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.



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


Brett Westwood goes fishing. Why is the carp king? Dexter Petley author of 'Love, Madness, Fishing' knows some answers. He went to live in a yurt in Normandy in order to spend his life carp fishing. From there and a nearby water he brings us his tales of the river bank. Carp fishing is now a very high-tech pastime. Electronic bite detectors and gourmet bait balls are part of the business but an older intimacy with the carp is still crucial to land a fish; the angler must know how to read the water and track its hidden denizens. Meanwhile the Natural History Museum's Oliver Crimmen, Japanese art expert Timon Screech, Steve Varcoe from Aron's Jewish Delicatessen and anthropologist Desmond Morris discuss why various cultures continue to value the fish with a face that only a mother could love. Readings by Anton Lesser. Producer: Tim Dee


Brett Westwood looks at clawed lobsters and how these ancient predators of the sea floor, poised to give you a nip with those fearsome pincers, have come to be regarded as a recipe for romance and fine dining and a symbol in art from classical works through to the surreal world of Salvador Dali. It is a creature that has become a byword for the bizarre. Producer: Tom Bonnett


For centuries we've peered at them, delighted and terrified at seeing our best and worst traits in miniature. Brett Westwood investigates why we see ourselves in the Ant. With contributions from the Ant Lab of Nigel Franks, giant ants as seen by Judith Buchanan, slave-making ants as interpreted by John Clarke and Tom Waits, and the robot swarm of Sabine Hauert. Plus St Paul's Cathedral and a whole ant colony between two microscope slides. Readings by Nicola Ferguson and Brian Protheroe: poems by John Clare, Peter Kane Dufault and Matthew Francis; and the works of Ovid, Adam Smith, William Gould and César Vallejo. Plus the fearsome threat of H G Wells' The Empire of the Ants, and the films Antz, and THEM! Producer: Melvin Rickarby


Eat them alive straight from their shell. Or deep fry them. Or remember them - with their little feet - addressing Lewis Carroll's Walrus and Carpenter - the oyster plays a rich and varied part in British life. Brett Westwood eats his subject for the very first time and takes ship to catch some more in the muddy tidal creeks of the Essex North Sea coast. The world may not quite be his oyster but in this programme the oyster is definitely his world. With Richard Haward, Philine zu Ermgassen, and Peter Marren and poems from Simon Armitage, Sean O'Brien and Carol Ann Duffy. Reader: Niamh Cusack. Producer: Tim Dee


Owls are lovable cuddly creatures and wicked associates of witches and the dark: what prompted such contradictions? Brett Westwood investigates. With contributions from a host of hoots and the poetry of William Wordsworth and George Macbeth and Mike Toms of the British Trust for Ornithology, writers Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, biologist and man-watcher Desmond Morris, a husband and wife team of owl keeper and collector of ceramic figurines, and the museum curator David Waterhouse. Plus a stuffed speciman of the extinct laughing owl of New Zealand. Producer: Tim Dee

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