Natural Histories

Episodes

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2015080420150810 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores how fragments from other worlds have influenced our lives.

2015090120150907 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores the role birds' eggs have played in religion, art and literature.

Beautiful, fragile, mysterious - we have always loved birds' eggs. Their colours are more of a hue, the patterning gorgeous to the eye, no wonder they have been collected from time immemorial. Eggs are a symbol of new life, a transformation that speaks to us of great truths beyond the purely biological. Easter eggs are a symbol of Christ's resurrection and were adopted from pagan beleifs about Ostara, the goddess connecting to various German Easter festivities.) The egg has been used as a metaphor for the origin of the universe in many traditions. We have used them in cooking - or eaten raw - since our time on earth. We have used the hard shell for decoration, and Faberge designed exquisite bejewelled eggs of gold and precious stones for the Tsars of Russia. A peculiar tradition of using eggs to record the varied faces of clowns arose just after WW2 when new clowns stamped their identity on the world by registering their unique features on eggs - there is now a clown egg museum. The natural variety in bird's eggs, even clutches in the same year, can be very different, is prized by collectors, determined to own the greatest diversity of any one species. Along with collecting comes money and then fraud. Pleasing to hold, beautiful on the eye, versatile in cooking, intriguing in nature, practical as well - eggs will always inspire us.

2015092920151005 (R4)

From a revered god in ancient Egypt to a comic character in Peter Pan, crocs fascinate us.

2016101820161024 (R4)

Brett Westwood tells the singular story of the African bird that leads people to honey.

2016111520161121 (R4)

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.

Anemone2015100620151012 (R4)

The Natural History Museum in London owns treasures that simply take your breath away. Delicate, anatomically accurate and beautifully crafted glass models of anemones are so realistic they look like the real thing crystallised from the sea. They were made by father and son glass blowers called Blaschka in the 19th century in what is now the Czech Republic. Scientists could now study the internal structures of these delicate animals in the days when it was difficult to keep live specimens. Sadly, when the Blaschkas passed away they took their secrets of glass blowing with them, but they left us objects of pure wonder. These models allowed ordinary people too to see the wonders beneath the sea. The glass models and the beautiful paintings of anemones in books by people like Philip Henry Gosse and Thomas Alan Stephenson made the once hidden realm of the sea accessible to all. Beach combing became more and more popular with strawberry, beadlet and snakes-locks being collected in their thousands for home aquaria. The Victorian craze which Gosse encouraged (he called them "glimpses of the wonderful") put pressure on some places where anemones grow and notable declines were recorded. Today the collection of anemones for aquaria is devastating places like the Philippines, especially since the Hollywood blockbuster Finding Nemo was released. Bizarrely the complexity of their nerves means they are more closely related to humans than to flies and worms. Some species are as close to immortal as you can get. Cut them in half and you get two, cut off the mouth and it will grow a new one. They seem to go on and on, leading some scientists to use them in the search for eternal youth. Sea anemones are flowers of the sea, they inspire whimsy and fancy, poetry and art.

The Natural History Museum in London owns treasures that simply take your breath away. Delicate, anatomically accurate and beautifully crafted glass models of anemones are so realistic they look like the real thing crystallised from the sea. They were made by father and son glass blowers called Blaschka in the 19th century in what is now the Czech Republic. Scientists could now study the internal structures of these delicate animals in the days when it was difficult to keep live specimens. Sadly, when the Blaschkas passed away they took their secrets of glass blowing with them, but they left us objects of pure wonder. These models allowed ordinary people too to see the wonders beneath the sea. The glass models and the beautiful paintings of anemones in books by people like Philip Henry Gosse and Thomas Alan Stephenson made the once hidden realm of the sea accessible to all. Beach combing became more and more popular with strawberry, beadlet and snakes-locks being collected in their thousands for home aquaria. The Victorian craze for aquariums which Gosse encouraged (he called them "glimpses of the wonderful") put pressure on some places where anemones grow and notable declines were recorded. Today the collection of anemones for aquariums is devastating places like the Philippines, especially since the Hollywood blockbuster Finding Nemo was released. Bizarrely the complexity of their nerves means they are more closely related to humans than to flies and worms. Some species are as close to immortal as you can get. Cut them in half and you get two, cut off the mouth and it will grow a new one. They seem to go on and on, leading some scientists to use them in the search for eternal youth. Sea anemones are flowers of the sea, they inspire whimsy and fancy, poetry and art.

Brett Westwood explores the role sea anemones have played in art, literature and science.

Ant2016062820160704 (R4)

Brett Westwood investigates the biology and culture of ants.

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 2 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.

Ant2016062820160704 (R4)

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 2 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.

Brett Westwood investigates the biology and culture of ants.

Baobab20170919

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the baobab or upside-down tree.

A mature Baobab tree looks like its standing with its head in the ground and its roots in the air - hence the name the Upside-Down tree. But this tree is no joke. It is of enormous spiritual and cultural importance to local people and is also known as The Tree of Life highlighting its importance as a source of water, food, medicine and materials; for example, the bark is used for making rope, the petals for glue and the roots for making ink. But it's the edible fruits, high in vitamin C and anti-oxidants that in recent years have increased the commercial value and importance of the tree as Brett Westwood discovers as he explores our relationship with this iconic tree. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Baobab20170919

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the baobab or upside-down tree.

A mature Baobab tree looks like its standing with its head in the ground and its roots in the air - hence the name the Upside-Down tree. But this tree is no joke. It is of enormous spiritual and cultural importance to local people and is also known as The Tree of Life highlighting its importance as a source of water, food, medicine and materials; for example, the bark is used for making rope, the petals for glue and the roots for making ink. But it's the edible fruits, high in vitamin C and anti-oxidants that in recent years have increased the commercial value and importance of the tree as Brett Westwood discovers as he explores our relationship with this iconic tree. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Baobab20170925
Baobab20170925

"Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the baobab or upside-down tree.

A mature Baobab tree looks like its standing with its head in the ground and its roots in the air - hence the name the Upside-Down tree. But this tree is no joke. It is of enormous spiritual and cultural importance to local people and is also known as The Tree of Life highlighting its importance as a source of water, food, medicine and materials; for example, the bark is used for making rope, the petals for glue and the roots for making ink. But it's the edible fruits, high in vitamin C and anti-oxidants that in recent years have increased the commercial value and importance of the tree as Brett Westwood discovers as he explores our relationship with this iconic tree. Producer Sarah Blunt.

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Baobab20170925

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the baobab or upside-down tree.

A mature Baobab tree looks like its standing with its head in the ground and its roots in the air - hence the name the Upside-Down tree. But this tree is no joke. It is of enormous spiritual and cultural importance to local people and is also known as The Tree of Life highlighting its importance as a source of water, food, medicine and materials; for example, the bark is used for making rope, the petals for glue and the roots for making ink. But it's the edible fruits, high in vitamin C and anti-oxidants that in recent years have increased the commercial value and importance of the tree as Brett Westwood discovers as he explores our relationship with this iconic tree. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Bat20170807

Brett Westwood investigates our obsession with bats: from Dracula to Batman to Goth.

Brett Westwood investigates our obsession with bats, at a Gothic mansion at night where bats swirl around him. From Dracula to Batman and Goth, bats have infiltrated our culture and our psyches, despite the persisting sense that they are in some way alien and unknowable. But they are in fact one of our most successful and social mammals, and those who work with them have a passion for them.
Contributors: Jeremy Deller, Christopher Frayling, Darren Mait, Daniel Flew, Will Brooker, Merlin Tuttle, The Neighbours are Bats performance project. Readings by Greta Scacchi. Location recording at National Trust Tyntesfield.
Producer: Beth O'Dea
Photograph of Lesser Horseshoe Bat courtesy of the Bat Conservation Trust, (c) John Black/www.bats.org.uk.

Bat20170801

Brett Westwood investigates our obsession with bats: from Dracula to Batman to Goth.

Brett Westwood investigates our obsession with bats, at a Gothic mansion at night where bats swirl around him. From Dracula to Batman and Goth, bats have infiltrated our culture and our psyches, despite the persisting sense that they are in some way alien and unknowable. But they are in fact one of our most successful and social mammals, and those who work with them have a passion for them.
Contributors: Jeremy Deller, Christopher Frayling, Darren Mait, Daniel Flew, Will Brooker, Merlin Tuttle, The Neighbours are Bats performance project. Readings by Greta Scacchi. Location recording at National Trust Tyntesfield.
Producer: Beth O'Dea
Photograph of Lesser Horseshoe Bat courtesy of the Bat Conservation Trust, (c) John Black/www.bats.org.uk.

Bat20170807
Bears2015090820150914 (R4)

(of the family Ursidae) and people go back a long way, they are disconcertingly human-like, captured in the most popular of tales, Goldilocks, Snow White and Rose Red and Winnie the Pooh. Many cultures from northern Europe to North America to China have traditionally worshiped bears, regarding them as the spirit of ancestors. In the Palaeolithic bear bones were carefully buried in unnatural poses and their skulls in a circle. In Christianity saints have tamed bears as a sign of holiness though bears were persecuted to deter pagan cults. In medieval times the cruel and gruesome sport of bear-baiting was a common pastime, enjoyed by royalty and peasant alike. Seeing a bear tormented by dogs may have been pleasurable, but it was also a physical representation of suffering and struggle at a time when bears were still part of a greater mythology. The mystical qualities of bears is reflected in our seeing them in the stars, the Great and Little Bear track their way across the heavens. The constancy of the Great Bear constellation was used by slaves in the American Civil War to guide them to safety, away from conflict; their song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" tells how to follow the lights of the constellation - the gourd being code for The Great Bear. Today the white polar bear is a potent symbol of climate change, reliant on ice covered land it is in danger of losing its habitat. As we become more removed from nature the style of the much-loved teddy bear has changed. Originally they looked like real bears, today they are pink and fluffy and short-limbed. Our relationship with bears has always been complex and still is today.

Bears (of the family Ursidae) and people go back a long way, they are disconcertingly human-like, captured in the most popular of tales, Goldilocks, Snow White and Rose Red and Winnie the Pooh. Many cultures from northern Europe to North America to China have traditionally worshiped bears, regarding them as the spirit of ancestors. In the Palaeolithic bear bones were carefully buried in unnatural poses and their skulls in a circle. In Christianity saints have tamed bears as a sign of holiness though bears were persecuted to deter pagan cults. In medieval times the cruel and gruesome sport of bear-baiting was a common pastime, enjoyed by royalty and peasant alike. Seeing a bear tormented by dogs may have been pleasurable, but it was also a physical representation of suffering and struggle at a time when bears were still part of a greater mythology. The mystical qualities of bears is reflected in our seeing them in the stars, the Great and Little Bear track their way across the heavens. The constancy of the Great Bear constellation was used by slaves in the American Civil War to guide them to safety, away from conflict; their song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" tells how to follow the lights of the constellation - the gourd being code for The Great Bear. Today the white polar bear is a potent symbol of climate change, reliant on ice covered land it is in danger of losing its habitat. As we become more removed from nature the style of the much-loved teddy bear has changed. Originally they looked like real bears, today they are pink and fluffy and short-limbed. Our relationship with bears has always been complex and still is today.

Beaver20171031

Beavers are back, but Brett Westwood asks if they can recover their place in our culture.

Beavers are back in the UK, hundreds of years since they last lived among us. Brett Westwood asks if we can recover our cultural links with these architectural animals, as well as remember how to live with the changes they bring to the landscape. Nature writer Jim Crumley talks about their green engineering skills and writer Rachel Poliquin brings the Canadian perspective on what she calls the four great human romances with the beaver: with its castoreum, its musk, its architectural skills and its ecological abilities. With readings by Lia Williams of extracts from Castorologia and Winter by Geoffrey Ursell, and The Beaver by Vernon Watkins.
Producer Beth O'Dea.

Beaver20171031

Beavers are back, but Brett Westwood asks if they can recover their place in our culture.

Beavers are back in the UK, hundreds of years since they last lived among us. Brett Westwood asks if we can recover our cultural links with these architectural animals, as well as remember how to live with the changes they bring to the landscape. Nature writer Jim Crumley talks about their green engineering skills and writer Rachel Poliquin brings the Canadian perspective on what she calls the four great human romances with the beaver: with its castoreum, its musk, its architectural skills and its ecological abilities. With readings by Lia Williams of extracts from Castorologia and Winter by Geoffrey Ursell, and The Beaver by Vernon Watkins.
Producer Beth O'Dea.

Beetles2015102720151102 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores how beetles have influenced arts and science around the world.

Beetles, in the group of insects known as Coleoptera or 'sheathed wing', make up roughly one quarter of all known living species on the planet, that's about 400,000 species. It's perhaps not surprising that beetles are at the heart of the many ways we take inspiration from nature.

"Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,

Your house is all burned and your children are gone...."

This nursery rhyme is one of many across Europe that demonstrates our close relationship with ladybirds. Peter Marren, leading wildlife author, explains the story behind the rhyme and why the ladybird in folklore is seen as 'Our Lady's Bird'. The beetles collection at the Natural History Museum reveals the gold and silver beetles of the Cloud Forests of Costa Rica collected by Walter Rothschild in 1894. These beetles have evolved to evade predators with wing covers that reflect light and mimic drops of rain. Scarab beetles found in Ancient Egypt had a huge impact on both the ecology and culture of the region and we find out why they were revered as sacred.

