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Wild Things Diary: 28 Jan. 2013

by Dr Trevor Dines

Dr Trevor Dines © CwmniDa

© CwmniDa

When not co-presenting
Wild Things, Dr Trevor Dines is Plantlife Cymru's Conservation Manager. In the first of a series of weekly posts, he divulges what goes on behind the scenes...

Botany with a bang

Two things are conspiring to make me think we’re not actually in England at all. Firstly, the landscape, all the way to the distant horizon in all directions, is completely empty. There are no roads, houses, villages or buildings of any sort. Secondly it’s blisteringly hot. The sun is beating down from a blue sky giving everything a bleached, Mediterranean look.

But despite appearances, we're not in the wilderness. We’re on Salisbury Plain. And we’re surrounded by tanks.

I grew up on a farm at the very edge of Salisbury Plain. Our daily journey to and from school was lined with huge red flags warning of activity in the military zone. Tanks would rumble across the road and we’d search the downs in the hope of seeing bombs exploding. They never did, but the tanks were enough. It was forbidden territory though. We were under strict instructions to never, ever, under any circumstances, stray onto MOD land and we moved away from the area years later without ever actually getting onto the Plain itself.

So when Arwyn Evans, the Series Producer from the CwmniDa TV company, phoned to say that the army had given us permission to film on Salisbury Plain, my heart skipped a beat. You see, for any botanist, Salisbury Plain is a treasure trove, a real jewel in the wildflower crown of the British Isles. Its home to wonderful plants like burnt orchid (the County Flower of Wiltshire, no less) and Tuberous Thistle that thrive here like nowhere else. But it’s the scale of the chalk grassland that really takes the breath away. Acres upon acres of it; flower-rich, packed with orchids, vetches, campanulas, buttercups and knapweeds. I’ve never seen anything like it in Britain before.

We’re all beginning to accept the decidedly abnormal as, well, normal. Earlier in the week Sally was driving tanks through puddles. Yesterday, Chris blew up a poppy plant. The blast was just incredible – it went right through us – and left a huge crater in the soil. We collected this soil for the germination experiment (in an underground bunker, of course) to show how seeds buried in the soil can produce the next generation of plants given the right conditions, as Chris himself had seen while filming poppies and corncockles at our Ranscombe Farm reserve.

Today, I’m careering across this landscape in an army jeep, a bumpy, dusty ride in the heat. The camera crew is looking for a spot to film some “GV”s (general views) and we find the perfect spot beside a shallow valley next to a clump of trees. We jump out, set the camera up on a tripod and begin filming. I’m asked to walk around looking for plants and the camera will pick me up. Acting “normally” on TV is actually quite difficult – it’s not always easy to ignore the film crew and camera and behave as you would do in day-to-day life. But then I spot pyramidal orchids, tuberous thistles, large thyme and squinancywort in the short turf and I lose myself in the moment.

In the midst of my reverie I become suddenly aware of a terrible racket overhead. A Chinook helicopter swoops down low directly over us, rotor blades chopping the air. It lands just a few hundred yards behind me in a bowl of chalky dust and vanishes behind huge, billowing white clouds kicked up by the down-draft. With the camera running on one side of me and the helicopter behind, I can imagine the great shots the crew are getting. The key will be to carry on regardless, as if nothing is happening. So that's what I do, studying the plants at my feet as the drama unfolds behind me. Then the Chinook rises, throwing up more clouds, and circles directly overhead. It spots the camera crew and returns to land at the same spot, disappearing back into the dust. Four more times this manoeuvre is repeated – a perfect opportunity for the cameraman to get more footage. Then our army escort us explains that the helicopter crew are practicing “dust landings”, essential manoeuvres for missions in Iraq. Suddenly we realise these aren’t games being performed for the camera, but are potentially a matter of life or death for our troops.

A few days later, I’m filming the item about exploding Himalayan balsam seed pods. Three things are critical to the shoot: a (very) high speed camera, a semi-automatic rifle and some ripe seed pods that are about to explode. After judging me to be perfectly sane (a questionable judgement – I am a botanist after all) the safety guy hands me the gun and explains the precautions I need to take (important things like don’t point the gun at anyone and never look down the barrel, even if the gun jams). I’ve fired shot-guns before, when clay-pigeon shooting on the farm, but never an SA80 assault rifle. With the cameraman just a few feet away and protected by perspex screens, I load the magazine with bullets and take aim at the target. Seconds later a stream of bullets has left the rifle and my ears are ringing. I feel rather guilty at the thrill of it all, and happily re-load the magazine when the director says different camera shots are needed from several other angles.

Then I’m back on more familiar ground, filming the ballistic Himalayan balsam seed pods. It takes several attempts: the pods don’t always explode on the first touch and the camera is running so fast that, if they don’t trigger immediately, we have to reset the camera. Eventually we get the perfect footage - milliseconds of action captured in high definition as the seeds burst out from the pod. They beat the rifle hands down.

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Follow Trevor on Twitter: @DrTrevorDines.