare (viewer inflates) mollusc (viewer deflates).

But the pearl mussel turns out to be interesting and indeed highly endangered. And they can live to the age of 150, and reflect a healthy ecosystem, and amazingly we don’t know what they eat. And Mears gives this seemingly innocuous, muddied thing a breath of life.But the young ones cannot survive because of too much silt. The pearl mussel is on the wane.

There’s a quick shot of Mears’ Hunter Welly splashing through a puddle. Then we see him canoeing towards us reeking of self-control – the curled lip, a big dust-coloured anorak,a miniscule life jacket that he wears like a bra but which is, knowing Mears, state of the art.  And he stokes us up again for something truly astounding. (Viewer turns up volume, shifts forward.) A lamprey. (Ah shit.) But lampreys are weird creatures. And, like most of us, weirder when they mate. Typically we are shown the fornicating lampreys and, yes, they could be two extra-large condoms knotted together in a stream, but Mears highlights their true weirdness: ancient, hideous, parasitic; they’re all cartilage with simple holes for gills and, like other eels, migrate from the sea to freshwater to reproduce. And we watch them in their throes of love through a simple Perspex box and are grateful for the peculiarity of these Welsh-born waters.And dear Mears gets rather heated: “That cloud you see is the sperm. It’s an incredible sight!”

Wild Britain shows a more exotic side of home: sandpipers just arrived from Africa, sand martins burrowing in a mud bank. And the highlight of the show – the true sperm cloud – is the water vole. Mink are killing them. There are worryingly few remaining. They are the fastest declining mammals in Britain – have lost 95% of their range.

We are shown a water vole doggy-paddling through reeds, set to Buddha Beats. The show ends. Next week it’s the Isle of Mull.

Now for Brian Cox.The second episode of Wonders Of Life shows lots of shots of Cox driving across America in a red sports car, or of him drinking a soft drink outside a grocery store, or breathing heavily in a diver’s mask, or sweeping back his fringe on a Florida beach, or nonchalantly half-smiling while gazing off at the stars. And it suddenly struck me that it must be him: he is the Wonder of Life – not the mantis shrimp we meet five minutes in.

And then I saw him again on A Night With The Stars. He was delivering an A-level physics class to an audience of comedians and almost stars. The camera pans: Charlie Brooker, Sarah Millican, James May. A strange concept, I thought, as Simon Pegg swung a rope in an experiment with Professor Jim Al-Khalili. He’s OK, Cox.But everywhere.


IMAGE: Bryan Davidson, Flickr