For the first time since it was launched in 2014, Hen Harrier Day is moving entirely online! Covid-19 restrictions mean that Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin will be presenting live from their home in the New Forest, a raft of pre-recorded content is being lined up to accompany them, and the whole show will be kept on the road by Ruth Peacey, who is producing remotely from her home in the south-west, and Fabian Harrison, who will be vision mixing and co-ordinating social media another two hundred miles away.
Charlie Moores grabbed a quick chat with Ruth, a few days before the ‘big day’ on Saturday August 8th, to find out how things were shaping up, what ‘s involved with putting on live events like these, and what she was planning to do when it was all over!
Hen Harrier Day last year was a rousing affair. Organised by Wild Justice, some 1500 of us descended on Carsington Water in Derbyshire, and were entertained, cajoled, and inspired by a long list of speakers including Dr Mark Avery, Dr Ruth Tingay, Chris Packham, Iolo Williams, Gill Lewis, Dominic Dyer, Tim Birch and more. The theme was – of course – wildlife crime and Hen Harriers, and two of the RSPB’s finest raptor specialists, Dr Cathleen Thomas and Ian Thompson, gave barnstorming speeches decrying the ongoing persecution of our birds of prey. I’m guessing that we all had our favourite (or, given the seriousness of the event, most memorable) moments, but a highlight for everyone standing around me was a small group of schoolchildren reading out some poems they’d written about the dangers facing Hen Harriers. It was powerful and utterly captivating.
As good as the event was (and it was very good) almost all of the speakers – and many of us in the audience – made the same observation: the message needs to go out much further. To people just down the road who’d still never heard of a Hen Harrier. To families who might be tempted to come but perhaps thought they weren’t ‘activists’ or ‘campaigners’ and might not fit in. To whole communities who perhaps don’t think that Hen Harrier Day is ‘for them’.
This year’s Hen Harrier Day was shaping up to be more varied. Events were planned from Dorset (we had begun organising an event at Arne RSPB ourselves) to Wales and Scotland. Organisers were looking to make them more family-friendly, to keep the key messages about raptor persecution but to also talk about wider issues impacting the countryside and nature and discuss what we can all do to help out too. To make it more inclusive wherever possible – or at a minimum make sure that everyone would feel welcome. Then of course Covid-19 arrived in the UK and venues began closing. With valid uncertainties around lockdown and the willingness of people to travel, it became obvious by late Spring that the events we’d all planned were not going to take place. At least not outside…
An interesting alternative was suggested: how about moving Hen Harrier Day online instead?
Over lockdown we’ve all perhaps become more familiar with online conferencing. Humblebragging about how many hours we spend on Zoom has replaced heroic tales of the daily commute. The technology is almost unrecognisable from the flickering, unstable ‘Are you there?’ meetings of old, and as Chris Packham and his stepdaughter Megan McCubbin showed with their ‘Self-isolating Bird Club‘ broadcasts, given the right presenters, a bit of insider know-how, and a sprinkling of behind-the-scenes production work, it’s entirely possible to create a very professional and – importantly – interactive programme online.
Move forward a few months and everything has been put in place to produce exactly that: an online, interactive professional broadcast. Chris and Megan will be the faces of Hen Harrier Day 2020 (and who better and more engaging), and a small production team will be whispering in their ears to cue everything up and move things along. Which sounds simple enough, but being a curious sort I wanted to find out a little more about what it takes to keep the train on the tracks and ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible. Fortunately, I just happen to know the producer of Hen Harrier Day 2020 pretty well: Ruth Peacey.
I’m sure Ruth will be familiar to most people reading this. She has an extensive production CV (working for the BBC on the likes of Springwatch and Natural World), made a brilliant series of short films looking at illegal bird poaching in Malta, Italy, and Cyprus, featured in one of my favourite podcasts – a two-part interview I recorded with her for The Sound Approach, and in 2017 she won Birdwatch Magazine Hero of the Year Award. You might think that having achieved so much and worked with so many of the greats of broadcasting (Ruth tells a wickedly funny tale of nearly losing one of our most beloved ‘national treasures’ in an international airport, but that’s for another time), she might be a little bit – how might I put this? – up herself. Nothing could be further from the truth. She is self-deprecating to a fault, wonderfully open and friendly, and she works harder than almost anyone I’ve ever met.
So with all that experience, surely something like a live broadcast with Chris and Megan will be a walk in the park, I suggest to Ruth over an early evening phone call which catches her mid-meal and shortly before yet another production meeting? There’s a slight pause and I can almost feel her weighing up her response. “I wouldn’t say that exactly“, she laughs, “but plans are going well.”
“Whether,” she adds, “everything will go to plan is another matter of course, but we’re hopeful we’ll get everything ready in time.”
