It’s a violent scene that has been played out in Co Kerry for thousands of years. Two red deer stags battle in the hope of taking over a harem of females. Their magnificent antlers clash and entangle, coming perilously close to gouging an eye or ripping their rival’s flank.
As our largest land mammal, the red deer rut is one of the great spectacles of Ireland’s natural world. It also provides a flagship scene for episode three of Wild Isles, the David Attenborough-narrated series currently showing on BBC.
The four-minute segment was filmed around Killarney National Park by a crew that included cameraman Simon King and producer/director Nick Gates during a three-week stay in the picturesque Kerry town.
King, a familiar face from Big Cat Diaries and other international wildlife shows, would be in position on the edge of the lake before dawn each autumn morning, and wouldn’t return to base at the Castlerosse Hotel for a well-earned shower and hot meal until after dark.
Inevitably it rained. In fact, it rained so much that the veteran cameraman’s hide, originally on patch of boggy ground, had water levels up near the top of his wellies by the end of the shoot. Not that he’s complaining, as his weeks of patience in damp conditions paid off with the shot he wanted. The watery setting even added to the sequence, says King.
“Red deer have a might about them but if you're not familiar with them as a creature, then you don't know that might, you don't know the power,” explains King, whose first trips to Ireland were as a child, pike-fishing with his father. “Even when they're fighting you don't feel the weight. The moment they hit the water, you feel the weight because it explodes. There's nothing fluffy, nothing little, about those two great beasts going at it.”
As well as the interaction between the two animals, Killarney looks great in the episode. The park has received much criticism in recent years for such issues as invasive rhododendron, but the surrounds were just what the programme-makers wanted.
“It has a really mixed habitat,” says director/producer Nick Gates. “Grassland and woodland, wetland, mountain and scrub and scree all mixed together. In the aerial shots, you can see that this is a landscape which looks really good quality relative to some of the other places that red deer exist.”
Ireland also features in a later episode of the epic series, with footage of a congregation of basking sharks in early summer off the west coast. These sequences fit nicely with the series’ message that some of the creatures found in this country and Britain are just as impressive as anything to be found in the Amazon or Serengeti.
As well as the animals themselves, King is effusive in his praise for where he filmed in Killarney. “Ireland's got this absolute jewel of a national park and I'm sure that many people recognise that. What a national heritage. What a fantastic thing to be able to be proud of,” he says.
Part of the message of the show is that areas like Killarney may be just vestiges of the wild areas of previous centuries, but it’s essential they don’t deteriorate further, and ideally should be expanded.
For programme-makers, it's always a delicate balancing act not to come across as preachy and alarmist, even in the midst of our very real climate and biodiversity emergency. Wild Isles uses the ultimate authoritative voice of David Attenborough to state the facts about the awful state of the natural world, as well as showing some of the positive stories at a time when we may still have time to move in the right direction.
“I hope everyone realises just how nature-depleted we are, but it shouldn't be all about hopelessness and depletion,” cautions Gates. “We want the audience to come away from this thinking, ‘Actually, I want to see more I want to see better, and I want to get involved to help our nature recover’.”
It’s not just talk from Bristol-based Gates who, as well as producing wildlife films, has long been doing his bit at his own home. As well as maintaining a pond, he’s allocated an area of his garden for a wildflower meadow, has several log piles scattered around, and erected nest boxes for birds such as swifts and blue tits.
Like many of the people working on the series, this love for nature isn’t just part of the job – it’s something they are passionate about even when the cameras aren’t rolling.
King has been involved in conservation projects in this islands and in Africa, but still stresses the importance of individual choices in terms of consumerism and food. “Eating in a sustainable, conscientious way will make a tremendous difference to the infrastructure of the ecology of the world, let alone Britain and Ireland. It is so important,” he stresses.
Attenborough didn’t come to Killarney for the filming of the red deer, but was on location for other parts of the series. One of Gates’ jobs was to work on the script with the narrator.
“He's a real wordsmith, and he really enjoys that process of crafting a script. So yeah, if you if you want to argue over a word with David, you've got to have a real watertight argument, because as you can imagine, he a phenomenal script-writer.” For King, working on what is being billed as Attenborough’s last major show squares a circle with the great man whom he first met as a child. Fittingly, that fateful first meeting occurred in the Natural History Museum in London.
“I was with my father - who used to work at the BBC - and David was coming down the stairs towards us. He said, ‘Hello, John’ to my father. And ’Who's this young lad?’ I couldn’t speak!” In subsequent years, Attenborough and King’s work together wasn’t just about making content for TV shows. They both love doing it, but there’s also an almost missionary zeal about showing off the wonders of our world.
“You cannot care for something you don't understand,” King says, echoing the 96-year-old narrator.
“We’ve been trying to further the word that is the natural world isn't just beautiful and special and important in its own right. It's also important to our survival.”
- Episode three of Wild Isles, featuring the red deer in Killarney, is on BBC One on Sunday, March 26
From the original Life On Earth in 1976, the landmark BBC series have always pushed the boundaries in terms of filming technology. Wild Isles has continued this tradition. Here are some of the advances:
While older cameras would bounce around with the movement of the jeep or boat they were mounted on, gyro-stabilised cameras use modern electronic position data to correct for movement, and ensure a smooth, stable shot.
“They give opportunities not just to move a camera with a long lens, so you get a degree of cinematic tracking when you're working with a creature, but also just to respond to a rapidly moving creature,” says King.
From the upcoming Grasslands episode, he refers to incredible footage of hares boxing and mating. It was filmed using a Cineflex gyro-stabilised system which was attached to an electric UTV (utility terrain vehicle). “We could then move quietly through the landscape and be able to follow the behavior without interfering with the creatures because I'm still using a telephoto lens. You're effectively working with a mobile hide but having all have the facility for telephoto lens to get really stable views.”
Drones have been a game-changer in wildlife filming, eschewing the need for noisy and expensive aircraft to get overhead shots, not least for the Killarney sequences. “It's a very specialist field, and the technology that can be packed into a relatively small flying device is astonishing,” says King.
Even with traditional film cameras, the advent of high-speed recording allowed for more frames per second, and the filming of sequences which could then be broadcast in slow motion, portraying incredible detail. King recalls using such systems on other Attenborough series such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet, with great white sharks catching seals, and orcas coming up on the beach in Patagonia to get sea lions.
Back then, the kit might run 400 frames per second (fps). Nowadays, digital systems such as the Phantom Flex are much more flexible and can hit 1,000 fps.
Viewers might remember the early days of thermal imaging in wildlife shows when a white blob on the screen would be explained as an animal in the darkness. Wild Isles has shown how filming in the dark has reached a new level, and is now able to show detailed and engaging sequences. For example, Simon King filmed foxes’ adventures at night, and one of the highlights of episode two had up to a million starlings roosting in Cornwall, some of them being harassed by an owl.
One of the most incredible segments in entire Wild Isles series is the story of the large blue butterfly and how its caterpillar fools ants into taking it into their colony where it then feeds on the larvae. Luckily, for this and other small-scale events, the show can rely on renowned macro-cinematographer Alastair MacEwen.
On the technical side, he has developed special lenses and filming techniques for capturing the lives of tiny creatures; but he also has to create the perfect world in a studio or elsewhere so the invertebrates will behave as if they’re in the wild.
“You recreate the world, you absolutely recreate the habitat, the environment, everything… because if you don't, it doesn't work. It has to be perfect for the invertebrates,” explains King.