BBC film-makers often give nature a helping hand
They are among the most heart-rending scenes to be broadcast on television: the helpless animals being hunted down for prey or left to die as the cameras look on.
So any viewers upset by footage of raw nature in all its brutal reality may be reassured to hear that those behind Britain’s best-loved wildlife programmes do sometimes intervene to help their subjects.
The film-makers behind some of the BBC’s most famous natural history shows have admitted they have assisted helpless animals if it did not interfere in the overall balance of nature.
One, presenter Martin Hughes-Games, said his teams on Springwatch and Autumnwatch spent more time agonising over that issue than any other, after viewers complained in droves.
Doug Allan, the cameraman behind some of the most dramatic polar scenes on television, said that he has been known to pluck a fallen baby penguin up from a melted ice hole and set it on its feet, saving it from certain death.
Speaking at the Radio Times Festival at Hampton Court, London, the pair told their audience it was not unknown for programme-makers to bend the unwritten rules and break the convention of never interfering in nature. Mr Hughes-Games said: “It’s the biggest difficulty we have.”
He added that the team had once intervened when a bird’s nest was being flooded, resulting in “absolute uproar”. “Half the people said, ‘why didn’t you intervene,’ and others then said, ‘you shouldn’t have intervened’,” he said.
“We’re respectful of nature. But it’s incredibly hard not to intervene. We probably spend more time debating that than anything else on the Watches.
“It’s terribly vexing. We try not to intervene if possible.”
Mr Allan, Sir David Attenborough’s favourite cameraman for his painstaking work gathering footage around the world, said he would quietly lend animals a hand, provided it did not upset the natural balance.
“For me, at least, my job is to look and not interfere,” he said. “If I feel my presence is tilting the balance of the predator or the prey, then I’m doing something wrong.
“I was in a penguin colony once and there were big melt holes developing in the ice. And a little emperor chick had fallen in a hole.
“So of course what do you do? You pick it up and put it out. Of course it will probably just go and fall in another one, but at least you’ve helped its chances to survive.
“On the other hand, if you see a bunch of petrels attacking a chick then you just have to leave it, because the giant petrel is as entitled to his meal as any other animal.”
Steve Leonard, a television vet, told the audience: “As a vet, that’s one of the hardest things for me to face. We have to recognise that these injured animals are somebody else’s lunch, I’m afraid. It’s going to happen when you’re not there and if you deprive the carnivore of its meals, it could die.”
In a separate event at the Radio Times Festival, Alastair Fothergill, the producer of natural history series including Planet Earth and Frozen Planet, said his next show would turn the tables on predators to make viewers sympathise with both hunter and hunted.
The Hunt, to be broadcast by the BBC in November, will be devoted to wildlife predation, containing dramatic chase sequences which could end in death.
“Predators are always the villain of the piece,” Mr Fothergill said of traditional wildlife programmes. “That’s far from the truth.”
He said that the programme, narrated by Sir Attenborough, would show how a variety of animals come to hunt down their prey, but would not show the gory aftermath. “People don’t like animals killing animals, but actually when they’ve done the kill, it’s boring,” he said.
“What’s really fascinating, in my view, is the strategies that predators use to catch their prey. The outcome is never certain.”