In many cultures across the world, from Asia and India to the Americas, beetle wings have been gathered for centuries and crafted into textiles and jewellery. In the Amazon region, the Shaur tribe incorporated beetle wings into ceremonial dress to enhance their prowess as warriors.

With poetry by John Clare and a nursery rhyme written by A.A. Milne, we celebrate the beetle and the role it plays as both an exotic and mundane creature whose biology is so extraordinary that some scientists now wish to copy it. The new science of Biomimetics is evolving fast and beetles, with all their varied forms and irresistible structural colours, may yet prove as invaluable in our future as they have been in our past.

Birds Eggs20150901

Beautiful, fragile, mysterious - we have always loved birds' eggs. Their colours are more of a hue, the patterning gorgeous to the eye, no wonder they have been collected from time immemorial. Eggs are a symbol of new life, a transformation that speaks to us of great truths beyond the purely biological. Easter eggs are a symbol of Christ's resurrection and were adopted from pagan beleifs about Ostara, the goddess connecting to various German Easter festivities.) The egg has been used as a metaphor for the origin of the universe in many traditions. We have used them in cooking - or eaten raw - since our time on earth. We have used the hard shell for decoration, and Faberge designed exquisite bejewelled eggs of gold and precious stones for the Tsars of Russia. A peculiar tradition of using eggs to record the varied faces of clowns arose just after WW2 when new clowns stamped their identity on the world by registering their unique features on eggs - there is now a clown egg museum. The natural variety in bird's eggs, even clutches in the same year, can be very different, is prized by collectors, determined to own the greatest diversity of any one species. Along with collecting comes money and then fraud. Pleasing to hold, beautiful on the eye, versatile in cooking, intriguing in nature, practical as well - eggs will always inspire us.

Blackbird20170711

Brett Westwood investigates our obsession with the song and folklore of the blackbird.

Blackbird20170717
Brambles2015091520150921 (R4)

are a common reminder that nature is not just about us. The tangled confusion of spikes and tough stems tear flesh and cloth alike - the long, sinuous creepers creeping along tracks can trip those whose eyes stray from the ground. Tales from Brambly Hedge tempt children to the underworld of the bramble where homely mice families create a secure glow of domestic bliss safe from the dangers outside. Picking blackberries remains very popular and a wistful childhood memory, captured by Seamus Heaney's poem Blackberry Picking. This also echoes the dual nature of the bramble as both tormentor and giver of soft treats. Another dark side to this very common plant is the clues it gives to forensic botanists who use the bramble as an indicator of changed ground, noting if its growing pattern shows signs of disturbance, they can even detect the time the plant was dug up and recovered.The bramble is the commoner of the woodland, but says Richard Mabey, it performs an essential job in protecting young trees. Today BlackBerry is a smart phone, called after the fruit because the inventors knew that any name related to the term "email" made people's blood pressure rise, so they went for a natural, playful, happy-memory inducing name. It has now been twisted into urban slang - "going blackberry picking" now means to go out and steal phones. The humble blackberry, and there are over 650 different species, has many hidden depths.

Brambles are a common reminder that nature is not just about us. The tangled confusion of spikes and tough stems tear flesh and cloth alike - the long, sinuous creepers creeping along tracks can trip those whose eyes stray from the ground. Tales from Brambly Hedge tempt children to the underworld of the bramble where homely mice families create a secure glow of domestic bliss safe from the dangers outside. Picking blackberries remains very popular and a wistful childhood memory, captured by Seamus Heaney's poem Blackberry Picking. This also echoes the dual nature of the bramble as both tormentor and giver of soft treats. Another dark side to this very common plant is the clues it gives to forensic botanists who use the bramble as an indicator of changed ground, noting if its growing pattern shows signs of disturbance, they can even detect the time the plant was dug up and recovered.The bramble is the commoner of the woodland, but says Richard Mabey, it performs an essential job in protecting young trees. Today BlackBerry is a smart phone, called after the fruit because the inventors knew that any name related to the term "email" made people's blood pressure rise, so they went for a natural, playful, happy-memory inducing name. It has now been twisted into urban slang - "going blackberry picking" now means to go out and steal phones. The humble blackberry, and there are over 650 different species, has many hidden depths.

Burbot2015070720150713 (R4)

The burbot is the skulker under the rocks, the flabby, sour-faced cod of cold, fresh water. It is not loved for its looks, but it was once prized for its body.

At one time it was common here but has now gone from UK shores, believed extinct in the 1960s.

This is the only member of the cod family that lives in fresh water and for centuries it swam in the eastern part of England to be pursued by fishermen for its firm, white flesh and unbelievably rich liver oils.

Barbot Hall in Rotherham and Burbolt Lane in Cambridge show it was once important - and so common that some records say it was fed to pigs.

In North America it is a common angling fish; but in the early 20th century, the rich oils were so prized the Burbot Fishing Company processed half a million fish a year.

It is still found in Europe and Russia. Chekhov wrote a comic story, The Burbot, showing how this Cinderella of fish could outwit even the aristocracy.

Some want the burbot restored to our waterways, arguing in the present desire to re-wild it should be allowed to live here once more. After all, the burbot was so much a part of our culture; it was pictured in cigarette cards and cards found in packets of Brooke Bond tea. However, others say it is best to leave it as a faint memory as climate change will make its life unbearable.

Either way, the burbot is a reminder of how quickly we forget what was once so common.

Butterflies2015061620150622 (R4)

Shards of stained glass falling through sunlight - the butterfly is an image of beauty. Delicate, colourful yet exquisitely fragile we have painted and eulogised the butterfly from time immemorial.

A "butterfly mind" skips from subject to subject... they are modern metaphors for the trivial and light-hearted. Yet we forget that at times some butterflies have been used as menacing creatures.

Their eye-spots, used to deter predators, were interpreted as eyes watching you from hedgerow and meadow to make sure no lewd behaviour happened in the fields. The deep, blood red colour of the red admiral was seen as a sign of Christ's crucifixion and therefore a symbol of suffering a death.

The butterfly metamorphoses between body forms, reminding us that our earthly body will one day be transformed.

Butterflies have also been the subject of overwhelming passion. Intense, obsessive collectors have chased them over every continent, even shooting them from the skies with guns and then trembling with overwhelming excitement as they put a blackened, torn creature into their displays. They are souls of the dead flying to heaven or an inspiration for fashion designers, or a symbol of death. Few creatures have had so much laid on their delicate shoulders.

Today, butterflies are symbols of freedom and harmony with nature, the poster insects for a utopia where people and nature are at one.

Brett Westwood explores why we have eulogised the butterfly from time immemorial.

Camel2016082320160829 (R4)

Brett Westwood follows the route trodden by the camel, from being a revered subject of Arabic eulogies to being reviled by Europeans - and now being ridden by tiny robot jockeys.

Camel2016082320160829 (R4)

Brett Westwood follows the route trodden by the camel, from being a revered subject of Arabic eulogies to being reviled by Europeans - and now being ridden by tiny robot jockeys.

Carp2016071220160718 (R4)

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 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 ornamental koi carp has become the pet fish of choice for many with money to spare; and, around the world, various cultures continue to value as a food the cartilaginous fish with a face that only a mother could love. Producer: Tim Dee.

Carp2016071220160718 (R4)

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 ornamental koi carp has become the pet fish of choice for many with money to spare; and, around the world, various cultures continue to value as a food the cartilaginous fish with a face that only a mother could love. Producer: Tim Dee.

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.

Chameleon20161011

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 explores nature that has had an impact on human culture.

Chameleon2016101120161017 (R4)

Brett Westwood tracks down nature's master of disguise - the chameleon.

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 explores nature that has had an impact on human culture.

Cockroach2015110320151109 (R4)

For as long as humans have been around, we've had the cockroach as an uninvited house guest. No other creepy-crawly has the power to elicit such strong feelings: the horror of uncleanliness and the involuntary shudder that only a scuttling cockroach can bring, as it vanishes behind the bread bin.

But they've entered our imaginations as well as our living spaces. We may have given the cockroach its dark reputation, but this insect is a survivor. Disgusting and revolting are some of the more polite descriptions we use for cockroaches. Is that because we associate them with squalor and poor hygiene, or because they hold a mirror up to the less savoury side of human nature?

But there is a different side to this great survivor. Probably the most famous cockroach in literature is Franz Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis. Films such as Men in Black use the cockroach as a metaphor for alien arrivals. The cockroach can feed our imagination in other ways too. Its reputation can also be turned inward to explore humanity, satirically described by Archy the cockroach early last Century. It's no wonder then that in Australia, attempts were made to bring the worlds biggest cockroach to the tourism trail.

Brett Westwood explores how the cockroach has influenced society, satire and tourism.

Coral2015072120150727 (R4)

can take on many forms from branching, tree like structures to flat table tops. They are colourful and bright, often described as underwater gardens. Yet they are double edged beauties.

Their ragged structure tore the hulls from wooden ships, causing the death of many sailors. Poisonous fish lurk amidst the beauty and sharks patrol the edges.

Charles Darwin's ship The Beagle had the task of mapping coral reefs, so dangerous were they to shipping, and they formed the topic of his first book. Darwin couldn't see the reefs underwater, but he still managed to work out how they formed, leaping from top to top with the aid of a "leaping stick".

Coral has entered our literature with tales of paradise islands, from Ballantyne's The Coral Island in the 19th century, where three young boys create paradise, to the flip side in Golding's Lord of the Flies. Paradise though was shattered between 1946 and 1958. This was the dawn of the nuclear age when deep wells were sunk into tropical reefs in the Pacific and bombs detonated. But it was the drilling cores that proved Darwin was right, over 100 years after he proposed his theory.

More recently coral reefs were the setting for the film Finding Nemo, a film so popular it set off a craze for clown fish as pets, causing real concern for the future of clown fish on many tropical reefs. According to National Geographic, demand for clown fish in aquaria tripled after the film was released. In response to the concern some aquarium owners decided to release their fish back into the wild, but unfortunately in the wrong place, causing the clown fish to become an invasive alien species.

Such is the tangled web we humans weave!

But no matter the reality, we seem to crave the vision of paradise that coral reefs provide. They will always be glorious places in our hearts and minds.

Coral can take on many forms from branching, tree like structures to flat table tops. They are colourful and bright, often described as underwater gardens. Yet they are double edged beauties.

Cow20170704

The peaceful, hefty, cud-chewing beasts which have transformed our societies.

Brett Westwood investigates the peaceful, hefty, cud-chewing beasts which have been by our side for thousands of years. In Natural Histories we find out what Shakespeare made of this special relationship, hear Dinka songs from the intense cattle-based cultures of South Sudan and travel to a Leicestershire dairy where robots do the milking. It's a pastoral scene and a violent one too: the fearsome virility of the bull in the poetry of Lorca, sacred cows prompting vigilante violence in India, and a Greek tyrant who would bake his victims alive in a giant metal bull, its resonance turning their cries to moos. From all this bovine history it's clear that the domestication of the cow has fundamentally changed human society.

Producer: Melvin Rickarby.

Cow20170710

The peaceful, hefty, cud-chewing beasts which have transformed our societies.

Brett Westwood investigates the peaceful, hefty, cud-chewing beasts which have been by our side for thousands of years. In Natural Histories we find out what Shakespeare made of this special relationship, hear Dinka songs from the intense cattle-based cultures of South Sudan and travel to a Leicestershire dairy where robots do the milking. It's a pastoral scene and a violent one too: the fearsome virility of the bull in the poetry of Lorca, sacred cows prompting vigilante violence in India, and a Greek tyrant who would bake his victims alive in a giant metal bull, its resonance turning their cries to moos. From all this bovine history it's clear that the domestication of the cow has fundamentally changed human society.

Producer: Melvin Rickarby

Picture: 'Jogoth Mata-Go Lukhi, ca. 1960. India' courtesy of Museum of International Folk Art, gift of the Girard Foundation Collection, A.1981.28.574.

Cricket2016110120161107 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with crickets and tunes in to their songs.

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.

Cricket2016110120161107 (R4)

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.

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with crickets and tunes in to their songs.

Crocodiles20150929

Not many creatures can boast being a god, a sports logo, a sly trickster, a bringer of fertility, a producer of false tears and a comic book hero, but then not many animals have lived on earth for as long as the crocodile. It is a cold-bloodied killer, using crude techniques to crush and drown its prey, but it is a master of survival over millions of years. In the Nile, where they grow to 7 metres and 1000 kilogrammes, they were revered as gods; they even had their own city Crocodilopolis where mummified crocs were the subject of long, sacred rituals. Cleopatra viewed herself as a sexy crocodile devouring Mark Anthony. More recently they were used by JM Barrie in Peter Pan to bring us the much loved ticking time-bomb that silently chased Captain Cook. We are in awe of their lightning fast movements and cold, ruthless character. The famous tennis player Rene Lacoste was considered such a ferocious player he was nicknamed The Crocodile, and the iconic sports logo was born. Our relationship with crocodiles is complex, a mixture of fear and reverence. Today we are finding more about the non-predatory side of their lives - how they use tools and cooperate. The crocodile continues to beguile us.

Cuckoo20170808

The cuckoo has many secrets but has got under our skin. Brett Westwood asks why.

