Questions I’m Frequently Asked

My favourite animal

This is the most often asked question, and one which is probably the hardest to answer. It is like asking an artist what his favourite brush stroke is, or asking a mechanic which spanner he is most fond of. I hope you were not expecting a one word answer!

All living things have the potential to totally blow my mind. It just depends on how we look at them and what we are lucky enough to see.

A zebra spider hunting down a fly on a garden wall has, for me, as much fascination as a herd of zebra out on the African Grasslands. I guess it really depends on what parameters you use to determine favourite.

If it is colour you are looking for, the most outrageous colour combination has to be something like a mantis shrimp looking very much like a psychedelic Chinese dragon dancer. If you are looking for startling contrast, how about the sudden electric blue flash of a morpho butterfly as it skips low through the dank darkness of a rainforest understorey.

Maybe you use exciting and surprising behaviour to decide a favourite, in which case it is hard to beat the hunting strategy of the bolas spider that hangs upside down in the vegetation waiting for a moth to fly by. Or you could be totally predictable and go for simply cute and fluffy – for me that has to mean either my baby daughter or a mouse lemur.

But I am afraid my leanings are toward the underdog. I have always stuck up for those creatures that the rest of us seem to love to hate.

But I am afraid my leanings are toward the underdog. I have always stuck up for those creatures that the rest of us seem to love to hate.

There are many reasons for this, but I guess you could say that all animals that share the planet with us are as important as any other – that goes from the bizarre and hard to imagine parasitic life of the tapeworm, that might live in your gut, to a playful, flamboyant dolphin.

They both have a role to play in the way our planet works, it is just that we tend to feel a connection with a dolphin that simply isn’t there with a tapeworm.

But all things being equal, I have always enjoyed challenging myself and others to look for fascination where they haven’t looked before or where they were not expecting to find it.

So (and I apologise in taking so long getting to the point) my overall favourite animals (and I still cannot quite make my mind up which one of the many species) are wasps!!

My Pets

OK so I am not a cat or dog kind of person – I am sorry. It is not that I have got anything against them, it is just that I am allergic to all dogs (foxes, wolves and jackals included).

Cats, between the 9 million or so in the UK, kill over 55 million native birds (not to mention small mammals, reptiles and amphibians) every year and that is simply a figure I do not wish to add to! I do have a collection of slightly odd and exotic pets that I share my life with though (see the Zoo page).

How did I get to where I am?

This question usually comes to me in one of two forms – how did I get a job in television and how did I get to work with wildlife?

Well, I will start with the wildlife, as this came first and will always be with me.

I have never really known anything else. I have always been quite a curious person and that curiosity definitely started well back, when I was a little boy of just a couple of years of age, with the wildlife in my garden.

I was particularly into the smaller species that could be run down in my Mum and Dad’s herbaceous border, on the patio and amongst the rockery!

I remember being very keen on finding and catching woodlice, beetles and spiders, that I used to find under the stones and rocks in the garden. Much to my parents chagrin I would destroy a lot of their hard work at landscaping the garden; often to get to the best rocks I had to (in the name of science) sacrifice a few of the carefully tended plants that got in the way of my questing feet and hands.

I guess, in a nutshell, somewhere in that sentence is the answer, because I still do those same things. I still ruin rockeries and turn gardens upside down looking for all manner of mini-beasts, only now it is my own garden and there is nobody to tell me off.

I have re-acquainted myself with woodlice and have a small colony in a plastic box on my office desk. I justify it as research for my next book, but really I am just doing what I have been doing since I was six – being curious!

It all started with the BUG CLUB, an organisation that was aimed at young people who loved bugs as I did when I was a kid.

I co-founded this with my lecturer and, now, friend Dr. Clive Betts. It was a simple idea to cater for the young entomologist in every young person, I guess to provide the sort of club that I would have loved as a kid.

The result of this endeavour was to catch the imagination of the press. It started local with newspapers and magazines, then guest appearances on local TV and radio.

I soon learnt that I could talk for England on the subject of our multi-legged and much maligned little friends and this culminated as a guest slot on Blue Peter and also a bit on the then BBC Radio 4 show; the Natural History Programme.

The media had found me, and I had found my voice.

At about the time of my graduation I had started to do voluntary work in the field, working for Butterfly Conservation (the UK Butterfly and Moth conservation charity) and Dartmoor National Park, on a nationally rare butterfly; the high brown fritillary.

This work involved me spending much loved time in the field chasing the threatened high brown fritillary around the moors in a quest to understand its life history and biology. Once again I shouted loud about this important work and once again I frequently found myself in front of news cameras and microphones.

It was at about this time that I had a go at writing. I penned my first short articles with national outreach for the Wildlife Trust magazines and Butterfly Conservation. I was beginning to wonder if I could cut the mustard as a broadcaster, but still had my doubts.

It was not until I was given an opportunity to attend an audition for a BBC television show, Nature Detectives, that things started to happen. I got a job presenting on one of the shows (a piece on a possessed cock pheasant that was attacking customers at a local garden centre) that made me friends in the world renown BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol.

That led in a roundabout way to me being tried out on the Really Wild Show sister programme, the Really Wild Guide to Britain. After a six month contract as a researcher for the Really Wild Show, I found myself in a good position to apply for the up coming vacancy for a presenter on the show to replace Chris Packham, who had decided to move on.

The rest, as they say, is history!!

It all sounds neat and tidy now I have sat down and written it, but it involved quite a lot of focus and determination. On more than one occasion I didn’t take no for an answer. I was fairly persistent, with numerous phone calls and letters to keep up a gentle pressure on situations, without being a pest. Mixed in with all this was a lot of being in the right place at the right time; some was simply good fortune, at other times it was self made luck.

