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Nature / Local cameramen say working on new Attenborough series was ‘brilliant’ experience

Orcas being filmed by the BBC team in the waters between Whalsay and North Nesting. Photo: Ryan Leith

ORCAS, Britain’s largest marine predators and a common sight in the waters around Shetland, will take centre stage when the first part of the BBC’s new nature series Wild Isles is broadcast on Sunday evening.

Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, the five-episode production will finally focus on nature and wildlife in the British Isles.

Richard Shucksmith

Most of the Shetland footage was shot in 2021 and 2022, and many of the encounters would not have been possible without the work of local wildlife photographer Richard Shucksmith and drone specialist Nick McCaffrey, who have been working with the Bristol based BBC natural history unit for the last three years on the ambitious project.

Speaking to Shetland News this week, both men described their involvement in the production of such a high-profile programme as the pinnacle of their career so far.

Nick McCaffrey

Shucksmith said filming with the top camera people in their field was intense and witnessing how “driven and relentless” the team was in the pursuit of getting the shot they wanted had been a unique experience.

“I have never been involved in a production this size ever before in my life,” he said.

McCaffrey added: “Having material that I have captured being narrated by David Attenborough if a lifelong validation of your skills.

“I don’t think there is any better affirmation of your ability when it is endorsed by a blue-chip series like Wild Isles. It was an absolutely brilliant experience.

“In the main trailer there is a little shot of two killer whales passing through a kelp channel, and I can tell you exactly what date and where that was shot. I am chuffed to bits already.”

Both highlighted how the local community was “instrumental” in the success of the filming.

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“Without volunteers willingly sharing their observations and helping the effort to document the orca behaviour it would have been an entirely different undertaking,” they said.

They recalled the first stint of chasing the large pod of killer whales, known as the 27s, and the frustration of only being able to film one encounter in five weeks.

Shucksmith and McCaffrey had tracked the eight-strong Orca family at Shetland’s west coast and were following them while the BBC team was arriving off the overnight ferry.

By the time the camera equipment was set up and the team was racing to the location near Ronas Voe, the orcas were slowly drifting further out to sea – not to been seen in local waters again for the next two months.

“We spent the next five weeks looking for them, and we never picked up the 27 pod again,” Shucksmith recalled.

“We had gone out every day, either on land or in a boat, looking for the killer whales. They [the BBC] missed them, they were two days too late.”

The production team from Silverback Films came back in 2022 for five weeks in June and July to capture footage of not just orcas but also other wildlife.

Filming orcas off Shetland during the summer of 2022. Photo: Richard Shucksmith

“If the killer whales weren’t here, they could work on shooting different scenes and species; so it became a different type of shoot altogether,” Shucksmith said.

It is the first time that such a major project has been undertaken purely focusing on wildlife and nature in Britain and Ireland, and it is – at least in parts – thanks to Covid that it all finally fell into place.

Series producer Alastair Fothergill, who before Wild Isles had worked with Attenborough on the original Blue Planet, Planet Earth and Frozen Planet series, said he always wanted to cover the British Isles and its natural history with a similarly ambitious and epic approach.

“I knew that nobody had ever had the opportunity before to really do justice to the spectacular scenery and rich and varied wildlife found at home. I also have a personal passion for our natural history,” he said.

Shucksmith added that one of the reasons why such an expensive production exclusively focusing on the UK had not been done before was commercial.

“If you make a film on solely one place, like the UK, the ability to sell it becomes limited,” he said.

“However, all the people working at the Silverback Films production company have been dying to make a British wildlife film like this, but it was hard to fund.”

McCaffrey added: “It’s one of the positives that came out of Covid. You had all these talented UK-based naturalists unable to travel. So, what better time than to do a UK wildlife series.”

Across the five episodes, Our Precious Isles, Woodland, Grassland, Freshwater and Ocean, crews filmed a total of 96 species on 145 locations over a three-year period.

The first episode Our Precious Isles was filmed over 381 days and will be shown on BBC One on Sunday 12 March at 7pm.

Apart from the local orcas it will feature white tailed eagles hunting geese on Islay and gannets on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth.

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