We know the cuckoo for its song and think of it as the harbinger of spring. But we also know it as a rascally bird that abandons its young to the care of unwitting foster parents. Such a double life has ensured that the cuckoo has had a substantial place in the culture of all the countries across Europe and Asia where it comes to breed. In addition, observers, natural historians and scientists have long puzzled over the bird's secretive behaviour and habits - how do they do what they do, where do they go when they are not here, why are we losing them in England? Brett Westwood in the company of various field workers who have spent lifetimes trying to figure out cuckoos explores the rich and tangled life of the bird. With Nick Davies, Jenny York, Mark Cocker, and Chris Hewson and readings by Anton Lesser and a gone-cuckoo song by Hanna Tuulikki. Producer: Tim Dee.

Cuckoo2017080820170814
Cuckoo20170814
Cuckoo20170814

The cuckoo has many secrets but has got under our skin. Brett Westwood asks why.

We know the cuckoo for its song and think of it as the harbinger of spring. But we also know it as a rascally bird that abandons its young to the care of unwitting foster parents. Such a double life has ensured that the cuckoo has had a substantial place in the culture of all the countries across Europe and Asia where it comes to breed. In addition, observers, natural historians and scientists have long puzzled over the bird's secretive behaviour and habits - how do they do what they do, where do they go when they are not here, why are we losing them in England? Brett Westwood in the company of various field workers who have spent lifetimes trying to figure out cuckoos explores the rich and tangled life of the bird. With Nick Davies, Jenny York, Mark Cocker, and Chris Hewson and readings by Anton Lesser and a gone-cuckoo song by Hanna Tuulikki. Producer: Tim Dee.

Daffodils2015082520150831 (R4)

Wordsworth's famous poem is always in the top 5 most loved poems in English. His encounter with daffodils in the Lake District has become a romantic expression of our relationship with nature. They are radiant beauties that bring hope to the heart after the long winter months. A A Milne also wrote charmingly about daffodils laughing off winter in his poetry for children. The native flowers are delicate and small, unlike the cultivated, rather brash varieties that adorn roadside verges and roundabouts, creating much daffodil snobbery. Daffodils are the national flower of Wales, though only since the 19th Century, promoted by Lloyd George who thought them more attractive than leeks. Attractiveness though led them to be associated with vanity, the Greek Narcissus (daffodils in Latin: narcissus) fell in love with his own reflection and pined away. Their appearance in Lent gives them the name Lenten Lilly and associated with resurrection, but in Eastern cultures it is the flower of wealth and good fortune. It has been used throughout history as a medicine, despite being toxic. Today it is grown extensively in Wales as its bulb contains galantamine, a drug used in the treatment of Alzheimer's. Whatever way you look at daffodils they are quintessentially a part of human cultures wherever it grows and can be considered the flower that brightens Britain after long, cold winters.

Dinosaurs2015072820150803 (R4)

Our collective imaginations go wild at the thought of lumbering, ferocious beasts that were so powerful they once ruled the earth. T Rex scares us witless and diplodocus was an astonishing creature of breath taking proportions. It is no wonder then that dinosaur books, especially for children, appeared in the early nineteenth century and are still flying of the shelves today.

Dinosaur exhibitions always draw throngs of people. From the Crystal Palace dinosaurs in London built in the mid 19th Century to the wonderful animatronic models in today's modern museums, these ancient beasts speak to us of a different planet earth, lost in deep time, gone for ever. Yet they have left us bones and teeth that are still revealing amazing facts. Recent science shows most dinosaurs were not cold bloodied reptiles but warm blooded, feathered and colourful. They lived for 160 million years, occupying a warm humid planet rich in vegetation.

When we use the world 'dinosaur' we mean it as a derogatory term for someone who can't adapt but nothing could be further from the truth. These were supreme rulers that were brought down by an Act of God that defies imagination. So huge was the impact of the meteorite that the earth went cold and dark. Dinosaurs though will never leave us, we will take them with us into the future, in our stories, films and science and we will learn from their old bones ever more details about life on earth, and how even the most successful creatures on earth are, in reality, so fragile.

Brett Westwood explores how dinosaurs are influencing our stories, films and science.

Dodo20170613

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with that icon of extinction, the dodo.

The Dodo is a byword for extinction and whilst none of us have ever seen a living Dodo it somehow feels familiar even though we know virtually nothing about it. As Brett Westwood traces our relationship with this icon of extinction, he meets a man whose home is a shrine of Dodo memorabilia, follows the auction of a Dodo skeleton, hears how a head and a foot inspired a famous Caucus race and handles a selection of beautiful Dodo bones. With the help of Lewis Carroll, this bizarre looking bird has captured our hearts and imagination, whilst the true story of this flightless pigeon is a poignant tale. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Dodo20170619

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with that icon of extinction, the dodo.

The Dodo is a byword for extinction and whilst none of us have ever seen a living Dodo it somehow feels familiar even though we know virtually nothing about it. As Brett Westwood traces our relationship with this icon of extinction, he meets a man whose home is a shrine of Dodo memorabilia, follows the auction of a Dodo skeleton, hears how a head and a foot inspired a famous Caucus race and handles a selection of beautiful Dodo bones. With the help of Lewis Carroll, this bizarre looking bird has captured our hearts and imagination, whilst the true story of this flightless pigeon is a poignant tale. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Dragonfly20160920

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.

Dragonfly2016092020160926 (R4)

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.

Earthworm20170725

Brett Westwood investigates our relationship with earthworms.

Whilst we might take them for granted, Aristotle described them as the Intestines of the earth and Charles Darwin recognised their importance when he wrote "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures". As Brett Westwood discovers these 'ecosystem engineers' play a vital role in aerating our soils, aiding drainage, clearing up pollutants and if you're a Gippsland giant and measure up to 3m in length, making themselves heard from below ground! They have also wormed their way into our literature, charmed our culture and burrowed into our language. Producer: Sarah Blunt.

Earthworm20170731
Eel20170822

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the mysterious and fascinating eel.

We have been catching and eating them for centuries; jellied, smoked or stewed and yet there is still much we don't know about the life of an eel as Brett Westwood discovers when he joins a traditional eel fisherman on the banks of a river in Dorset and learns about bobs and worms. Eel skins were once worn as wedding rings and their heads used as finger puppets in Ely, otherwise known as the Isle of Eels which today holds an annual festival to celebrate all things 'eel' from a giant eel paraded through the streets to the World Eel throwing competition! Producer Sarah Blunt.

Eel20170828
Eel20170828

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the mysterious and fascinating eel.

We have been catching and eating them for centuries; jellied, smoked or stewed and yet there is still much we don't know about the life of an eel as Brett Westwood discovers when he joins a traditional eel fisherman on the banks of a river in Dorset and learns about bobs and worms. Eel skins were once worn as wedding rings and their heads used as finger puppets in Ely, otherwise known as the Isle of Eels which today holds an annual festival to celebrate all things 'eel' from a giant eel paraded through the streets to the World Eel throwing competition! Producer Sarah Blunt.

Elephant2016092720161003 (R4)

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.

Brett Westwood tracks our cultural relationship with the elephant, from a 5-headed white beast arising from a cosmic ocean, to an elephant riding a bicycle to gasps in the big top.

Elephant2016092720161003 (R4)

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.

Brett Westwood tracks our cultural relationship with the elephant, from a 5-headed white beast arising from a cosmic ocean, to an elephant riding a bicycle to gasps in the big top.

Fleas2015111020151116 (R4)

Throughout history, human fleas have been one of our closest companions; the irritating bedfellows of everyone from kings and queens to the poorest in society. Brett Westwood discovers how the flea has been a carrier of disease, causing suffering on an enormous scale. But, despite being a danger and a pest, their proximity has led to us to try to understand them and find humour in them.

The esteemed British naturalist Dame Miriam Rothschild was one of the world's leading experts on fleas and led an investigation into how they propel themselves to such speed and distance from their minuscule frame. As parasites, their ability to jump onto hosts to suck their blood led to fleas being charged with sexual energy in the 16th century. Poets wrote entertainingly intimate poems of their jealousy that the flea could jump onto areas of a beautiful woman that they themselves would be unable to reach.

The comedic role of the flea continued into the era of the flea circus when they pulled miniature metal chariots several times their weight and their role as performers didn't end there - leading on into early cinema and even tourism. They may have been often overlooked but fleas have had a stark impact on our lives.

Brett Westwood learns how fleas are entwined with disease, love, language and humour.

Fly2016060720160613 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores the nature and the culture of flies.

Houseflies, bluebottles, fruit flies - Brett Westwood explores how these flies that live close to us have buzzed in our imagination but have also taught us much about who we are. A scholar of literature, a genetic investigator, a naturalist, a forensic entomologist and a plain fly-lover come together to talk flies: Steve Connor, Peter Lawrence, Peter Marren, Martin Hall, and Erica McAlister. Readers: Anton Lesser and Niamh Cusack. Producer: Tim Dee.

Fly2016060720160613 (R4)

Houseflies, bluebottles, fruit flies - Brett Westwood explores how these flies that live close to us have buzzed in our imagination but have also taught us much about who we are. A scholar of literature, a genetic investigator, a naturalist, a forensic entomologist and a plain fly-lover come together to talk flies: Steve Connor, Peter Lawrence, Peter Marren, Martin Hall, and Erica McAlister. Readers: Anton Lesser and Niamh Cusack. Producer: Tim Dee.

Brett Westwood explores the nature and the culture of flies.

Fly Agaric20161115

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.

Fly Agaric2016111520161121 (R4)

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.

Fox2016071920160725 (R4)

Brett Westwood investigates the biology and culture of the fox.

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 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 mediaeval bestseller Reynard the Fox, a fox seduction in an abandoned ruin, and a stakeout in a Bristol backgarden with urban fox expert Professor Stephen Harris.

Fox2016071920160725 (R4)

Brett Westwood investigates the biology and culture of the fox.

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 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 mediaeval bestseller Reynard the Fox, a fox seduction in an abandoned ruin, and a stakeout in a Bristol backgarden with urban fox expert Professor Stephen Harris.

Giant Squid2015062320150629 (R4)

Brett Westwood tries to uncover the truth about the elusive giant squid. Is it the monster literature portrays lurking in the deep of the ocean or a timid misunderstood creature?

Tennyson evokes the deep, slumbering Kraken as a monster slumbering in the cold, dark depths of the ocean. Twenty Thousand Leagues brings that monster into focus as it tries to drag a ship underwater and devour the terrified crew. Where did these stories come from?

The Odyssey was the first known piece of literature to suggest a tentacle beast of the sea and it has never left our imagination. Yet when a giant squid was filmed by Japanese scientists, and then one was fished out of the ocean near the Falklands, we now see that giant squid are extraordinary, rather beautiful creatures.

Far from being a terrifying monster they peck delicately at their food and are afraid of loud noises. For a monster they are remarkably timid. With recent discoveries and increasing knowledge have we vanquished the monster from the deep? Or will our need for monsters mean we create another, even stranger beast? Or perhaps now that our sea faring days exploring the unknown oceans are over will our monsters come from outer space, the last frontier?

Will we always need a monster to scare us? Many academics say yes - if you want to know what a society is frightened of, look at its monsters.

Giraffe20171107

Brett Westwood admires how the impossibility of the giraffe has captured hearts worldwide.

Brett Westwood admires how the impossible-looking creature once known as the 'camelopard' went from a beloved creature in the African plains to becoming a worldwide sensation spreading 'giraffemania' as news and sightings of its striking beauty travelled around the world. Author Michael Allin tells the story of 'Zarafa' a giraffe taken from Ethiopia to the docks of Marseille that then walked into the heart of Paris, art historian Dr Alexandra Loske describes how King George IV's ailing giraffe was a metaphor for his rule of Britain. We hear from a man whose project sent giraffes viral way before the internet had been taken over by cat and dog memes and we take a more serious look at how giraffe numbers are falling but the world seems not to be listening.

Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Grass20170718

Brett Westwood investigates our obsession with grass.

It's given us our oldest stories, made England a green and pleasant land, and has even helped shape our brains. Natural Histories investigates our obsession with grass. Humans evolved in the grasslands and the major food crops (all grasses) have made us what we are. Thousands of years later it even gives suburban man an energy and a purpose through the summer. Though not Brett Westwood, who leads us through haymeadows, wheatfields and across garden lawns to Wembley stadium in his quest to appreciate a neatly manicured piece of turf. With poetry by Philip Larkin and John Clare, and music by Beethoven, Thomas Morley and Wilson Pickett. Plus the sound of author Tim Dee, the Honda rotary mower, grass expert Howard Thomas, artists Ackroyd and Harvey, Oxford gardener Simon Bagnall, historian Oliver Cox and groundsman Karl Standley.

Produced by Melvin Rickarby.

Grass20170724
Great Auk2016081620160822 (R4)

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.

Great Auk2016081620160822 (R4)

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.

Gull20171010

Brett Westwood follows gulls away from the sea to landfill sites where birdwatchers gather

Brett Westwood follows gulls away from the sea and explores how they thrive in cities and at the landfill sites where birders gather to watch and ring them. Featuring Dominic Mitchell who spotted the UK's first slaty-backed gull, Viola Ross-Smith of the British Trust for Ornithology, Peter Rock on the Bristol urban gull study, artist Mark Dion who built the Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit and Dr Chris Pawson who headed up a study into the behaviour of gulls and our attitudes towards them.

Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Gull20171010

Brett Westwood follows gulls away from the sea to landfill sites where birdwatchers gather

Brett Westwood follows gulls away from the sea and explores how they thrive in cities and at the landfill sites where birders gather to watch and ring them. Featuring Dominic Mitchell who spotted the UK's first slaty-backed gull, Viola Ross-Smith of the British Trust for Ornithology, Peter Rock on the Bristol urban gull study, artist Mark Dion who built the Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit and Dr Chris Pawson who headed up a study into the behaviour of gulls and our attitudes towards them.

Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Gull20171016

Brett Westwood follows gulls away from the sea to landfill sites where birdwatchers gather

Brett Westwood follows gulls away from the sea and explores how they thrive in cities and at the landfill sites where birders gather to watch and ring them. Featuring Dominic Mitchell who spotted the UK's first slaty-backed gull, Viola Ross-Smith of the British Trust for Ornithology, Peter Rock on the Bristol urban gull study, artist Mark Dion who built the Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit and Dr Chris Pawson who headed up a study into the behaviour of gulls and our attitudes towards them.

Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Gull20171016

Brett Westwood follows gulls away from the sea to landfill sites where birdwatchers gather

Brett Westwood follows gulls away from the sea and explores how they thrive in cities and at the landfill sites where birders gather to watch and ring them. Featuring Dominic Mitchell who spotted the UK's first slaty-backed gull, Viola Ross-Smith of the British Trust for Ornithology, Peter Rock on the Bristol urban gull study, artist Mark Dion who built the Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit and Dr Chris Pawson who headed up a study into the behaviour of gulls and our attitudes towards them.

Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Hare20170620

The hare - a creature that is both mysterious and magical as Brett Westwood discovers.

There is a roof boss in a church in Devon of three hares running after one another in a circle. Whilst three hares can be clearly seen and each hare has two ears, when you count the ears there are only three. What does this motif mean and where else can it be found? All is revealed when Brett Westwood goes in search of the truth about the elusive and magical Mad March Hare, learns about an ancient coin bearing the image of a hare, and has an unforgettable encounter with several wild hares on a Norfolk farm. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Hare20170626

The hare - a creature that is both mysterious and magical as Brett Westwood discovers.

There is a roof boss in a church in Devon of three hares running after one another in a circle. Whilst three hares can be clearly seen and each hare has two ears, when you count the ears there are only three. What does this motif mean and where else can it be found? All is revealed when Brett Westwood goes in search of the truth about the elusive and magical Mad March Hare, learns about an ancient coin bearing the image of a hare, and has an unforgettable encounter with several wild hares on a Norfolk farm. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Honeyguide2016101820161024 (R4)

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 tells the singular story of the African bird that leads people to honey.

Honeyguide20161018

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.

Hornbill2015101320151019 (R4)

Exotic and bizarre, hornbills wowed European society when the first live specimens arrived in the nineteenth century. Their almost human like walk combined with their unbelievable bills and strange calls presented an image of nature most Europeans had never encountered. When their odd breeding behaviour became known - the males seal up the female in a hole in a tree cavity so that only her beak can protrude for weeks on end - they became great curiosities. The bill of the helmeted hornbill was particularly prized for carving the Victorian obsession - netsuke. Beautifully coloured, especially if reddened by the oil from a preen gland, the "ivory" became the most sought after material for Victorian display cabinets. Hornbill ivory is still so highly prized by the Chinese that the helmeted hornbill is on the verge of extinction; its bill fetches a higher price than elephant ivory. However in their Indonesian homeland they are seen as mythical creatures that guard the thin veil between life and death, ferrying souls between the earth and heaven. This sacred belief is now being used by modern conservationists to help protect them as they disappear at an alarming rate from the face of the earth. Because many of the Asian Hornbills nest in the largest trees, they are at greatest risk from loggers, legal or illegal, and therefore stand as flagship species for forest conservation in SE Asia.

Brett Westwood explores how hornbills have influenced art, religion and feminism.

Leech2016080220160808 (R4)

Brett Westwood is sucked into the weird and wonderful world of the leech.

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.

Leopard20171114

Brett Westwood stalks the leopard and finds him on Exmoor.

Brett Westwood stalks the leopard.. and finds him on Exmoor. With Guy Balme of Panthera, Gordon Buchanan, who filmed the urban leopards of Mumbai for Planet Earth, zoologist and author of Leopard Desmond Morris, Rick Minter, author of Big Cats - Facing Britain's Wild Predators and Danny Reynolds, Director of Exmoor Zoo. With readings by Lia Williams of The Snow Leopard by Stephen Dunn and Leopard Skin by Douglas Stewart.
Producer Beth O'Dea. Photo of Zoysa the black leopard (commonly known as a black panther) courtesy of Exmoor Zoo.

Lions2015063020150706 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores how lions have been harnessed by humans as a symbol of strength and power throughout the ages.

For hundreds of years two beasts lay beneath the mud of the moat surrounding the Tower of London. Only when workmen dug them up in 1935 did the sun warm their bones once more. They were once kept as fearsome gatekeepers, reminding people visiting the king exactly where power lay - or that was the idea. In reality they were diseased, malnourished and died young.

From the exquisitely depicted lions painted on cave walls in the Palaeolithic through to those kept in the Tower of London and the lions sitting around Nelson's column this programme looks at how we have used lions.

Lions are used in literature to represent authority and majesty, and C S Lewis used a lion - Aslan - to be the figure of Christ, a mysterious, wild presence that cannot be tamed.

However, this attention has come at great cost. Barbary lions, the magnificently-maned North African species most used by the Romans for gladiatorial combat and dispatching Christians, were so over-exploited they are now extinct: the first documented example of mass extinction on the mainland at the hands of humans.

We might be able to breed them back again from lions in zoos that have Barbary genes still present, but should we? Would these magnificent beasts become just a curiosity, no different to those in the Tower? Maybe they had best remain as a poignant example of how power can destroy.

Lobster2016070520160711 (R4)

Brett Westwood looks at how the lobster is a creature that when drawn up from the deep is made to shed its natural identity as an ancient predator of the sea floor and has become an improbable sex symbol, an epicure's delight, a muse for surrealist artists a fearsome little nipper thanks to those pincers. Not all lobsters have claws, but the ones in this programme do. They're the European and American species, which come equipped with enormous claws like oversized boxing gloves, and a tough armour evolved to withstand the rigours of life on the rocks. Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Lobster2016070520160711 (R4)

Brett Westwood looks at how the lobster is a creature that when drawn up from the deep is made to shed its natural identity as an ancient predator of the sea floor and has become an improbable sex symbol, an epicure's delight, a muse for surrealist artists a fearsome little nipper thanks to those pincers. Not all lobsters have claws, but the ones in this programme do. They're the European and American species, which come equipped with enormous claws like oversized boxing gloves, and a tough armour evolved to withstand the rigours of life on the rocks. Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Louse20170829

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with one of our closest neighbours, the louse.

They infest our bodies and our clothes, are amongst our closet neighbours, have been made famous by Robert Burns and yet they are only a few millimetres in size. Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the louse; a creature that has lived alongside since our earliest evolution. Whether it's the head, clothes or crab lice these ancient creatures both repel and fascinate us. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Louse20170829

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with one of our closest neighbours, the louse.

They infest our bodies and our clothes, are amongst our closet neighbours, have been made famous by Robert Burns and yet they are only a few millimetres in size. Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the louse; a creature that has lived alongside since our earliest evolution. Whether it's the head, clothes or crab lice these ancient creatures both repel and fascinate us. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Louse20170904
Louse20170904
Mammoths2015081120150817 (R4)

"Manny" the hairy, grumpy, yet ultimately caring hero of the animation series Ice Age sums up our love of these giants of the past. When a superbly preserved baby mammoth was displayed at the Natural History Museum she became a star attraction.

We are intrigued by the idea of a hairy elephant wandering our land so tantalisingly recently; the last mammoths are thought to have died out in Russia just 4,000 years ago. Bones of these huge elephants have often been found, people believing they were the remains of giants, or that they were the huge burrowing creatures that died underground.

Beautiful paintings of mammoths adorn ice age cave walls, symbolising our close relationships with these animals that provided us with so much cultural material. Not only mammoth meat but bones and tusks to build shelter, skins for walls, ivory for carvings and teeth for musical instruments; the first flute was a mammoth bone.

Music played on instruments made from mammoth bone created haunting sounds. Delicately carved tiny mammoths are found in places many miles from where mammoths lived, dating back at least 30,000 years. If they were alive today we would no doubt be protecting them from ivory traders, but as they are extinct, the mass of ivory bone being exhumed from the tundra (it is thought there are 150 million tusks buried there) is legally sent to China to be made into jewellery, trinkets and pieces of art.

Not far off 50% of the ivory entering China is mammoth. Some think it is a sustainable alternative to elephant ivory, others believe it keeps the whole trade alive. Should mammoth ivory be treated the same as elephant? Should mammoth become the first extinct animal to be listed as an endangered species?

"Manny" the hairy, grumpy, yet ultimately caring hero of the animation series Ice Age sums up our love of these giants of the past. When a superbly preserved baby mammoth was displayed at the Natural History Museum she became a star attraction. We are intrigued by the idea of a hairy elephant wandering our land so tantalisingly recently; the last mammoths are thought to have died out in Russia just 4,000 years ago. Bones of these huge elephants have often been found, people believing they were the remains of giants, or that they were the huge burrowing creatures that died underground. The mass of mammoth bones found in the North Sea suggest evidence for Noah's Flood. Beautiful paintings of mammoths adorn ice age cave walls, symbolising our close relationships with these animals that provided us with so much cultural material. Not only mammoth meat but bones and tusks to build shelter, skins for walls, ivory for carvings and teeth for musical instruments; the first flute was a mammoth bone. Music played on instruments made from mammoth bone created haunting sounds. Delicately carved tiny mammoths are found in places many miles from where mammoths lived, dating back at least 30,000 years. If they were alive today we would no doubt be protecting them from ivory traders, but as they are extinct, the mass of ivory bone being exhumed from the tundra (it is thought there are 150 million tusks buried there is legally sent to China to be made into jewellery, trinkets and pieces of art. Not far off 50% of the ivory entering China is mammoth. Some think it is a sustainable alternative to elephant ivory, others believe it keeps the whole trade alive. Should mammoth ivory be treated the same as elephant? Should mammoth become the first extinct animal to be listed as an endangered species?

Meteorites20150804

For thousands of years we have marvelled at the stones that fell from the sky. They were mysterious messages from the heavens; omens of luck and favour. Ancient Egyptians buried them in their tomb and Terry Pratchett put meteorite iron into his home made sword to enhance its mystical properties.

Myths and legends about meteorites abound in all cultures. In religious art they are visions in the sky foretelling of the apocalypse. Interest in them rocketed when it was finally accepted, as late as the 1970s that they did kill the dinosaurs, a scientific debate that took many years to settle and was hard fought. Meteorites are marvels; they are fragments of other worlds come to our home to remind us we are not alone and that above the sky there is a dynamic, restless universe.

Today people still believe meteorites contain magical minerals. The bizarre plants, Venus flytraps, only grow in the areas meteorites are found (by coincidence) and were thought to be plants brought down from another planet. We are all touched by the mystery of meteorites and today they are helping unravel the mysteries of our own solar system - and beyond.

Monkeys And Apes2015060220150608 (R4)

Happy Jerry was a mandrill who found his way to London on a slave ship and ended up smoking a pipe and having dinner with the king. It is a curious tale of humanity in search of itself.

Peering into the eyes of a primate we see a reflection of ourselves and that has been an enduring fascination through time. It was thought in the 18th Century that the only reason chimps didn't talk in front of people was because they were afraid we would enslave them.

From King Kong to the PG Tea chimps, we have exploited their similarity to ourselves to create fear and humour. They are so similar yet so different, so close to our behaviour yet they shock and appal us with their distinctly animal like traits.

In Victorian times gorillas were often presented in museums in a ferocious pose charging towards the observer, a pose more reflecting the fact it was being shot at and defending itself rather than a true likeness of the reality of ape life. Today however they are seen as dignified vegetarians of the forest, huge yet gentle, demanding our hushed respect.

Documentaries on primates are always amongst the most popular as we pick apart their lives for yet ever more detailed clues about how we are alike yet still worlds apart.

Moth20170926

Brett Westwood steps into the world of a creature charged with the lore of the night.

Moth20170926

Brett Westwood steps into the world of a creature charged with the lore of the night.

Moth20171002

Brett Westwood steps into the world of a creature charged with the lore of the night.

Natural Histories Live - The Big Story20151223

Natural Histories: The Big Story

Lions, Sharks, Whales and Apes are four well known A-lister groups of animals that have got under our skin, enthralled us with their wildness and inspired literature, film, myth and legend. But so have Cockroaches and Fleas and the much lesser known Burbot and Mandrakes. Natural Histories has brought 25 groups of animals and plants together across 25 episodes to tell the stories of nature's influences on human culture from across the globe.

The Big Story, a special live event presented by satirical comedian Rory Bremner and Natural Histories presenter Brett Westwood tells a story of the earth from Dinosaurs to people. With comedy, music, readings and discussion all held in the spectacular Hinze Hall of the Natural History Museum. We tell a uniquely Big Story of 100 million years' worth of natural history.

Natural Histories Live - The Big Story2015122320151225 (R4)

Natural Histories: The Big Story

Lions, Sharks, Whales and Apes are four well known A-lister groups of animals that have got under our skin, enthralled us with their wildness and inspired literature, film, myth and legend. But so have Cockroaches and Fleas and the much lesser known Burbot and Mandrakes. Natural Histories has brought 25 groups of animals and plants together across 25 episodes to tell the stories of nature's influences on human culture from across the globe.

