Few people have won such international trust and acclaim as Sir David Attenborough. In this edition of RiverTribe we carry his plea to tread lightly on Richmond Park and respect its unique status as a nature reserve with a city skyline on its horizon. Peter Dobbie takes a look at the man and the film.
Sir David Attenborough asks us to tread lightly
For decades it seemed his has been the voice of god, his mellifluous tones informing our understanding of life on earth.
Sir David Attenborough has walked us through rainforests, the foothills of the highest peaks and the once unfathomable depths of the oceans. Now however, he has turned his gaze on the more familiar landscape of Richmond Park with stunning results.
As one who has walked, run and ridden in the park for half a lifetime, it is the revelation of another side to an old friend and, worryingly, the threat it now faces. The park, its wildlife and flora are falling victim to the estate’s growing popularity and a failure by some to respect the delicate checks and balances that allow this unique space and its inhabitants to thrive.
Attenborough has, for six decades, lived a short walk from the park gates and is acutely aware of how it is growing in popularity. The five and a half million annual visitors– have impacted upon it.
Richmond Park, a Natural Nature Reserve, boasts 1,400 veteran trees, some dating back eight centuries. It is, says Attenborough, a ‘very special place’ where oaks predominate, their low hanging branches providing food for deer, an animal which has no natural enemy in the park. Or, sadly, not until today.
Now children are hoisted on to the backs of these wild creatures; people approach and stroke and even attempt to feed them. The desire for a ‘must have’ selfie makes visitors impervious to the damage they are inflicting on an animal that has thrived in the park since it was first introduced by Charles I.
Harassment by unleashed dogs is annually responsible for two or three deaths among the 600 red and fallow deer, a hazard underscored by film footage of a woman retreating from an advancing stag. She has a look of alarm and screams at her dog which is not on a lead and is worrying the deer. These magnificent, very wild animals are no longer respected as creatures deserving of space. Increasingly they are seen by some as exotic props for a safari to Richmond Park.
Hence the film, which is attempting to educate visitors of the delicate life cycle in the park, where the deer are, naturally, the most visible of worries. Wild beasts clashing with their huge antlers during the rutting season; drawing in hordes of photographers who seem impervious to police warnings to keep a distance.
This annual joust for female attention is, says the veteran broadcaster, an “extraordinary spectacle” played out so close to central London. Yet its magnificence has brought attention that threatens the welfare of the creatures like no time in the past.
“Richmond Park has become a must see destination for many Londoners and tourists. The numbers are growing rapidly and it has put huge pressures on the park, its fabric and wildlife. The impact has been felt by the 600-strong deer population which roams free but is increasingly harassed. They see humans, and particularly dogs, as a threat to their young and it is hardly surprising that mothers behave aggressively when people crowd their space and allow dogs to run free,” Attenborough tells us.
‘The film is a response to the problem. It is a plea for visitors to respect the many aspects of the park’s life cycle. Beetles and other insects are affected by people moving fallen wood, nesting skylarks are disturbed by dogs and the deer eat litter, causing digestive problems and even death. There are simple things that we can do to prevent this.
“So why is there an ever increasing problem? Perhaps, despite the plethora of wildlife programmes, people are more detached from the natural world and fail to understand that they are not entering an entertainment complex or a local park where there are only tame animals,” he adds.
“The park is on the doorstep of one of the most populated capitals on earth, but is nonetheless a Natural Nature Reserve and must be respected as such. If we tread lightly, the park will remain a paradise for us all and those who come after”.
There are other less visible worries. The green woodpecker is only an occasional pecker of trees and feeds mostly on yellow meadow ants found in distinctive mounds. These are easily damaged by people jumping on them thoughtlessly and Attenborough asks that care be taken.
Dogs running free emerge as a threat to ground nesting skylarks while dog faeces, if not picked up, damages the acid grasslands which are food to thousands of flying insects and a main source of nectar for bees, moths and butterflies.
There is a plea to leave nothing and take nothing away when visiting. Litter can and is eaten by animals and should be removed. The 400 species of fungi and the natural wild larder of nuts and berries, as well as decaying wood are all vital sources of nutrients and breeding areas for established park life such as the protected stag beetle and should be left where they lie.
Attenborough narrates a story of a beautiful space, a nature reserve at the edge of the city that we should treasure. He tells its story with the same enthusiasm we have heard time and again as he records the natural treasures of the wider world.
It is not censorious of the millions of us who come to wander and enjoy this great space. Just a plea to take care of what you see. “Please love it like I do,” he says in those familiar tones. And remember to tread lightly in Richmond Park’. It is a simple request we should all heed.
George Chan is the director of the Richmond Park film.
A 47-year-old zoologist, he is as dedicated to observational filming as he is to studying animals and their habitats.
He first worked with Sir David Attenborough twenty years ago while working at the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol. He had just finished a PhD in zoology at Regent’s Park Zoo and was a researcher for the world-renowned production centre.
While working on the State of the Planet he put forward an idea for a programme on Easter Island, one of the most remote land masses on earth. The story of the island is a well-known one – the population used up the land’s resources until there was nothing left to sustain them. Then they turned on each other.
“It was a story of extremes but a micro example of what we are doing to the Earth and while Richmond Park is well-loved by everyone there is a similar lesson in respect for nature and responsibility for our environment.
“It was a real pleasure to work with David again. He is incredibly modest and one of the most professional people I have ever met. It really was incredibly rewarding to direct a film that is so close to his heart.”
The £50,000 film took nearly a year to make and was commissioned by Ron Crompton, chairman of Friends of Richmond Park. Finance was raised by FRP and local businesses.
He said, “We felt we needed to change peoples’ perception of the park so they understood the extent of the park’s wildlife and the need to protect it. Many people gave their time and expertise pro bono, from wildlife experts and those with studio technical skills. It has been a privilege to work on this with Sir David and such a dedicated team.’
Meet the Director, George Chan