In spring and summer 2020, as lockdown stifled human life, wildlife filmmaker James Aldred found himself alone in a New Forest hide filming nesting goshawks. Goshawk Summer recounts those strange, wondrous weeks watching the natural world unfurl into the space vacated human activity. We asked him about that time, at once teeming and devoid of life.
James, speak us through the process and considerations when setting up a hide, and what your time looks like once inside. On the face of it an environment of scarcity, not abundance?
The most important thing about installing filming hides is the welfare of the subject. The safety of wildlife is paramount. Goshawks are very secretive, private birds so it’s very important to take things slow and be prepared to pull out should the birds show any undue anxiety. Of course, a degree of disturbance is unavoidable, but as long as you pay close attention to what the birds are telling you and maintain a sensitive approach, they will tolerate a surprising amount of intrusion.
So in terms of considerations, the chosen hide location needs to be close enough to give good camera angles, but far enough away to limit disturbance. The hide also needs to be high enough to offer a good view down into the nest. All of which requires a decently sized tree in just the right place in which to rig the filming platform and hide. Sometimes it’s just not possible, so a different nest needs to be found. The location also needs to be discrete, and away from areas frequented by the public. The last thing you or the Goshawks need is a photo of the location popping up on social media because someone’s stumbled across the filming hide.
Life inside the hide can be rather monastic, with just enough room for the camera and a camping stool to sit on. I tend to hang my climbing helmet from the roof of the hide, then use this as a place to stash a packed lunch and thermos. I might listen to an audiobook in one ear occasionally, but for the most part I do a lot of staring at the Goshawks and a lot of thinking. Very peaceful. A retreat from modern distractions such as phones and computers. So the physical environment inside the hide is Spartan by necessity, but rich in terms of quality of personal experience and mindfulness.
'So the physical environment inside the hide is Spartan by necessity, but rich in terms of quality of personal experience and mindfulness.'
What happened in that forest, without people around? Did nature become more abundant? Or did the emptiness simply give you more space to notice?
The forest certainly seemed a lot more alive during lockdown. As if nature had stepped back into the limelight to reclaim ground normally saturated by people. I certainly noticed a lot more songbirds and the lines between the human and animal world definitely blurred a little. Deer, foxes and badgers strolling down the middle of normally busy roads; reptiles were out basking in sunshine without the fear of being run over by mountain bikes etc. In the short term, nature definitely had it good. But it all exploded in our faces a bit once lockdown ended. The forest became busier than ever and I think that some of the good was undone, certainly when it came to those larger animals and birds that were only halfway through their breeding season and still had a way to go before successfully raising that year's offspring.
What were some of the observations that most struck you?
The beauty of uninterrupted birdsong and natural sound in an empty landscape. The dawn choruses of May 2020 were the best I’ve ever heard anywhere in the world. It was also wonderful to watch fox cubs playing on normally busy cycle tracks, blissfully unaware that humans even existed.
"I turn off the headlights and crawl forward through the half-light. Newly unfurled bluebells float like grey mist beneath the beeches to my right, while the dark ramparts of the goshawks’ conifers loom ahead. I snuff out the engine and take a few seconds to let my hearing adjust. The wood’s waking up and Matt and I stand like statues in the half-light to listen.
A robin’s piccolo kicks things off with a deceptively simple trickle of notes. A blackbird adds his rich timbre to the refrain. Song thrush follows, as does wren, wood pigeon, then blackcap. Before long the air is filled with the rise and fall of cadences from at least a dozen different species. This exquisite tone-poem is soon lifted to almost Wagnerian heights by the addition of woodpeckers drumming and at least three different cuckoos calling from different points of the compass. Then, at its peak, the distant tremolo of a curlew floats up the valley from the distant heath. If ever there was a sound to whisk you off into a place of windswept expansiveness, it’s this call. I stand in rapt appreciation as its refrain echoes through the trees around us.
It’s a sublime moment. No hum of traffic. No needy whine of motorbikes and no distant rumble of cattle grids. No sirens and not a plane in the sky. Not a single scrap of noise to link the present moment to the twenty-first century and the closest I could ever hope to come to experiencing the sounds of the forest from a thousand years ago. A once-in-a-lifetime vignette to be savoured and remembered in all its surreal but glorious detail."
- An excerpt from Goshawk Summer, describing the May dawn chorus.
'The dawn choruses of May 2020 were the best I’ve ever heard anywhere in the world.'
How does just sitting, waiting and watching a landscape change your experience of and relationship with it?
It helps me maintain a close connection with nature. It provides perspective and a welcome reminder that there are bigger, more important forces at work beyond the everyday stress and concerns of human existence. Nature has always been there. Will always remain. And I get a lot of comfort from this. We are simply passing through and it doesn’t pay to put our own personal needs as a species in front of those of the planet.
Is there any advice you’d offer to people who aren’t sitting in hides for days, but are interested in cultivating a slower, more intimate relationship with a place? Is it as simple as just shutting up and sitting, or is there more to it?
Nope, that’s pretty much it: sit down, shut up. Lower your expectations and tune in to the outside world. Or as an old forest keeper more eloquently put it: keep still, look long and hold yourself quiet. Try and meet nature halfway by giving it time to respond. You’d be surprised how quickly it reaches out to you.
'Nature has always been there. Will always remain. And I get a lot of comfort from this. We are simply passing through and it doesn’t pay to put our own personal needs as a species in front of those of the planet.'
In your wider work, do you ever struggle with a tension between portraying the beauty, wonder, even abundance of nature versus honestly portraying biodiversity loss and habitat change?
There's certainly a place for the portrayal of human impact - such awareness is obviously very important - but I also firmly believe that one of the best ways to promote conservation is to help the viewer forge a positive emotional connection with nature through its wonder and beauty. We tend to want to protect what we care about and I have always been drawn to the kind of programme making that helps share this wonder in the hope that it inspires people to think carefully about the environmental impact of their day-to-day actions.