The Big Story, a special live event presented by satirical comedian Rory Bremner and Natural Histories presenter Brett Westwood tells a story of the earth from Dinosaurs to people. With comedy, music, readings and discussion all held in the spectacular Hinze Hall of the Natural History Museum. We tell a uniquely Big Story of 100 million years' worth of natural history.

Comedian Rory Bremner and presenter Brett Westwood tell stories of Earth's natural history

Nightingale20170912

Brett Westwood hears how the nightingale's song continues to inspire human creativity.

Brett Westwood soaks in a sound bath of nightingale song as he explores how this dull, brown bird continues to inspire human creativity. Featuring folk musician Sam Lee, philosopher and professor of music David Rothenberg, Bristol University reader Francesca MacKenney, the British Trust for Ornithology's Chris Hewson, poet Jack Thacker and Professor Stephanie Weiner of Wesleyan University. Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Nightingale20170912

Brett Westwood hears how the nightingale's song continues to inspire human creativity.

Brett Westwood soaks in a sound bath of nightingale song as he explores how this dull, brown bird continues to inspire human creativity. Featuring folk musician Sam Lee, philosopher and professor of music David Rothenberg, Bristol University reader Francesca MacKenney, the British Trust for Ornithology's Chris Hewson, poet Jack Thacker and Professor Stephanie Weiner of Wesleyan University. Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Nightingale20170918
Nightingale20170918

Brett Westwood hears how the nightingale's song continues to inspire human creativity.

Brett Westwood soaks in a sound bath of nightingale song as he explores how this dull, brown bird continues to inspire human creativity. Featuring folk musician Sam Lee, philosopher and professor of music David Rothenberg, Bristol University reader Francesca MacKenney, the British Trust for Ornithology's Chris Hewson, poet Jack Thacker and Professor Stephanie Weiner of Wesleyan University. Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Nightshades2015071420150720 (R4)

It is hard to think of a more diverse and wonderful group of plants. They enchant us, poison us, make us feel sexy, give us hallucinations, heal us and feed us.

The screaming mandrakes in Harry Potter and the shamanistic dreams of tribal elders eating giant trumpet flowers testify to the magical powers of this group.

Its culinary properties enhance the ever intricate flavours of modern cuisine while its fatal attractions have been used by murderers, most famously Dr Crippen.

This is the group that contains mandrake, potatoes, chillies, aubergines, deadly nightshade and tomatoes. These are the plants that have entered our culture through food and medicine, drugs and love.

It is strange that the European plants in the group are mainly poisonous yet those that grow in the New World are often spicy and enriching.

Fearing anything that looked like nightshade the first plants that were brought here from the New World were regarded with suspicion, yet quickly we adopted them, so much so that it is impossible to conceive of Italian food without tomatoes or Friday night fish and chips, yet they are aliens in a strange land. We have a lot to thank this group for.

It soothed us before anaesthetics, sent our imaginations flying and tempted us with alluring flavours - and they are still pushing the frontiers of both medicine and food today.

Oak2015102020151026 (R4)

is the symbol of noble endurance, loyalty, strength, constancy and longevity, and there are over 600 species. Heart of Oak is the official march of the Royal Navy - a rallying cry to brave sailors to guard our shores. Tennyson urges us to live our lives like the oak, to be "bright in spring, Living in gold." Its broad, pleasing shape, hard wood and prolific acorns, as well as the lovely shape of the leaves, establishes the oak as the nation's favourite tree.

As a timber its fine qualities also make it perfect for prestigious buildings, such as the debating chamber of the House of Commons. It is the symbol of Germany and the national tree of the US. In war it is used on medals of honour. The acorn has been eaten by many cultures and North American peoples revere the ancient oaks, their acorns made flour and the bark medicine. Oaks have inspired many moral tales. Huge, sturdy oaks grow slowly from small acorns and in The Man Who Planted Trees and old shepherd re-forests a barren valley by carefully and steadily planning a few acorns each day.

We have rested under oaks, climbed them, used their acorns, bark and wood. We have even made music from their tree rings. We see the oak as a symbol of virtue and goodness and in druidism the oak is central to beliefs that stretch back two millennia or more - no wonder we have a love affair with oaks.

Brett Westwood explores how the oak tree has influenced society, art and druidism.

Octopus20170815

Brett Westwood meets an octopus: perhaps the closest thing to an alien life form on earth.

Brett Westwood meets an octopus: perhaps the closest thing to an alien life form on earth. Three hearts, copper blood, autonomous arms, a parrot's beak - and a formidable intelligence to match. The sea monster of historical myth is now emerging as an animal worthy of respect and understanding.
Contributors: (in tentacle only) Luna, Giant Pacific Octopus; Rachel Farquar, Aquarist at Bristol Aquarium; Russell Arnott, educational presenter and consultant for Incredible Oceans; Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus and Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher and author of Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life. The reader is Jack Klaff.
Producer Beth O'Dea
Photo of Luna the Giant Pacific Octopus courtesy of Bristol Aquarium.

Octopus2017081520170821
Octopus20170821
Octopus20170821

Brett Westwood meets an octopus: perhaps the closest thing to an alien life form on earth.

Brett Westwood meets an octopus: perhaps the closest thing to an alien life form on earth. Three hearts, copper blood, autonomous arms, a parrot's beak - and a formidable intelligence to match. The sea monster of historical myth is now emerging as an animal worthy of respect and understanding.
Contributors: (in tentacle only) Luna, Giant Pacific Octopus; Rachel Farquar, Aquarist at Bristol Aquarium; Russell Arnott, educational presenter and consultant for Incredible Oceans; Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus and Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher and author of Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life. The reader is Jack Klaff.
Producer Beth O'Dea
Photo of Luna the Giant Pacific Octopus courtesy of Bristol Aquarium.

Owl2016061420160620 (R4)

s 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 specimen of the extinct laughing owl of New Zealand. 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 specimen of the extinct laughing owl of New Zealand. Producer: Tim Dee.

Owl2016061420160620 (R4)

s 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 specimen of the extinct laughing owl of New Zealand. 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 specimen of the extinct laughing owl of New Zealand. Producer: Tim Dee.

Oyster2016062120160627 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores the nature and culture of oysters.

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.

Oyster2016062120160627 (R4)

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.

Brett Westwood explores the nature and culture of oysters.

Parrots2015092220150928 (R4)

Colourful birds of the rainforest and companions of pirates, parrots evoke contradictory images. They encompass a huge range of forms from the flightless lumbering kakapo of New Zealand to the diminutive and talkative budgerigar of Australia, the chatty African grey parrot to the garishly colourful macaws of South America. Their striking appearance and apparent sense of mischief have made parrots popular as pets from ancient Egypt to the present day. During the 19th century their exoticism made them status symbols of wealth and luxury. Noted by a young Edward Lear who, believing the upper classes fascination with the family might be lucrative, set about the task of illustrating as many species of parrot as he could for their admirers to collect. Picture the teenage Lear crouching inside the parrot enclosure at London Zoo drawing the birds -the occasional face of his human observers appearing in his sketchbooks as he became an exhibit in himself. Lear's unique method of sketching his subjects from living rather than stuffed specimens captured the character of the birds in a way that had not been achieved before - even rivalling the celebrated Audubon for best bird illustrator of the time. Unfortunately after a series of set-back's Lear ceased natural history illustration in favour of writing nonsense poetry - including one about a parrot (There was an old man from Montrose...). The uncanny ability of some species of parrot to mimic the human voice only add to their appeal. The Popes had a keeper of parrots and Henry VIII was supposedly captivated by his. We cast parrots as the clowns of the natural world; painted in many colours they appear mischievous but innocent, playful but intelligent. But has our anthropomorphism of parrots limited our true understanding of the family? In the words of Mark Cocker "parrots are held in cages, but they are trapped in our imaginations".

Brett Westwood explores parrots and their effect on art, literature and society.

Rat2016100420161010 (R4)

Brett Westwood burrows into our complicated relationship with the rat.

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.

Rat2016100420161010 (R4)

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.

Brett Westwood burrows into our complicated relationship with the rat.

Raven2016110820161114 (R4)

Brett Westwood gets up close and personal with a bird we fear and revere, the Raven.

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.

Raven2016110820161114 (R4)

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.

Brett Westwood gets up close and personal with a bird we fear and revere, the Raven.

Reindeer20171121

Brett Westwood learns that there is more to reindeer than Rudolph.

Reindeer have been entwined with the lives of people living in the most northerly parts of the world for thousands of years, following the herds north as the Arctic ice retreated. Karen Anette Anti from a long line of Sami herds-people and Tilly Smith with her herd of reindeer in the Scottish Highlands, teach Brett Westwood that there's a lot more to reindeer than Rudolph. In a programme also featuring reindeer expert Dr. Nicholas Tyler, Palaeolithic archaeologists Dr. Felix Riede and Dr George Nash.

Rhino20171024
Rhino20171024

Brett Westwood meets a rhinoceros nose to nose and is blown away by the experience.

Brett Westwood meets a rhinoceros nose to nose and is blown away - by the sense of wonder engendered by this prehistoric-looking yet gentle and water-loving animal. Rhinos are now being wiped out at a frightening rate but when they first arrived in Europe they were hailed as the unicorn made manifest. With the help of zoologist Mark Carwardine, author of The Pope's Rhinoceros Lawrence Norfolk, rhino historian Kelly Enright and poet Kate Sutherland Brett traces the strange history of the relationship between rhinoceros and man.
With readings by Lia Williams of extracts from Rhinoceros Odyssey from How to Draw A Rhinoceros by Kate Sutherland, and Rhinoceros by Adrian Stoutenburg.

Producer Beth O'Dea.

Rhino20171030

Brett Westwood meets a rhinoceros nose to nose and is blown away by the experience.

Brett Westwood meets a rhinoceros nose to nose and is blown away - by the sense of wonder engendered by this prehistoric-looking yet gentle and water-loving animal. Rhinos are now being wiped out at a frightening rate but when they first arrived in Europe they were hailed as the unicorn made manifest. With the help of zoologist Mark Carwardine, author of The Pope's Rhinoceros Lawrence Norfolk, rhino historian Kelly Enright and poet Kate Sutherland Brett traces the strange history of the relationship between rhinoceros and man.
With readings by Lia Williams of extracts from Rhinoceros Odyssey from How to Draw A Rhinoceros by Kate Sutherland, and Rhinoceros by Adrian Stoutenburg.

Producer Beth O'Dea.

Rhino20171030

Brett Westwood meets a rhinoceros nose to nose and is blown away by the experience.

Brett Westwood meets a rhinoceros nose to nose and is blown away - by the sense of wonder engendered by this prehistoric-looking yet gentle and water-loving animal. Rhinos are now being wiped out at a frightening rate but when they first arrived in Europe they were hailed as the unicorn made manifest. With the help of zoologist Mark Carwardine, author of The Pope's Rhinoceros Lawrence Norfolk, rhino historian Kelly Enright and poet Kate Sutherland Brett traces the strange history of the relationship between rhinoceros and man.
With readings by Lia Williams of extracts from Rhinoceros Odyssey from How to Draw A Rhinoceros by Kate Sutherland, and Rhinoceros by Adrian Stoutenburg.

Producer Beth O'Dea.

Rose2016080920160815 (R4)

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.

Rose2016080920160815 (R4)

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.

Sharks2015060920150615 (R4)

Who can hear the word shark and not the music from the film Jaws? This 1975 film, based on a book from the previous year, is defined as a "watershed moment for sharks." From being little thought about by most people sharks were suddenly propelled into the lime light as fearsome, ruthless killers whose intent was to harm us humans. An entertaining film became the death warrant for millions of sharks. Our terminology is not helpful.

We find it impossible to speak about sharks without using emotive language: seas are "infested," sharks "menace" they "cruise around looking for a victim, they "invade" our swimming beaches etc. Crooks are "loan sharks."

In Hawaiian culture they are often seen as protectors or brave fighters in battle.

We have a difficult relationship with sharks. We have traded their teeth and eaten their fins, so much so that millions are now killed annually for this delicacy for the aristocracy. Damien Hurst has tried to capture the fear of the shark in his famous tank, allowing the viewer to stand next to an open mouth without being in danger. We will always be challenged by this supreme predator, if we allow it to survive in the wild.

Brett Westwood examines our fear and fascination with sharks in cultures around the world.

Snail20170905

Brett Westwood explores our complex relationship with the snail.

Snails have earned a terrible reputation among gardeners and growers as voracious pests - and yet these slow-moving molluscs have inspired both artists and writers, been made famous by a magic roundabout and provided us with food and sustenance for millennia. We have used snails to predict the true course of love, cure warts and smooth out our wrinkles (with varying degrees of success). As Brett Westwood discovers our relationship with them is multi-faceted and complex and so rather than evict them from your garden perhaps we should show them a little more respect. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Snail20170905

Brett Westwood explores our complex relationship with the snail.

Snails have earned a terrible reputation among gardeners and growers as voracious pests - and yet these slow-moving molluscs have inspired both artists and writers, been made famous by a magic roundabout and provided us with food and sustenance for millennia. We have used snails to predict the true course of love, cure warts and smooth out our wrinkles (with varying degrees of success). As Brett Westwood discovers our relationship with them is multi-faceted and complex and so rather than evict them from your garden perhaps we should show them a little more respect. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Snail20170911
Snail20170911

Brett Westwood explores our complex relationship with the snail.

