Natural Histories

Natural Histories


Brett Westwood explores our relationship with nature and its impact on human culture and society, complimented by comedy sketches and the Natural History Heroes series. UK Only.



Brett Westwood steps inside the trunk of an ancient Yew Tree in a Churchyard in Bennington with the writer and naturalist Richard Mabey. From their extraordinary vantage point the two men begin to unravel the history of our relationship with this most ancient and fascinating of trees. Over the centuries, Yews have inspired poets, writers, painters and topiarists who have shaped them into everything from peacocks to policemen’s helmets. And with the help of writer and botanist Paul Evans, we discover the Yew is a tree unlike any other; a long-lived, regenerating, poisonous, evergreen, revered, medicinal rule breaker. Producer: Sarah Blunt Podcast UK only

Fly Agaric  

Brett Westwood seeks out the magical mushroom fly agaric, with its red cap and white spots. Its story is entwined with Father Christmas, Alice in Wonderland and the founding of religion itself. The mushroom's hallucinogenic properties and its appearance in fairy tales make it the most evocative of all British fungi. Brett goes into the woods with River Cottage forager John Wright and talks to Richard Miller and Patrick Harding about its surprising importance in human culture. With readings by Claire Skinner. Producer Beth O'Dea. UK Only


Our relationship with ravens can be traced back many thousands of years. According to Norse mythology the god Odin had two ravens named Huginn (meaning ‘thought’) and Munnin (meaning ‘memory’). He would send them out each day to fly around the world and then return to perch on his shoulders and tell him of what they had seen and heard. With its black colouration, croaking calls and diet of carrion, the raven has long been considered a bird of ill omen , but this over-simplifies our relationship with these highly successful birds as Brett Westwood discovers when he eavesdrops on their conversations at night, meets a man who has reared a raven and talks to a scientist who has long been fascinated by their powers of intelligence. Ravens are more like us than you might like to think. Producer: Sarah Blunt


When Brett Westwood is invited to stroll around the streets of London with a ‘singing cricket‘ as a companion he is following a tradition which can be traced back over a thousand years ago to before the Tang Dynasty in China when people kept crickets in cages and enjoyed their songs. This custom began in the Royal Courts when the Emperor’s concubines placed caged crickets near their pillows so they could enjoy the songs during the night. The practise was soon taken up by local people who carried crickets around in tiny cages and in London, Brett meets Lisa Hall, a sound artist who has brought the tradition right up to date with a tiny audio player fitted with a set of speakers that are small enough to be concealed in a pocket. As Lisa explains the effect is like wearing ‘a perfume’ of song which masks the ugly urban sounds. Could this audio trend catch on? Producer: Sarah Blunt


Unlike frogs, toads have long suffered from a bad press. Thomas Pennant, a Welsh naturalist described them as: “The most deformed and hideous of all animals... its general appearance is such as to strike one with disgust and horror” in 1776, and Shakespeare didn’t do much for their PR when he had the three witches toss the toads into the charmed pot in Macbeth. And whilst its true that Toads have glands which contain toxic substances which deter predators, they have also been viewed as evil spirits and a widely held belief concerned the toadstone - a jewel that was supposed to be found inside the toad’s head, which could protect the wearer from foul play. Kenneth Grahame did his best to dispel many of these myths when he introduced his readers to the loveable rascal Mr Toad in Wind in the Willows, although this toad terrorised everyone with his wreckless driving! This is somewhat ironic given that thousands of toads are killed every year on our roads by cars as they return to their breeding ponds. But as Brett Westwood discovers, help is at hand – as huge number of volunteers venture out every year to gather up toads from the roads and release them in nearby pools and lakes, to breed once again. All this and an encounter with the bootle organ as Brett explore our relationship with the Toad. Producer: Sarah Blunt


The greater honeyguide is unique: it is the only wild animal that has been proven to selectively interpret human language. Brett Westwood tells the sweet story of a bird that leads human honey hunters to wild bees' nests in order to share the rewards - perhaps one of the oldest cultural partnerships between humans and other animals on Earth. With biologist Claire Spottiswoode, anthropologist Brian Wood, and honey hunters, Lazaro Hamusikili in Zambia and Orlando Yassene in Mozambique, and the calls of the honeyguide. Producer: Tim Dee