I think I already know the answer to this, I tell her, but what is it precisely that needs to be ‘got ready’. The answer is that a call went out for pre-recorded material to ensure that anyone tuning in to Hen Harrier Day 2020 would find something going on even if the live segments were over, and that call has been heeded – and some! “We’ve had so many contributions coming in, it’s been incredible,” Ruth replies. “There are videos, competitions, articles, all sorts of things. People have been amazing. We’ve readings of the winners of our Young Wild Writer Competition – and the overall winning entry will be read by Michael Morpurgo for example! And because everything has been sent in online, we’ve been receiving huge files and passing them around each other. It’s so gratifying, but it’s been hard work sorting everything out and compiling a workable running order.”
These pre-records will be played after Chris and Megan do a live introduction, I ask?
“Exactly,” Ruth replies. “Chris and Megan will introduce Hen Harrier Day live from the New Forest, stay on air for about an hour, and then come back again in the afternoon around three for another hour. We wanted to make sure that there was plenty for viewers to watch in between. Plenty to motivate and inspire them. And we’ve plenty!“
The plan for the day, then, is to get everything started around 10:00, for Chris and Megan to top and tail the broadcast, and for everything to be wrapped up about four (apparently tonight’s meeting is to confirm all that, but as of Tuesday the 4th, that’s the plan). While I’ve not got a fraction of the wealth of experience of TV productions that Ruth has, I’ve been around enough live events to know that no matter how well-planned everything is, it’s not easy making sure that schedules (and presenters) run bang on time – especially remotely. Ruth laughs again. “We may well overrun…“, she says. “And yes, having to do everything remotely makes things more awkward, but we’ve worked really hard and we all know what’s supposed to happen next.” She pauses again. “We’re organised. As long as the internet holds up we’ll be fine”.
I’m guessing, I say to her, that trust is really important – especially when such a small team (effectively on the day it will be just Ruth, Fabian, and Chris and Megan) are carrying such a ‘burden of responsibility’, making sure that something that matters so much to so many people is professional and carries on the legacy of previous Hen Harrier Days. “Trust is really important, yes,” she agrees, “but we do all know each other really well, we’ve worked together many times, and this event really matters to us. We’d obviously prefer to be together – or at least in the same room! – that can’t happen this year, but we know that every one of us will each do the very best that we can. We all want this to be a great event.”
Do you, I wondered, still get nervous before broadcasts like this? “Oh, I do, I really do“, I hear Ruth answer (and knowing her, that was the answer I had expected). “Massively nervous. It’s a good sort of nerves though. We’re all excited and there’s plenty still to do, but it’s Hen Harrier Day, it’s about the bigger issue, it’s about making our messages about birds of prey and wildlife crime as widely available as possible – and like I say we’ve planned hard for this, it’s going to be great.”
I’ve no doubt that it will. In fact, I’ve been wondering whether even if we can all meet up in 2021, an online element to Hen Harrier Day might happen every year. After all, not everyone can get to an event location on the day. “There’s been live streaming from different locations already,” Ruth replies (she’s done it herself on several occasions), “so there will always be something to watch if you can’t get there, and that’s really important. I think even if we’re outside again next year there will always be an online element now. I hope so. But I love seeing everyone, seeing people I’ve maybe not been able to catch up with for a while. That’s really important too.”
I couldn’t agree more. While I have to admit that I feel almost pre-designed for lockdown and would happily work from home until retirement (in fact I’d happily just keep going long after retirement until I finally get told to stop) there is a hugely important social part of campaigning (and birding) that I’ve missed this year. Ruth, I know, is a far more sociable person than I am. Still, she’s also aware that this year’s online event has the potential to achieve just as much as what we used to know exclusively as ‘live’ get togethers.
“Yes, it’s disappointing that we can’t get together and see each other in person this year“, she acknowledges, “but this programme we’re putting on will have a legacy. The event will be online whenever people want to see it – that opportunity to learn about Hen Harriers will always be there – plus we’ll still be raising money for the Langholm Moor Community Buyout after the event of course – it will continue to motivate people, to make a difference, I’m sure of it.“
I know you’re really looking forward to the day now, I say to her, but afterwards, Ruth, is it all champagne and high-fives, or just packing up and sloping off to bed?
She laughs. “Sleep will be the thing I’ll be most looking forward to but I’ll probably be too pumped on high-energy drinks…But you’re right. Saturday will be amazing, I love the pressure of live broadcasting and the great thing about doing a live day is, yes, there’s a lot of hard work, and you’re doing much of it in your spare time, but after it’s done you’ve such a sense of achievement. It’s a fantastic thing to be able to do. And again, all I hope for, what I’d really like, is for people to feel motivated, to make a difference.”
I don’t know a campaigner or activist who doesn’t want to ‘make a difference’. It’s what we all write, record, organise, and work for. Few of us are so prepared to remain in the background as Ruth Peacey though. And few of us do such a great job when they do. Chris and Megan are born presenters. They will be the ‘faces’ of Hen Harrier Day, but let’s not forget the team behind them that will also be putting everything on the line to make sure they – and Hen Harrier Day itself – is presented in the most positive and exciting way possible.
- You can keep up to date with all things Hen Harrier Day 2020 at the official HHD page – henharrierday.uk/online
- Ruth is on Twitter at twitter.com/ruthpeacey
- Header image, Hen Harrier, copyright Mark Hamblin