Snails have earned a terrible reputation among gardeners and growers as voracious pests - and yet these slow-moving molluscs have inspired both artists and writers, been made famous by a magic roundabout and provided us with food and sustenance for millennia. We have used snails to predict the true course of love, cure warts and smooth out our wrinkles (with varying degrees of success). As Brett Westwood discovers our relationship with them is multi-faceted and complex and so rather than evict them from your garden perhaps we should show them a little more respect. Producer Sarah Blunt.

Snakes2015081820150824 (R4)

In much of the Christian West snakes don't get a good press, they are considered sly, even evil creatures that tempted Eve causing the downfall for all humanity - quite a burden to bear. The Bible is full of less than flattering references to snakes. Many people fear snakes and kill them on sight. Yet the image of a snake wrapped around a stick is the symbol of medicine. Our complex relationship with snakes means they are amongst the most persecuted creatures on earth. There is no denying that people have in inbuilt fear of snakes as psychological experiments show. DH Lawrence's poem The Snake encapsulates our contradictory relationship with serpents. He is mesmerised by the majesty of the snake, and honoured that it chose to be near him. After scaring the snake away he regrets his mean and petty action: "I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education." Snakes are wound intricately throughout our beliefs, art and literature.

Spider20160830

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.

Spider20160830

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.

Starling20170606

Brett Westwood explores our fascination with the starling and their winter murmurations.

Every Autumn vast numbers of continental starlings migrate here to take advantage of our milder winters. Huge flocks of a million birds or more swirl over their roost sites before settling down for the night. These impressive gatherings, called murmurations, are both remarkable and inspiring as Brett Westwood discovers as he visits a reed bed in Somerset. He also gets to grips with the physics of how the birds avoid each other in flight and hears from a sound artist who uses the patterns of starlings on a wire as musical staves. Plus a man whose starlings accompany him on the piano.

Starling20170612

Brett Westwood explores our fascination with the starling and their winter murmurations.

Every Autumn vast numbers of continental starlings migrate here to take advantage of our milder winters. Huge flocks of a million birds or more swirl over their roost sites before settling down for the night. These impressive gatherings, called murmurations, are both remarkable and inspiring as Brett Westwood discovers as he visits a reed bed in Somerset. He also gets to grips with the physics of how the birds avoid each other in flight and hears from a sound artist who uses the patterns of starlings on a wire as musical staves. Plus a man whose starlings accompany him on the piano.

Swallow20171003

Swift flies the skimming swallow: Brett Westwood on a much-loved seasonal-indicator bird.

One swallow doesn't make a summer but it comes close: Brett Westwood explores a much loved and inspirational bird whose own definition of happiness is a field of cow dung. Mark Cocker is in one such field in Derbyshire; Anders Pape Moller catches breeding swallows in a cow byre in Jutland; Angela Turner tells stories of how we've adored and exploited swallows, Anthony Roberts and Ellie Ness lead a swallow ringing on the Isle of Wight and we hear from Katrina Ibaken as she watches swallows in the Nigerian village of Ibaken. Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Swallow20171003

Swift flies the skimming swallow: Brett Westwood on a much-loved seasonal-indicator bird.

One swallow doesn't make a summer but it comes close: Brett Westwood explores a much loved and inspirational bird whose own definition of happiness is a field of cow dung. Mark Cocker is in one such field in Derbyshire; Anders Pape Moller catches breeding swallows in a cow byre in Jutland; Angela Turner tells stories of how we've adored and exploited swallows, Anthony Roberts and Ellie Ness lead a swallow ringing on the Isle of Wight and we hear from Katrina Ibaken as she watches swallows in the Nigerian village of Ibaken. Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Swallow20171009

Swift flies the skimming swallow: Brett Westwood on a much-loved seasonal-indicator bird.

One swallow doesn't make a summer but it comes close: Brett Westwood explores a much loved and inspirational bird whose own definition of happiness is a field of cow dung. Mark Cocker is in one such field in Derbyshire; Anders Pape Moller catches breeding swallows in a cow byre in Jutland; Angela Turner tells stories of how we've adored and exploited swallows, Anthony Roberts and Ellie Ness lead a swallow ringing on the Isle of Wight and we hear from Katrina Bradley as she watches swallows in the Nigerian village of Ibaken. Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Swallow20171009

Swift flies the skimming swallow: Brett Westwood on a much-loved seasonal-indicator bird.

One swallow doesn't make a summer but it comes close: Brett Westwood explores a much loved and inspirational bird whose own definition of happiness is a field of cow dung. Mark Cocker is in one such field in Derbyshire; Anders Pape Moller catches breeding swallows in a cow byre in Jutland; Angela Turner tells stories of how we've adored and exploited swallows, Anthony Roberts and Ellie Ness lead a swallow ringing on the Isle of Wight and we hear from Katrina Bradley as she watches swallows in the Nigerian village of Ibaken. Producer: Tom Bonnett.

Tardigrade20170627

An encounter with arguably the world's toughest animal albeit it one we rarely see.

Tardigrade20170703

An encounter with arguably the world's toughest animal albeit it one we rarely see.

When Brett Westwood heard he was going to encounter arguably 'the world's toughest animal' he didn't expect to find it on a garage roof in County Durham - but all became clear when he came face to face with the Tardigrade. First described in 1773 and so named because they resemble slow-moving bears, these microscopic animals are probably the closest thing to an alien we are likely to encounter. Capable of living without water and then being revived after 30 years, the Tardigrade or moss-piglet as they are also called, challenge our ideas about what defines life. And as if that wasn't enough, they are probably the cutest little creature you could hope to meet! Producer Sarah Blunt.

Tiger2016090620160912 (R4)

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 and Albert Museum, Chris Coggins, Professor of Geography and Asian studies at Bard College at Simon's Rock, 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 explores how tigers that once burnt bright reached the edge of extinction.

Tiger2016090620160912 (R4)

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 and Albert Museum, Chris Coggins, Professor of Geography and Asian studies at Bard College at Simon's Rock, 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 explores how tigers that once burnt bright reached the edge of extinction.

Toad2016102520161031 (R4)

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.

Toad2016102520161031 (R4)

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.

Turtle20171017

Brett Westwood explores how the venerable, ancient turtle has influenced human culture.

Brett Westwood explores how the venerable, slow moving and long-lived turtle has become a symbol of good fortune and stability while being hunted for tortoiseshell and turtle soup. Featuring Molokai the turtle and his keeper at the National Sea Life Centre Jonny Rudd, conservation scientist Professor Brendan Godley from the University of Exeter, documentary-maker Tran Le Thuy telling the story of a legendary turtle in Vietnam and Gregory McNamee who dives into the cultural world of turtles.

Producer: Eliza Lomas
Photo: National Sea Life Centre, Birmingham (Molokai).

Turtle20171023

Brett Westwood explores how the venerable, ancient turtle has influenced human culture.

Brett Westwood explores how the venerable, slow moving and long-lived turtle has become a symbol of good fortune and stability while being hunted for tortoiseshell and turtle soup. Featuring Molokai the turtle and his keeper at the National Sea Life Centre Jonny Rudd, conservation scientist Professor Brendan Godley from the University of Exeter, documentary-maker Tran Le Thuy telling the story of a legendary turtle in Vietnam and Gregory McNamee who dives into the cultural world of turtles.

Producer: Eliza Lomas
Photo: National Sea Life Centre, Birmingham (Molokai).

Wandering Albatross2016091320160919 (R4)

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 a Wanderer". Producer Sarah Blunt.

Brett Westwood examines our complex relations with an ocean icon, the wandering albatross.

Wandering Albatross2016091320160919 (R4)

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 a Wanderer". Producer Sarah Blunt.

Brett Westwood examines our complex relations with an ocean icon, the wandering albatross.

Whales2015111720151123 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores our complex relationship with the giants of the sea, whales. These vast creatures of the sea have undergone a remarkable transformation. Once feared as sea monsters they then became a valuable resource for oil, food, blubber and bone. In the 20th century, as their numbers dwindled, they suddenly became an image of fragility - a victim of humanity's ruthlessness. They moved from roaring sea monsters to creatures that sing and represent peace, a transformation created by the media.

Although there are many species of whale ranging in size and body shape, most people have one image in their minds, a kind of super-whale that amalgamates all that is good about nature. "Save the Whale" is a household slogan." This was demonstrated by the public reaction to the Thames Whale, a female Northern bottle-nosed whale that became stranded in London 10 years ago. People went into the water to try to save her, she was photographed, written about and sung about as people became entranced by her increasingly desperate plight. She was a wildlife media sensation. After her death popular newspapers even paid for the skeleton to be preserved in a glass case rather than broken up into drawers.

The media defines our view of the whale as either a wonder to be protected or a traditional resource to be exploited. Here in the UK the removal of the national treasure that is "Dippy the dinosaur" from the foyer of the Natural History Museum, to be replaced by a blue whale skeleton, shows how much this animal means to the public today.

Whales2015111720151123 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores our complex relationship with the giants of the sea, whales. These vast creatures of the sea have undergone a remarkable transformation. Once feared as sea monsters they then became a valuable resource for oil, food, blubber and bone. In the 20th century, as their numbers dwindled, they suddenly became an image of fragility - a victim of humanity's ruthlessness. They moved from roaring sea monsters to creatures that sing and represent peace, a transformation created by the media.

Although there are many species of whale ranging in size and body shape, most people have one image in their minds, a kind of super-whale that amalgamates all that is good about nature. "Save the Whale" is a household slogan." This was demonstrated by the public reaction to the Thames Whale, a female Northern bottle-nosed whale that became stranded in London 10 years ago. People went into the water to try to save her, she was photographed, written about and sung about as people became entranced by her increasingly desperate plight. She was a wildlife media sensation. After her death popular newspapers even paid for the skeleton to be preserved in a glass case rather than broken up into drawers.

The media defines our view of the whale as either a wonder to be protected or a traditional resource to be exploited. Here in the UK the removal of the national treasure that is "Dippy the dinosaur" from the foyer of the Natural History Museum, to be replaced by a blue whale skeleton, shows how much this animal means to the public today.

Wolf2016072620160801 (R4)

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

Photo of Mosi (l) and Torak (r) courtesy of Mike Collins.

Brett Westwood meets a wolf and considers the meaning of wolfishness in human culture.

Wolf2016072620160801 (R4)

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

Photo of Mosi (l) and Torak (r) courtesy of Mike Collins.

Brett Westwood meets a wolf and considers the meaning of wolfishness in human culture.

Yew2016112220161128 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the 'churchyard tree', the yew.

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.

Yew2016112220161128 (R4)

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.

Brett Westwood explores our relationship with the 'churchyard tree', the yew.

01Monkeys And Apes2015060220150608 (R4)

Happy Jerry was a mandrill who found his way to London on a slave ship and ended up smoking a pipe and having dinner with the king. It is a curious tale of humanity in search of itself.

Peering into the eyes of a primate we see a reflection of ourselves and that has been an enduring fascination through time. It was thought in the 18th Century that the only reason chimps didn't talk in front of people was because they were afraid we would enslave them.

From King Kong to the PG Tea chimps, we have exploited their similarity to ourselves to create fear and humour. They are so similar yet so different, so close to our behaviour yet they shock and appal us with their distinctly animal like traits.

In Victorian times gorillas were often presented in museums in a ferocious pose charging towards the observer, a pose more reflecting the fact it was being shot at and defending itself rather than a true likeness of the reality of ape life. Today however they are seen as dignified vegetarians of the forest, huge yet gentle, demanding our hushed respect.

Documentaries on primates are always amongst the most popular as we pick apart their lives for yet ever more detailed clues about how we are alike yet still worlds apart.

02Sharks2015060920150615 (R4)

Brett Westwood examines our fear and fascination with sharks in cultures around the world.

Who can hear the word shark and not the music from the film Jaws? This 1975 film, based on a book from the previous year, is defined as a "watershed moment for sharks." From being little thought about by most people sharks were suddenly propelled into the lime light as fearsome, ruthless killers whose intent was to harm us humans. An entertaining film became the death warrant for millions of sharks. Our terminology is not helpful.

We find it impossible to speak about sharks without using emotive language: seas are "infested," sharks "menace" they "cruise around looking for a victim, they "invade" our swimming beaches etc. Crooks are "loan sharks."

In Hawaiian culture they are often seen as protectors or brave fighters in battle.

We have a difficult relationship with sharks. We have traded their teeth and eaten their fins, so much so that millions are now killed annually for this delicacy for the aristocracy. Damien Hurst has tried to capture the fear of the shark in his famous tank, allowing the viewer to stand next to an open mouth without being in danger. We will always be challenged by this supreme predator, if we allow it to survive in the wild.

03Butterflies2015061620150622 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores why we have eulogised the butterfly from time immemorial.

Shards of stained glass falling through sunlight - the butterfly is an image of beauty. Delicate, colourful yet exquisitely fragile we have painted and eulogised the butterfly from time immemorial.

A "butterfly mind" skips from subject to subject... they are modern metaphors for the trivial and light-hearted. Yet we forget that at times some butterflies have been used as menacing creatures.

Their eye-spots, used to deter predators, were interpreted as eyes watching you from hedgerow and meadow to make sure no lewd behaviour happened in the fields. The deep, blood red colour of the red admiral was seen as a sign of Christ's crucifixion and therefore a symbol of suffering a death.

The butterfly metamorphoses between body forms, reminding us that our earthly body will one day be transformed.