Brett Westwood spots a chameleon and investigates how this master of disguise has led us to ask big questions about how we adapt to the environments we find ourselves in. John Keats coined the term 'the camelion poet' to describe a curiosity to explore situations and settings outside of usual experience that may be at odds with expected morals and personality. He argued that being chameleon was to take on poetic guises separate from the 'self'. Shakespeare was said to embody his characters to the extent that it was hard to know his own personality. Throughout his life, David Bowie was described as a 'musical chameleon' but was frustrated at the description, while the poet Jack Mapanje embraced the chameleon's ability to camouflage and used it as a way of voicing his political views under a cloak of ambiguity in his collection 'Of Chameleons and Gods'. Brett talks to reptile expert Rob Pilley, colouration scientist Devi Stuart-Fox, poet Jack Mapanje, English lecturer Stacey McDowell, sociologist Eoin Devereux and folklore expert Marty Crump. Readings by Finlay Robertson and Michael Flanders. Producer: Tom Bonnett


Brett Westwood burrows into the complicated relationship we have with our constant but mostly unwelcome companion: the rat. Featuring interviews with historian Dr. Edmund Ramsden, researcher for the charity Apopo Haylee Ellis, Professor of German and Folklore Wolfgang Mieder, rat enthusiast Jo Pegg, and ecologist and expert in rodents as pests Professor Steven Belmain. Produced by Ellie Sans.


In 1903 Topsy the elephant was given copper sandals to wear at the amusement park in Coney Island. Hundreds of spectators and photographers crowded close, Thomas Edison's film crew got the camera in position. With the flick of a switch, steam filled the air and electricity ran through her body. The electrocution of Topsy the elephant in New York is just one low point in man's long and complex relationship with the animal. The elephant's huge size has allowed us to load it with attributes like supernatural strength, great wisdom, phenomenal memory. And we've always wanted to be close to it, to harness the power, to use it, to destroy it. Brett Westwood tracks our cultural relationship with the elephant, from battlefield to big top, via Swahili proverbs, artworks on the streets of Sheffield, DH Lawrence, and the festivities for Lord Ganesha at the Hounslow Ganeshotsav Mandal in West London. Producer: Melvin Rickarby


Ruary Mackenzie Dodds became fascinated by dragonflies when one landed on his shoulder and instead of being terrified by the huge insect, he was captivated by its beauty. This beauty as well as their charisma, acrobatic flying and dramatic lifestyle have inspired both awe and fear across the globe as Brett Westwood discovers in this exploration of our relationship with Dragonflies. They have attracted names like Devil’s Darning Needle, Horse Stinger and Water Witch, been used as emblems of strength, weather predictors and angler's friends. They have been captured in artworks and poetry and obsessed over by flight engineers but it’s arguably whilst flitting among the rushes over a pool that they are at their most dazzling. Producer Sarah Blunt

Wandering Albatross  

With a wing span that can measure up to 3.5 metres in length, it’s hardly surprising that the Wandering Albatross has inspired not only awe but a spiritual response from many of us. And whilst Samuel Taylor Coleridge didn’t do it any favours when he portrayed the Albatross as a bird of ill omen in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, as Brett Westwood discovers in this programme, our relationship with the Albatross is far more complex than this; as we have both caught and eaten them, studied their flight and been so inspired by them, that as one man says “In my next life I’m coming back as Wanderer”. Producer Sarah Blun


Brett Westwood sees how the tiger has burnt bright in our imagination across the globe and measures the real creature against this beast of our imaginings. With contributions from tiger expert and writer Valmik Thapar, Dr Susan Stronge, Senior Curator, South Asia at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Chris Coggins, Professor of Geography and Asian studies at Simon's Rock College, Massachusetts, Susie Green author of Tiger (Reaktion Books) and lecturer and community arts leader Rosamund Hiles who grew up with a tiger. Producer: Tom Bonnett


Brett Westwood blows away the cobwebs to reveal tales of spiders as objects of fear, merciless femmes fatales and tricksters too. Featuring interviews with the Natural History Museum's spider curator Jan Beccaloni, naturalist Rosemary Winnall, president of Buglife and writer Germaine Greer and tarantula keeper Gemma Wright. Readings Brian Protheroe. Producer: Tom Bonnett


Brett Westwood follows the route trodden by the camel from being a revered subject of Arabic eulogies to being reviled by European explorers. In its latest incarnation it's being ridden by robot camel jockeys in silks and sunglasses and taking part in beauty contests... But is the camel a figure of fun or something rather sadder? Producer: Beth O'Dea Taking part: Rebecca and Joseph Fossett, owners of Joseph’s Amazing Camels Robert Irwin, novelist and Middle East expert and author of Camel Dr Richard Reading, Director of Conservation Biology, Denver Zoological Foundation James Rawson, journalist and film maker and Mark Heap, Reader


