REPORTER Ruth Sanderson got the ultimate reward for working on a new programme called Home Ground – watching dolphins at play!
“It was incredible. They spent about 15 minutes circling the boat and flipping over. All the guys on the boat were astounded watching these dolphins having a brilliant time. It was like we were being rewarded and surprised by nature [for their work on the series],” she told me.
Produced by Below The Radar, Home Ground is set to hit TV screens on Monday 25 April at 7.30pm. It will also be available to viewers in the Republic who have access to BBC One Northern Ireland.
Changing outlook on rural home ground
When I was growing up, programmes that dealt with rural life focused mainly on beef prices at the marts and tended to show lots of clips of cows being milked or being brought in to be milked.
That was understandable as they were being targeted solely at farmers – and anyone who knows farmers will know they are experts in their own field (no pun intended). No dairy farmer passes a field of cows without automatically assessing herd size and quality.
In more recent years, programme-makers have cottoned onto the fact that rural life is multi-dimensional and that it makes for good television.
When you consider it, rural topics include nature and conservation, the decline of communities because of migration towards urban areas, family life on the land, cottage industries, and, dare I say it, the impact of the European Union on country living – and that’s just a handful of examples!
“Shifting cattle on a barge around Strangford Lough and searching for birdlife on the Glenarm River, presenters Jo Scott, Gavin Andrews and reporter Ruth Sanderson have been right across Northern Ireland, celebrating the richness of rural life. The series will be looking at subjects that help define our sense of place and our relationship with the land on which we live,” the Home Ground press release says.
But it wasn’t until I got to chat with Ruth, who cut her teeth on BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today, that I got a real sense of what Home Ground is all about.
Ruth grew up in the countryside but, like many, “didn’t necessarily take much notice of it”, until she started travelling around the UK for radio, discovering that there’s more to rural life than herd sizes and milk quotas.
“It’s really lovely to come back and rediscover why farming and rural life is so important,” she says of her return to Northern Ireland, adding: “The wide appeal of Home Ground is that everybody in Northern Ireland has some connection with the countryside whether they are living in a rural community or their grandfather or great grandfather did.”
She says that the new programme is aimed at anyone who has an interest in what’s happening in the Irish countryside, adding: “People care about things like the provenance of their food, environmental issues, interesting characters, or getting back to nature. The value of programmes like ours is that they certainly raise awareness of the countryside and the different aspects of it.”
While urbanites might still cling onto a perception of “whinging farmers looking for handouts”, Ruth says we should all remember that these are the people who help put food on our table. And in a place that’s less than 14,000km2 you’re never far from land that produces dairy, meat, arable crops or vegetables!
Ruth’s top Home Ground topics
I asked Ruth if there were any subjects that stood out for her while making the series and she immediately told me about the plight of rural GPs – one programme looks at a doctor who has worked for half a century but can’t find anyone to take over his surgery.
“No-one wants to be a rural GP,” she says. It’s a crisis that that representative bodies on both side of the border have been expressing alarm about.
She also got to spend a day with Ireland and Ulster rugby player Rory Best, who replaces his boots for wellies when he’s working on the family’s Co Armagh farm, which breeds Aberdeen Angus cattle, with viewers set to discover that being a successful sportsman and a good farmer requires similar “discipline and care”.
And Ruth met a family from Limavady who can’t get a government grant to fix their protected thatch roof – finding out that it’s one of the most important in Ireland.
But for once-in-a lifetime moments, it has to be the bottlenosed dolphins who provided the kind of unscripted surprises that make for excellent television! A true gift from Mother Nature!
Home Ground begins on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday 25 April at 7.30pm (viewers in the Republic will need to check if they have access to the station).