Butterflies have also been the subject of overwhelming passion. Intense, obsessive collectors have chased them over every continent, even shooting them from the skies with guns and then trembling with overwhelming excitement as they put a blackened, torn creature into their displays. They are souls of the dead flying to heaven or an inspiration for fashion designers, or a symbol of death. Few creatures have had so much laid on their delicate shoulders.

Today, butterflies are symbols of freedom and harmony with nature, the poster insects for a utopia where people and nature are at one.

04Giant Squid2015062320150629 (R4)

Brett Westwood tries to uncover the truth about the elusive giant squid. Is it the monster literature portrays lurking in the deep of the ocean or a timid misunderstood creature?

Tennyson evokes the deep, slumbering Kraken as a monster slumbering in the cold, dark depths of the ocean. Twenty Thousand Leagues brings that monster into focus as it tries to drag a ship underwater and devour the terrified crew. Where did these stories come from?

The Odyssey was the first known piece of literature to suggest a tentacle beast of the sea and it has never left our imagination. Yet when a giant squid was filmed by Japanese scientists, and then one was fished out of the ocean near the Falklands, we now see that giant squid are extraordinary, rather beautiful creatures.

Far from being a terrifying monster they peck delicately at their food and are afraid of loud noises. For a monster they are remarkably timid. With recent discoveries and increasing knowledge have we vanquished the monster from the deep? Or will our need for monsters mean we create another, even stranger beast? Or perhaps now that our sea faring days exploring the unknown oceans are over will our monsters come from outer space, the last frontier?

Will we always need a monster to scare us? Many academics say yes - if you want to know what a society is frightened of, look at its monsters.

05Lions2015063020150706 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores how lions have been harnessed by humans as a symbol of strength and power throughout the ages.

For hundreds of years two beasts lay beneath the mud of the moat surrounding the Tower of London. Only when workmen dug them up in 1935 did the sun warm their bones once more. They were once kept as fearsome gatekeepers, reminding people visiting the king exactly where power lay - or that was the idea. In reality they were diseased, malnourished and died young.

From the exquisitely depicted lions painted on cave walls in the Palaeolithic through to those kept in the Tower of London and the lions sitting around Nelson's column this programme looks at how we have used lions.

Lions are used in literature to represent authority and majesty, and C S Lewis used a lion - Aslan - to be the figure of Christ, a mysterious, wild presence that cannot be tamed.

However, this attention has come at great cost. Barbary lions, the magnificently-maned North African species most used by the Romans for gladiatorial combat and dispatching Christians, were so over-exploited they are now extinct: the first documented example of mass extinction on the mainland at the hands of humans.

We might be able to breed them back again from lions in zoos that have Barbary genes still present, but should we? Would these magnificent beasts become just a curiosity, no different to those in the Tower? Maybe they had best remain as a poignant example of how power can destroy.

06Burbot2015070720150713 (R4)

The burbot is the skulker under the rocks, the flabby, sour-faced cod of cold, fresh water. It is not loved for its looks, but it was once prized for its body.

At one time it was common here but has now gone from UK shores, believed extinct in the 1960s.

This is the only member of the cod family that lives in fresh water and for centuries it swam in the eastern part of England to be pursued by fishermen for its firm, white flesh and unbelievably rich liver oils.

Barbot Hall in Rotherham and Burbolt Lane in Cambridge show it was once important - and so common that some records say it was fed to pigs.

In North America it is a common angling fish; but in the early 20th century, the rich oils were so prized the Burbot Fishing Company processed half a million fish a year.

It is still found in Europe and Russia. Chekhov wrote a comic story, The Burbot, showing how this Cinderella of fish could outwit even the aristocracy.

Some want the burbot restored to our waterways, arguing in the present desire to re-wild it should be allowed to live here once more. After all, the burbot was so much a part of our culture; it was pictured in cigarette cards and cards found in packets of Brooke Bond tea. However, others say it is best to leave it as a faint memory as climate change will make its life unbearable.

Either way, the burbot is a reminder of how quickly we forget what was once so common.

07Nightshades2015071420150720 (R4)

It is hard to think of a more diverse and wonderful group of plants. They enchant us, poison us, make us feel sexy, give us hallucinations, heal us and feed us.

The screaming mandrakes in Harry Potter and the shamanistic dreams of tribal elders eating giant trumpet flowers testify to the magical powers of this group.

Its culinary properties enhance the ever intricate flavours of modern cuisine while its fatal attractions have been used by murderers, most famously Dr Crippen.

This is the group that contains mandrake, potatoes, chillies, aubergines, deadly nightshade and tomatoes. These are the plants that have entered our culture through food and medicine, drugs and love.

It is strange that the European plants in the group are mainly poisonous yet those that grow in the New World are often spicy and enriching.

Fearing anything that looked like nightshade the first plants that were brought here from the New World were regarded with suspicion, yet quickly we adopted them, so much so that it is impossible to conceive of Italian food without tomatoes or Friday night fish and chips, yet they are aliens in a strange land. We have a lot to thank this group for.

It soothed us before anaesthetics, sent our imaginations flying and tempted us with alluring flavours - and they are still pushing the frontiers of both medicine and food today.

08Coral2015072120150727 (R4)

can take on many forms from branching, tree like structures to flat table tops. They are colourful and bright, often described as underwater gardens. Yet they are double edged beauties.

Their ragged structure tore the hulls from wooden ships, causing the death of many sailors. Poisonous fish lurk amidst the beauty and sharks patrol the edges.

Charles Darwin's ship The Beagle had the task of mapping coral reefs, so dangerous were they to shipping, and they formed the topic of his first book. Darwin couldn't see the reefs underwater, but he still managed to work out how they formed, leaping from top to top with the aid of a "leaping stick".

Coral has entered our literature with tales of paradise islands, from Ballantyne's The Coral Island in the 19th century, where three young boys create paradise, to the flip side in Golding's Lord of the Flies. Paradise though was shattered between 1946 and 1958. This was the dawn of the nuclear age when deep wells were sunk into tropical reefs in the Pacific and bombs detonated. But it was the drilling cores that proved Darwin was right, over 100 years after he proposed his theory.

More recently coral reefs were the setting for the film Finding Nemo, a film so popular it set off a craze for clown fish as pets, causing real concern for the future of clown fish on many tropical reefs. According to National Geographic, demand for clown fish in aquaria tripled after the film was released. In response to the concern some aquarium owners decided to release their fish back into the wild, but unfortunately in the wrong place, causing the clown fish to become an invasive alien species.

Such is the tangled web we humans weave!

But no matter the reality, we seem to crave the vision of paradise that coral reefs provide. They will always be glorious places in our hearts and minds.

Coral can take on many forms from branching, tree like structures to flat table tops. They are colourful and bright, often described as underwater gardens. Yet they are double edged beauties.

09Dinosaurs2015072820150803 (R4)

Our collective imaginations go wild at the thought of lumbering, ferocious beasts that were so powerful they once ruled the earth. T Rex scares us witless and diplodocus was an astonishing creature of breath taking proportions. It is no wonder then that dinosaur books, especially for children, appeared in the early nineteenth century and are still flying of the shelves today.

Dinosaur exhibitions always draw throngs of people. From the Crystal Palace dinosaurs in London built in the mid 19th Century to the wonderful animatronic models in today's modern museums, these ancient beasts speak to us of a different planet earth, lost in deep time, gone for ever. Yet they have left us bones and teeth that are still revealing amazing facts. Recent science shows most dinosaurs were not cold bloodied reptiles but warm blooded, feathered and colourful. They lived for 160 million years, occupying a warm humid planet rich in vegetation.

When we use the world 'dinosaur' we mean it as a derogatory term for someone who can't adapt but nothing could be further from the truth. These were supreme rulers that were brought down by an Act of God that defies imagination. So huge was the impact of the meteorite that the earth went cold and dark. Dinosaurs though will never leave us, we will take them with us into the future, in our stories, films and science and we will learn from their old bones ever more details about life on earth, and how even the most successful creatures on earth are, in reality, so fragile.

Brett Westwood explores how dinosaurs are influencing our stories, films and science.

10Meteorites20150804

For thousands of years we have marvelled at the stones that fell from the sky. They were mysterious messages from the heavens; omens of luck and favour. Ancient Egyptians buried them in their tomb and Terry Pratchett put meteorite iron into his home made sword to enhance its mystical properties.

Myths and legends about meteorites abound in all cultures. In religious art they are visions in the sky foretelling of the apocalypse. Interest in them rocketed when it was finally accepted, as late as the 1970s that they did kill the dinosaurs, a scientific debate that took many years to settle and was hard fought. Meteorites are marvels; they are fragments of other worlds come to our home to remind us we are not alone and that above the sky there is a dynamic, restless universe.

Today people still believe meteorites contain magical minerals. The bizarre plants, Venus flytraps, only grow in the areas meteorites are found (by coincidence) and were thought to be plants brought down from another planet. We are all touched by the mystery of meteorites and today they are helping unravel the mysteries of our own solar system - and beyond.

11Mammoths2015081120150817 (R4)

"Manny" the hairy, grumpy, yet ultimately caring hero of the animation series Ice Age sums up our love of these giants of the past. When a superbly preserved baby mammoth was displayed at the Natural History Museum she became a star attraction.

We are intrigued by the idea of a hairy elephant wandering our land so tantalisingly recently; the last mammoths are thought to have died out in Russia just 4,000 years ago. Bones of these huge elephants have often been found, people believing they were the remains of giants, or that they were the huge burrowing creatures that died underground.

Beautiful paintings of mammoths adorn ice age cave walls, symbolising our close relationships with these animals that provided us with so much cultural material. Not only mammoth meat but bones and tusks to build shelter, skins for walls, ivory for carvings and teeth for musical instruments; the first flute was a mammoth bone.

Music played on instruments made from mammoth bone created haunting sounds. Delicately carved tiny mammoths are found in places many miles from where mammoths lived, dating back at least 30,000 years. If they were alive today we would no doubt be protecting them from ivory traders, but as they are extinct, the mass of ivory bone being exhumed from the tundra (it is thought there are 150 million tusks buried there) is legally sent to China to be made into jewellery, trinkets and pieces of art.

Not far off 50% of the ivory entering China is mammoth. Some think it is a sustainable alternative to elephant ivory, others believe it keeps the whole trade alive. Should mammoth ivory be treated the same as elephant? Should mammoth become the first extinct animal to be listed as an endangered species?

"Manny" the hairy, grumpy, yet ultimately caring hero of the animation series Ice Age sums up our love of these giants of the past. When a superbly preserved baby mammoth was displayed at the Natural History Museum she became a star attraction. We are intrigued by the idea of a hairy elephant wandering our land so tantalisingly recently; the last mammoths are thought to have died out in Russia just 4,000 years ago. Bones of these huge elephants have often been found, people believing they were the remains of giants, or that they were the huge burrowing creatures that died underground. The mass of mammoth bones found in the North Sea suggest evidence for Noah's Flood. Beautiful paintings of mammoths adorn ice age cave walls, symbolising our close relationships with these animals that provided us with so much cultural material. Not only mammoth meat but bones and tusks to build shelter, skins for walls, ivory for carvings and teeth for musical instruments; the first flute was a mammoth bone. Music played on instruments made from mammoth bone created haunting sounds. Delicately carved tiny mammoths are found in places many miles from where mammoths lived, dating back at least 30,000 years. If they were alive today we would no doubt be protecting them from ivory traders, but as they are extinct, the mass of ivory bone being exhumed from the tundra (it is thought there are 150 million tusks buried there is legally sent to China to be made into jewellery, trinkets and pieces of art. Not far off 50% of the ivory entering China is mammoth. Some think it is a sustainable alternative to elephant ivory, others believe it keeps the whole trade alive. Should mammoth ivory be treated the same as elephant? Should mammoth become the first extinct animal to be listed as an endangered species?

12Snakes2015081820150824 (R4)

In much of the Christian West snakes don't get a good press, they are considered sly, even evil creatures that tempted Eve causing the downfall for all humanity - quite a burden to bear. The Bible is full of less than flattering references to snakes. Many people fear snakes and kill them on sight. Yet the image of a snake wrapped around a stick is the symbol of medicine. Our complex relationship with snakes means they are amongst the most persecuted creatures on earth. There is no denying that people have in inbuilt fear of snakes as psychological experiments show. DH Lawrence's poem The Snake encapsulates our contradictory relationship with serpents. He is mesmerised by the majesty of the snake, and honoured that it chose to be near him. After scaring the snake away he regrets his mean and petty action: "I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education." Snakes are wound intricately throughout our beliefs, art and literature.

13Daffodils2015082520150831 (R4)

Wordsworth's famous poem is always in the top 5 most loved poems in English. His encounter with daffodils in the Lake District has become a romantic expression of our relationship with nature. They are radiant beauties that bring hope to the heart after the long winter months. A A Milne also wrote charmingly about daffodils laughing off winter in his poetry for children. The native flowers are delicate and small, unlike the cultivated, rather brash varieties that adorn roadside verges and roundabouts, creating much daffodil snobbery. Daffodils are the national flower of Wales, though only since the 19th Century, promoted by Lloyd George who thought them more attractive than leeks. Attractiveness though led them to be associated with vanity, the Greek Narcissus (daffodils in Latin: narcissus) fell in love with his own reflection and pined away. Their appearance in Lent gives them the name Lenten Lilly and associated with resurrection, but in Eastern cultures it is the flower of wealth and good fortune. It has been used throughout history as a medicine, despite being toxic. Today it is grown extensively in Wales as its bulb contains galantamine, a drug used in the treatment of Alzheimer's. Whatever way you look at daffodils they are quintessentially a part of human cultures wherever it grows and can be considered the flower that brightens Britain after long, cold winters.