Brett Westwood follows the route trodden by the camel from being a revered subject of Arabic eulogies to being reviled by European explorers. In its latest incarnation it's being ridden by robot camel jockeys in silks and sunglasses and taking part in beauty contests... But is the camel a figure of fun or something rather sadder? Producer Beth O'Dea Taking part: Rebecca and Joseph Fossett, owners of Joseph’s Amazing Camels Robert Irwin, novelist and Middle East expert and author of Camel Dr Richard Reading, Director of Conservation Biology, Denver Zoological Foundation James Rawson, journalist and film maker Mark Heap, Reader

Great Auk  

In 1844, three men landed on the island of Eldey off the coast of Iceland and crept up on a pair of Great Auks which had an egg in a nest and killed the birds and trampled on the egg.These are believed to have been the last Great Auks which ever lived. Being flightless birds the men had little trouble catching and killing them. As one of the hunters recalled “I took him by the neck and he flapped his wings, he made no cry, I strangled him.” The irony is that once they became extinct, Great Auks became even more sought after; this time by collectors of their skins and eggs. Today there are thought to be 75 specimens in museums or private collections. In this programme, Brett Westwood visits the Great North Museum to see two of these; an adult and a juvenile, before meeting writer and painter Errol Fuller; the proud owner of a Great Auk egg; a beautiful but tragic reminder of what once was. But that isn’t the end of the story as Brett discovers because a group of scientists are hoping to bring the birds back from extinction in a process called De-extinction. All this Charles Kingsley, Ogden Nash, a Golden egg and a glass foot are in this extraordinary tale of an “extinct superstar”. Readers: Pippa Haywood, Brian Protheroe. Producer: Sarah Blunt


Brett Westwood looks into the heart of a rose. Its power lies in its infinite mutability - the rose symbolises everything from sex to socialism, romance to religious belief. It's not English, and it inspired the first punk single, as well as much of Persian poetry. David Austin Jr shows Brett around their rose garden, and cultural historian Jennifer Potter whizzes through roses from Sappho to Shakespeare. Producer: Beth O'Dea Contributors: Narguess Farzad, Senior Fellow in Persian at SOAS, University of London Jennifer Potter, author of The Rose: A True History David Austin Jr, Managing Director, David Austin Roses Readings The Sick Rose by William Blake read by Lia Williams Comical Roses in a Cubic Vase by George Szirtes, read by Iwan Rheon Closing music: Bright Blue Rose by Christy Moore


Brett Westwood is sucked into the weird and wonderful world of the leech. It's been portrayed both as monstrous and as a medical marvel, but which is nearer the truth? Christopher Frayling doesn't think we can ever get over the fact that it's a reviled bloodsucker, just like the most famous bloodsucker of them all, Dracula - and he reveals a hidden link between the two. Bethany Sawyer and her company provide leeches for the NHS to help in reconstructive surgery, and Brett visits their leech farm for an uncomfortably close encounter. Emma Sherlock is an enthusiast for all things wormy and for the amazing abilities of the humble leech, but hearing how they used to be gathered and used could surely send a shudder down any spine. Taking part: Bethany Sawyer, General Manager of Biopharm Sir Christopher Frayling, Professor Emeritus of Cultural History, Royal College of Art Emma Sherlock, Curator of Free Living Worms at the Natural History Museum Dr Robert Kirk, Lecturer in Medical History and Humanities at the University of Manchester Geoffrey Whitehead, Reader Producer Beth O'Dea


Brett Westwood meets a wolf and considers what wolfishness has come to mean in our culture and thinking. And how much does it have to do with the animal itself? Recorded at The UK Wolf Conservation Trust at Beenham, near Reading. Taking part: Mike Collins, wolf keeper and site manager Claudio Sillero, Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Oxford Garry Marvin, social anthropologist and Professor of Human Animal Studies at the University of Roehampton Erica Fudge, Director of the British Animal Studies Network at the University of Strathclyde Judith Buchanan, Professor of Film and Literature at the University of York Producer: Beth O'Dea


Brett Westwood investigates the biology and culture of the Fox - a creature long believed to be the devil in disguise. With poetry by Ted Hughes and Simon Armitage, the rollocking medieval bestseller Reynard the Fox, a fox seduction in an abandoned ruin, and a stakeout in a Bristol back garden with urban fox expert Professor Stephen Harris. Producer: Melvin Rickarby

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