David Attenborough’s online Wild Isles isn’t too hard-hitting for TV – it doesn’t go far enough | Dave Goulson
It was with some trepidation that I began viewing the online-only episode of David Attenborough’s latest documentary series, Wild Isles. The episode, Saving Our Wild Isles, focuses on the threats facing British wildlife and those fighting to save it.
Rumours had abounded that the BBC dared not broadcast this final episode on television because it was too hard-hitting, with some suggesting it was too critical of government action or inaction. I braced myself, expecting images of rivers polluted with plastics, sewage and pesticides, tales of dwindling numbers of insects, birds and mammals, of ancient woodlands destroyed, overfished seas, mature urban trees felled, meadows ploughed, raptors such as golden eagles poisoned, the climate crisis running amok.
I need not have worried. Although there was passing mention of some awfully depressing statistics, the film is deliberately uplifting and overwhelmingly positive. It focuses on heartwarming projects that are restoring nature, from the London docklands to the arable fields of East Anglia, and north to the wilds of Cairngorm. These examples show that people benefit from and need nature, and that we can all get involved in protecting it.
I recommend that you watch it, but I worry.
We face an existential crisis. Those of us who have been on this planet for half a century or more have lived through the greatest loss of wildlife on our planet for 65m years, since a meteor wiped out the dinosaurs. Climate breakdown is accelerating. Our civilisation, our children’s health and wellbeing, and the future of much of the life that remains on our planet, hangs in the balance.
For at least 30 years it has been painfully obvious that we are heading for disaster, yet our response has been woefully inadequate. Successive governments have abjectly failed to grasp the importance of the threat we face. There have always been wonderful people swimming against the tide, defending the environment, but they are far too few.
Watching Saving Our Wild Isles, you might imagine that the tide is finally turning. It isn’t.
Recently, our government ignored the advice of its own scientific committee and granted a derogation allowing sugar beet farmers to use a banned neonicotinoid pesticide. Just last month it pushed back proposed bans on horticultural use of peat – a vital store of carbon that is extracted from a rare and biodiverse habitat – until 2030. Much needed reintroductions of missing species such as beavers are blocked or delayed.
The new farming subsidy known as environmental land management schemes (ELMs), which seemed quite promising when first announced, has been stalled, watered-down and botched in implementation such that most farmers have been left feeling bewildered and unsupported. Oil and gas exploration are being encouraged, and a new coalmine opened. Raw sewage is being dumped into England’s rivers on average 800 times a day. Environmental legislation inherited from Europe is being torched. Without support from government, the actions of a few individuals fighting for nature will never be enough.
Environmentalists have been saying “it is not yet too late” for a long time. In reality it is already too late to avoid much worse damage than we have already seen, and whatever we do now the climate crisis will continue to worsen.
Saving Our Wild Isles is charming, and perhaps it will inspire a few more people to do more for nature, but I was hoping for something different, something that might really wake us up to the dismal state of our country.
David Attenborough is a hero to many of us, and no one has done more to champion the wonders of our natural world. Perhaps he might yet persuade the BBC to commission the hard-hitting, kick-up-the-arse documentary we really need.
Dave Goulson is a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, where he specialises in bee ecology