14Birds Eggs2015090120150907 (R4)

Beautiful, fragile, mysterious - we have always loved birds' eggs. Their colours are more of a hue, the patterning gorgeous to the eye, no wonder they have been collected from time immemorial. Eggs are a symbol of new life, a transformation that speaks to us of great truths beyond the purely biological. Easter eggs are a symbol of Christ's resurrection and were adopted from pagan beleifs about Ostara, the goddess connecting to various German Easter festivities.) The egg has been used as a metaphor for the origin of the universe in many traditions. We have used them in cooking - or eaten raw - since our time on earth. We have used the hard shell for decoration, and Faberge designed exquisite bejewelled eggs of gold and precious stones for the Tsars of Russia. A peculiar tradition of using eggs to record the varied faces of clowns arose just after WW2 when new clowns stamped their identity on the world by registering their unique features on eggs - there is now a clown egg museum. The natural variety in bird's eggs, even clutches in the same year, can be very different, is prized by collectors, determined to own the greatest diversity of any one species. Along with collecting comes money and then fraud. Pleasing to hold, beautiful on the eye, versatile in cooking, intriguing in nature, practical as well - eggs will always inspire us.

15Bears2015090820150914 (R4)

(of the family Ursidae) and people go back a long way, they are disconcertingly human-like, captured in the most popular of tales, Goldilocks, Snow White and Rose Red and Winnie the Pooh. Many cultures from northern Europe to North America to China have traditionally worshiped bears, regarding them as the spirit of ancestors. In the Palaeolithic bear bones were carefully buried in unnatural poses and their skulls in a circle. In Christianity saints have tamed bears as a sign of holiness though bears were persecuted to deter pagan cults. In medieval times the cruel and gruesome sport of bear-baiting was a common pastime, enjoyed by royalty and peasant alike. Seeing a bear tormented by dogs may have been pleasurable, but it was also a physical representation of suffering and struggle at a time when bears were still part of a greater mythology. The mystical qualities of bears is reflected in our seeing them in the stars, the Great and Little Bear track their way across the heavens. The constancy of the Great Bear constellation was used by slaves in the American Civil War to guide them to safety, away from conflict; their song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" tells how to follow the lights of the constellation - the gourd being code for The Great Bear. Today the white polar bear is a potent symbol of climate change, reliant on ice covered land it is in danger of losing its habitat. As we become more removed from nature the style of the much-loved teddy bear has changed. Originally they looked like real bears, today they are pink and fluffy and short-limbed. Our relationship with bears has always been complex and still is today.

16Brambles2015091520150921 (R4)

are a common reminder that nature is not just about us. The tangled confusion of spikes and tough stems tear flesh and cloth alike - the long, sinuous creepers creeping along tracks can trip those whose eyes stray from the ground. Tales from Brambly Hedge tempt children to the underworld of the bramble where homely mice families create a secure glow of domestic bliss safe from the dangers outside. Picking blackberries remains very popular and a wistful childhood memory, captured by Seamus Heaney's poem Blackberry Picking. This also echoes the dual nature of the bramble as both tormentor and giver of soft treats. Another dark side to this very common plant is the clues it gives to forensic botanists who use the bramble as an indicator of changed ground, noting if its growing pattern shows signs of disturbance, they can even detect the time the plant was dug up and recovered.The bramble is the commoner of the woodland, but says Richard Mabey, it performs an essential job in protecting young trees. Today BlackBerry is a smart phone, called after the fruit because the inventors knew that any name related to the term "email" made people's blood pressure rise, so they went for a natural, playful, happy-memory inducing name. It has now been twisted into urban slang - "going blackberry picking" now means to go out and steal phones. The humble blackberry, and there are over 650 different species, has many hidden depths.

17Parrots2015092220150928 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores parrots and their effect on art, literature and society.

Colourful birds of the rainforest and companions of pirates, parrots evoke contradictory images. They encompass a huge range of forms from the flightless lumbering kakapo of New Zealand to the diminutive and talkative budgerigar of Australia, the chatty African grey parrot to the garishly colourful macaws of South America. Their striking appearance and apparent sense of mischief have made parrots popular as pets from ancient Egypt to the present day. During the 19th century their exoticism made them status symbols of wealth and luxury. Noted by a young Edward Lear who, believing the upper classes fascination with the family might be lucrative, set about the task of illustrating as many species of parrot as he could for their admirers to collect. Picture the teenage Lear crouching inside the parrot enclosure at London Zoo drawing the birds -the occasional face of his human observers appearing in his sketchbooks as he became an exhibit in himself. Lear's unique method of sketching his subjects from living rather than stuffed specimens captured the character of the birds in a way that had not been achieved before - even rivalling the celebrated Audubon for best bird illustrator of the time. Unfortunately after a series of set-back's Lear ceased natural history illustration in favour of writing nonsense poetry - including one about a parrot (There was an old man from Montrose...). The uncanny ability of some species of parrot to mimic the human voice only add to their appeal. The Popes had a keeper of parrots and Henry VIII was supposedly captivated by his. We cast parrots as the clowns of the natural world; painted in many colours they appear mischievous but innocent, playful but intelligent. But has our anthropomorphism of parrots limited our true understanding of the family? In the words of Mark Cocker "parrots are held in cages, but they are trapped in our imaginations".

18Crocodiles2015092920151005 (R4)

Not many creatures can boast being a god, a sports logo, a sly trickster, a bringer of fertility, a producer of false tears and a comic book hero, but then not many animals have lived on earth for as long as the crocodile. It is a cold-bloodied killer, using crude techniques to crush and drown its prey, but it is a master of survival over millions of years. In the Nile, where they grow to 7 metres and 1000 kilogrammes, they were revered as gods; they even had their own city Crocodilopolis where mummified crocs were the subject of long, sacred rituals. Cleopatra viewed herself as a sexy crocodile devouring Mark Anthony. More recently they were used by JM Barrie in Peter Pan to bring us the much loved ticking time-bomb that silently chased Captain Cook. We are in awe of their lightning fast movements and cold, ruthless character. The famous tennis player Rene Lacoste was considered such a ferocious player he was nicknamed The Crocodile, and the iconic sports logo was born. Our relationship with crocodiles is complex, a mixture of fear and reverence. Today we are finding more about the non-predatory side of their lives - how they use tools and cooperate. The crocodile continues to beguile us.

From a revered god in ancient Egypt to a comic character in Peter Pan, crocs fascinate us.

19Anemone2015100620151012 (R4)

The Natural History Museum in London owns treasures that simply take your breath away. Delicate, anatomically accurate and beautifully crafted glass models of anemones are so realistic they look like the real thing crystallised from the sea. They were made by father and son glass blowers called Blaschka in the 19th century in what is now the Czech Republic. Scientists could now study the internal structures of these delicate animals in the days when it was difficult to keep live specimens. Sadly, when the Blaschkas passed away they took their secrets of glass blowing with them, but they left us objects of pure wonder. These models allowed ordinary people too to see the wonders beneath the sea. The glass models and the beautiful paintings of anemones in books by people like Philip Henry Gosse and Thomas Alan Stephenson made the once hidden realm of the sea accessible to all. Beach combing became more and more popular with strawberry, beadlet and snakes-locks being collected in their thousands for home aquaria. The Victorian craze which Gosse encouraged (he called them "glimpses of the wonderful") put pressure on some places where anemones grow and notable declines were recorded. Today the collection of anemones for aquaria is devastating places like the Philippines, especially since the Hollywood blockbuster Finding Nemo was released. Bizarrely the complexity of their nerves means they are more closely related to humans than to flies and worms. Some species are as close to immortal as you can get. Cut them in half and you get two, cut off the mouth and it will grow a new one. They seem to go on and on, leading some scientists to use them in the search for eternal youth. Sea anemones are flowers of the sea, they inspire whimsy and fancy, poetry and art.

The Natural History Museum in London owns treasures that simply take your breath away. Delicate, anatomically accurate and beautifully crafted glass models of anemones are so realistic they look like the real thing crystallised from the sea. They were made by father and son glass blowers called Blaschka in the 19th century in what is now the Czech Republic. Scientists could now study the internal structures of these delicate animals in the days when it was difficult to keep live specimens. Sadly, when the Blaschkas passed away they took their secrets of glass blowing with them, but they left us objects of pure wonder. These models allowed ordinary people too to see the wonders beneath the sea. The glass models and the beautiful paintings of anemones in books by people like Philip Henry Gosse and Thomas Alan Stephenson made the once hidden realm of the sea accessible to all. Beach combing became more and more popular with strawberry, beadlet and snakes-locks being collected in their thousands for home aquaria. The Victorian craze for aquariums which Gosse encouraged (he called them "glimpses of the wonderful") put pressure on some places where anemones grow and notable declines were recorded. Today the collection of anemones for aquariums is devastating places like the Philippines, especially since the Hollywood blockbuster Finding Nemo was released. Bizarrely the complexity of their nerves means they are more closely related to humans than to flies and worms. Some species are as close to immortal as you can get. Cut them in half and you get two, cut off the mouth and it will grow a new one. They seem to go on and on, leading some scientists to use them in the search for eternal youth. Sea anemones are flowers of the sea, they inspire whimsy and fancy, poetry and art.

20Hornbill2015101320151019 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores how hornbills have influenced art, religion and feminism.

Exotic and bizarre, hornbills wowed European society when the first live specimens arrived in the nineteenth century. Their almost human like walk combined with their unbelievable bills and strange calls presented an image of nature most Europeans had never encountered. When their odd breeding behaviour became known - the males seal up the female in a hole in a tree cavity so that only her beak can protrude for weeks on end - they became great curiosities. The bill of the helmeted hornbill was particularly prized for carving the Victorian obsession - netsuke. Beautifully coloured, especially if reddened by the oil from a preen gland, the "ivory" became the most sought after material for Victorian display cabinets. Hornbill ivory is still so highly prized by the Chinese that the helmeted hornbill is on the verge of extinction; its bill fetches a higher price than elephant ivory. However in their Indonesian homeland they are seen as mythical creatures that guard the thin veil between life and death, ferrying souls between the earth and heaven. This sacred belief is now being used by modern conservationists to help protect them as they disappear at an alarming rate from the face of the earth. Because many of the Asian Hornbills nest in the largest trees, they are at greatest risk from loggers, legal or illegal, and therefore stand as flagship species for forest conservation in SE Asia.

21Oak2015102020151026 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores how the oak tree has influenced society, art and druidism.

Oak is the symbol of noble endurance, loyalty, strength, constancy and longevity, and there are over 600 species. Heart of Oak is the official march of the Royal Navy - a rallying cry to brave sailors to guard our shores. Tennyson urges us to live our lives like the oak, to be "bright in spring, Living in gold." Its broad, pleasing shape, hard wood and prolific acorns, as well as the lovely shape of the leaves, establishes the oak as the nation's favourite tree.

As a timber its fine qualities also make it perfect for prestigious buildings, such as the debating chamber of the House of Commons. It is the symbol of Germany and the national tree of the US. In war it is used on medals of honour. The acorn has been eaten by many cultures and North American peoples revere the ancient oaks, their acorns made flour and the bark medicine. Oaks have inspired many moral tales. Huge, sturdy oaks grow slowly from small acorns and in The Man Who Planted Trees and old shepherd re-forests a barren valley by carefully and steadily planning a few acorns each day.

We have rested under oaks, climbed them, used their acorns, bark and wood. We have even made music from their tree rings. We see the oak as a symbol of virtue and goodness and in druidism the oak is central to beliefs that stretch back two millennia or more - no wonder we have a love affair with oaks.

22Beetles2015102720151102 (R4)

Brett Westwood explores how beetles have influenced arts and science around the world.

, in the group of insects known as Coleoptera or 'sheathed wing', make up roughly one quarter of all known living species on the planet, that's about 400,000 species. It's perhaps not surprising that beetles are at the heart of the many ways we take inspiration from nature.

"Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,

Your house is all burned and your children are gone...."

This nursery rhyme is one of many across Europe that demonstrates our close relationship with ladybirds. Peter Marren, leading wildlife author, explains the story behind the rhyme and why the ladybird in folklore is seen as 'Our Lady's Bird'. The beetles collection at the Natural History Museum reveals the gold and silver beetles of the Cloud Forests of Costa Rica collected by Walter Rothschild in 1894. These beetles have evolved to evade predators with wing covers that reflect light and mimic drops of rain. Scarab beetles found in Ancient Egypt had a huge impact on both the ecology and culture of the region and we find out why they were revered as sacred.

In many cultures across the world, from Asia and India to the Americas, beetle wings have been gathered for centuries and crafted into textiles and jewellery. In the Amazon region, the Shaur tribe incorporated beetle wings into ceremonial dress to enhance their prowess as warriors.

With poetry by John Clare and a nursery rhyme written by A.A. Milne, we celebrate the beetle and the role it plays as both an exotic and mundane creature whose biology is so extraordinary that some scientists now wish to copy it. The new science of Biomimetics is evolving fast and beetles, with all their varied forms and irresistible structural colours, may yet prove as invaluable in our future as they have been in our past.