A River + Camera + 20 years = 1 film
Rivers in Britain have had a pretty tough time over the past 150 years. The traditional use of natural watercourses primarily as a means of getting rid of all kinds of rubbish has thankfully almost come to an end, although there are now other even more serious issues facing rivers instead.
Return to the River mostly isn’t a film about damage done. While the film does sometimes try to put its stories and subjects into a wider context, it is primarily a film that focusses on some of the best wildlife that our rivers still have to offer, like kingfishers, water voles and great crested grebes. In doing this the hope is that getting a close up insight into the lives of these creatures we will all be more inclined to do something to help them. The film frames this throughout with snapshots into the lives of one particular group of otters – a species that has enjoyed a dramatic recovery in population across large parts of Britain.
Of course, just because an animal has been shown to exist again in a place where it has been absent for 30 or 40 years doesn’t mean it can neccessarily be filmed there. Otters by their very nature are definitley in the ‘difficult’ category by most wildlife film-makers’ measure, particularly so in freshwater habitats where their territories are very large, covering many miles of waterways and streams, and when their activites are mostly nocturnal.
In 1995 when the extraordinary news that otters had returned to almost all the English counties was widely reported by the mainstream media I was hired by the BBC Natural History Unit to film them for the programme Otters – The Truth a film in the now extinct series Wildlife on One. In that whole summer of searching for the supposedly thriving otters of the English countryside I caught just one brief sighting in a river.
Many wildlife documentary films come about purely because of the discovery of an unusual individual animal that is amenable to being filmed. With ‘my’ English otters it was almost a 20 year wait for that opportunity to come along.
The otters that feature in Return to the River are an unusual family group that proved to be a rare exception to the usual nocturnal rule. They could often be seen feeding in broad daylight. Even better, they were also living in a place that made them relatively used to the sight, sounds and smells of humans. It was a lucky tip-off from The Wildlife Trusts about these otters that made the film possible.