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The Hunt is on TV ... so I'll look away now

By Frances Burscough

Published 21/11/2015

Frances Burscough by-line photo
PICTURE BY DAVID FITZGERALD Frances Burscough by-line photo

Hearing word of a new television series by Sir David Attenborough is usually like music to my ears. As far as I’m concerned — and probably everyone else who is as fascinated by the natural world for that matter — he can do no wrong.

His very name on a production virtually guarantees that it will be dramatic, insightful, compelling and informative.

So you could say, along with millions of others, that I’m David Attenborough’s number one fan.

Nevertheless, I was still in two minds about whether or not to tune into his latest series, The Hunt. Like many animal lovers, I often find the brutality that exists in the natural world, “red in tooth and claw” too painful to watch. Although it is indeed magnificent and spectacular to see painstaking footage of an alpha predator seeking out its prey, I’m always on the side of the underdog. As much as I shout at the telly “Faster, faster! He’s behind you! Run for your life!” they usually get outrun and outdone and it all ends in tears. Mine.

Therein lies the eternal dichotomy of being a naturalist. You spend your life trying to protect all wildlife and yet when you see species turn on one another, you just have to let them get on with it.

This was a lesson I learnt very early on when I became a weekly volunteer at  RSPB Harbour Reserve in Belfast. I started working there in spring, when the whole nature reserve was positively bursting with signs of new life. Ducks, geese, gulls, divers, waders, waterfowl were all around us, busy building their nests. One week the eggs were laid, the next they were being incubated. The following week chicks had hatched and their parents were frantically feeding them every minute of every day while simultaneously protecting them from danger. It was the circle of life, just like the Disney song, being acted out right in front of our eyes.

But animal instinct doesn’t have a heart and anything goes in the survival of the fittest. As soon as the chicks started to fledge, that was when hunting season started for the bigger birds who would swoop down without warning and grab anything that had strayed from safety. The first time I witnessed this it was a tiny fledgling coot, only a few weeks old, still fluffy with downy feathers, looking like a pom-pom from a bobble hat with long, gangly legs. As we watched him through our binoculars staggering further and further away from its parents, we all felt a sense of foereboding; especially when a noisy racket of squawks and shrieks erupted all around heralding the arrival of a deadly heron.

Although herons are wading birds that mainly live on fish, they will scavenge eggs and chicks without compunction if an opportunity arises. Here was a perfect opportunity and he was striding and stalking towards the oblivious coot with a glint in his eyes at the sight of this easy takeaway. So I did what any mother in my situation would have done and I banged on the observatory window and shouted expletives. The heron flew up, startled for a moment, only to return seconds later to gobble it down in a flash.

The reserve warden gave me a few minutes to dry my eyes and retain my composure before he took me to one side for a wee quiet chat. Apparently its wrong to interfere in such a way and, of course, I knew he was right. As much as it’s horrible to watch, you just have to. It’s what the phrase “letting nature take its course” is all about.

So with the spirit of my new tougher and impartial resolve, I finally gave in and watched the first three episodes of The Hunt and I have to say the series is a work of sheer brilliance.

Nevertheless, they do show a fair representation of predators catching their prey, just as they do out in the real world. I usually anticipate and pre-empt this by the background music and the tone of Sir David’s voice. That’s when I  jump up quickly go and put the kettle on. I’ve now got it down to about five cups per episode.

This week I'll ...

... mostly be availing of the assorted delights at Belfast City Hall’s Christmas Continental Market. Spit-roast boar on a Belfast bap washed down with steaming glühwein? Don’t mind if I do! Look, it’s a Christmas tradition as sure as brussel sprouts, mistletoe and wine, so it’d be wrong not to. Zum wohl! Saluti! Santé! Slainte!

Johnny looks so sleazy but I still love him

After all the hype and hyperbole of the latest Bond film Spectre, you may have had enough of the movies for a while. But if you’re a fan of dramatic thrillers based on actual real-life events, then you should hasten ye back this weekend.

Two fantastic films open this week. As I’m a film critic, I’ve already had a preview of them both and couldn’t recommend them highly enough. The first is Black Mass starring my dearly beloved Johnny Depp doing what he does best as a seedy, sleazy gangster. Ok, as it’s based on a real character he’s been made-up to look seedy and sleazy, too, but don’t be put off by the alarming make-under that turns one of our hottest make stars into a bit of a  munter.  As always, his performance is oustanding and the stellar cast, which includes Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kevin Bacon, certainly do him justice.

The next, hot on its heels, is Bridge of Spies, the new Cold War spy thriller by Steven Spielberg starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.

The plot is compelling, but so are the characters — and that is as much to do with the writing skills of the brilliant Ethan Coen as the flawless casting.

Belfast Telegraph

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