What makes you feel close to nature? “A buck’s antler”
I live in woodland and at this time of year when I’m out walking, if I’m lucky, I will stumble upon the discarded antlers of fallow bucks, who shed them in April or early May. Every year I find between five and ten – and I’m as excited as I would have been if I’d found them when I was eight years old: that thrill of discovery has never left me.
It’s like natural treasure, an immediate connection with a shy and elusive animal you’ve usually only seen at a distance. Then there’s the beauty of the actual form. Given the size and shape of this one, it has come from a mature animal of around ten years old.
It has a story to tell, too: a piece at one end has been chewed off post-shedding, probably by a squirrel or another deer looking for calcium. There are scratches, too, on the polished surface where the antler has scraped the ground and trees in rutting season. So it’s marked with a pattern of use, and I love that. It’s a wonderful piece of natural sculpture.
What makes you feel close to nature? “A ‘mermaid’s purse’”
I have a nature table at home, an eclectic assortment of feathers, shells and crystals collected over decades. There are things on there my grandmother picked up, objects I collected as a child and on my filming trips, and now my kids find heaps of things for it, too. So my instinct was to take something from that table, as it represents my family’s link to nature – but I felt like every time I pulled something out, it lost its impact.
In the end, after endless prevarication, I chose a single shark egg case, what people often call a mermaid’s purse. It’s a tough, leathery-like case that is characteristic of egg-laying shark species.
This one is from a Scyliorhinus stellaris, more commonly known as a Nursehound shark.
What I like about these egg cases is that, while on one level collecting them can be simply an enjoyable pastime, it can also feed into some real citizen science. The Shark Trust runs a campaign called “the Great Eggcase Hunt”, which encourages people to go online and send in photos and details of any egg cases they’ve found that can help provide the trust with information about which species are using their waters as their nursery grounds.
This is valuable data that helps to monitor our marine environments, which are otherwise very difficult to survey. I like the way this shark egg case shows how a simple walk along the beach can become part of something bigger.
What makes you feel close to nature? “My Ladybird books”
Given the fact that my eyes aren’t as sharp as they once were, I was initially tempted to bring my binoculars: if I’m anywhere near wildlife I get so frustrated without them, as I struggle to see it properly.
But then I remembered my old Ladybird nature books, British Wild Animals and What to Look for in Spring, which I fell in love with as a child of around seven.
What tickles me now is how much language has changed – not to mention the advice they give. In one passage we’re told that if we find a newt – wonderfully described as “really very queer creatures” – we’re to put it in a home aquarium, which we absolutely wouldn’t do now, of course. We’re also urged to feed hedgehogs with a saucer of milk.
The real point, though, is that while I loved wildlife, back then I was far more interested in ballet and gymnastics – it was only later in life that my passion for nature developed. It’s a reminder to us all, but particularly to parents, that passions can change. Love of nature is something that can develop at any time.
What makes you feel close to nature? “The skulls of a horse and a weasel”
I found this horse’s head in a ditch while out walking, and the weasel skull in my palm was uncovered at the bottom of my garden. The disparity in size is what strikes you first, but what I like about them is what they tell us, both about what makes a mammal and about nature’s infinite inventiveness.
What makes a mammal skull boils down to two bones, the articular and the quadrate – or specifically, their conversion from forming one part of the skull to another. In other animal groups they are part of the jaw, but in us mammals they’ve turned into the incus and the malleus, the tiny little bones in your ear.
It’s a reminder that, once nature comes up with a successful design, it’s incredibly plastic. Although the weasel skull is just a couple of centimetres long and the horse’s is many times bigger, they are essentially the same: the bones have just been stretched and turned and twisted by the creative process of evolution to produce different, yet – if you look closely – structurally identical creatures. And to me that is the wonder of nature right there.
Springwatch is on Monday—Thursday 8.00pm BBC2
This year Springwatch comes from a new location — the National Trust’s Sherborne Park estate in the heart of the Cotswolds. The objects the presenters describe above can be seen in “A Museum of Modern Nature”, an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London from 22 June until 8 October 2017.