Have you ever been bitten? What was the worst bite?

These are two of the most frequently asked questions. I have to disappoint, on the whole, as the answer probably is not quite as exciting as may be expected.

In my line of work as a naturalist I have often had to learn the hard way, by trial and error. So, yes I have been bitten by snakes and spiders on numerous occasions, probably because there was nothing previously written about this sort of activity and there was no crocodile hunter to emulate.

But despite a career that has had me getting into close proximity to some of the natural world’s most infamous jaws and teeth, from swimming with great white sharks, handling cobras and mambas, to landing crocodiles and extracting vampire bats from nets, it may come as a surprise to learn that my worst two bites to date have been inflicted on me by the sharp end of a squirrel and a gerbil.

The squirrel probably rated the worse of the pair (I still have the scars to prove it!) To make it worse I was in the process of offering the ungrateful mammal a peanut at the time! It sounds pathetic, I know, but in my defense the constantly growing rodent tooth is a beautifully simple and neat self sharpening blade. The front face of the tooth is hard enamel while the back face of the tooth is made of a softer material, so with the tooth constantly growing and the rodent constantly gnawing, the rear half of the tooth wears away faster than the front creating an angle that is always there!

Usually, in the squirrel’s case, a nut or tree trunk would be on the receiving end of the bite so my soft fingers stood no chance.

What is my least favourite animal?

After wasps, human beings are top of my list as a favourite but here is the dilemma – they are also my least favourite animal on earth.

Despite the undeniably fantastic achievements of mankind, the push bike, the hammock, the origin of species, the Aston Martin and i-POD, as well as being the only animal that displays culture – the ability to create leisure time and then fill it doing seemingly pointless things like writing web site copy and sploshing paint on paper – we are also brain throbbingly and inordinately frustratingly stupid monkeys.

For all the gifts we have been given in one hand we are busy screwing things up with the other.

We are, as a species, the only animal that not only destroys and pollutes its own habitat, but we continue to do so with knowledge of the fact, smug in our own belief that by some miracle we will be able to save ourselves after all around us has shriveled up and died.

I am, as a result of this, forever disappointed in life, because just as I start to feel happy about something I remember that I am, and cannot get away from the fact, a human being – literally the worst problem the earth has ever had.

My favourite wildlife encounter

This is a surprisingly easy one and it is a single experience that knocks sharing glances with mountain gorillas, watching the labours of an egg laying female leatherback turtle and having my boots sniffed by a grizzly bear, into a cocked hat – but only just!

The experience was as unexpected for me as it was truly awesome and that was swimming with a large female basking shark.

The thing is, no matter how hard I had tried and tried to simply catch a glimpse of these animals around my home here in the South West of the UK, I never got lucky. After over ten summers questing for the perfect sighting, the basking shark had become my bogey beast; no matter how much effort, how many friends I had out looking with me, I was never in the right place at the right time.

To make a frustrating situation even more unbearable for me was the tendency, almost every year, for the sharks to make what seemed like a coordinated effort to all appear at once; probably a manifestation of the ideal weather and water conditions for the plankton to be at the surface.

On these big shark days, when the sharks make the news with headlines reporting hundreds of the behemoths sighted at once, I was inevitably already tangled up with some commitment. I even tried to get sneaky and convince various TV productions that I worked on to give me the opportunity on several occasions. These ended in either wasted boat trips with no sightings, getting stuck in holiday traffic and missing the boat entirely, or simply being told that they had tried before and had refused, point blank, based on past experiences.

My moment came when Colin, a friend and a director on the Really Wild Show at the time, who understood my passion for this, the second biggest fish in the ocean, took a punt, knowing if we got it we would have a stunning film and some great images.

He arranged for an entire crew to remain on standby for the summer. The deal was that, when we got the tip off from Port Kellis Divers, we were to move fast.

One balmy summer morning the call came and we all mustered. The boat awaited, the water conditions were ideal, calm and glassy, and we set off. Within just a few minutes of motoring we came across the fins of three individuals, two relatively small fish and one absolute whopper.

We cut the engines and watched for a while. The two smaller fish eventually moved on, while we decided to stay with the big fish, which was making the classic figure of eight feeding loops.

The weird thing was that, even though the shark was feeding on plankton, a situation which usually means the water by nature is a little cloudy, in this instance the water was gin clear. We donned wet suit and fins and slipped into the water, trying to predict where the fish was heading and waited in the water.

The feeling you get when the huge ghostly pale maw of a basking shark looms out of the distance, heading straight toward you, is quite indescribable. You feel that you could pass right inside the great fish and out through the gills again without the beast even noticing! The size of the fish is quite overwhelming; you have to say to yourself “it eats plankton, it eats plankton” over and over again.

Other than the sheer presence of such a living bulk in close proximity, the most memorable thing was the way the fish gills bellowed as the water passed through them. At one point the shark dived beneath me and for a second or two I was looking down on its head – the way those gills moved reminded me of satin curtains wafting in a breeze.

The best and my favourite place in the world

Every place I have been I have loved something about it. The sunrises of India, the sheer convenience and biodiversity of Costa Rica, the Alice in Wonderland meets rural England feel of Tasmania or the spectacular diving of Borneo.

They are all very special places to me.

But none of them feel to me like I belong in them. Sure they get me thinking and, for the short time I am there, they fill me with wonder and inspiration.

But for me, my favourite place on earth is that small boggy, soggy corner of Dartmoor near my home. It is a small scruffy, scrubby and, in places, water logged corner of the National Park but being only a few short minutes walk from my home it feels like mine.

It is in a sense – it is my patch, and because I visit it regularly, in all seasons and all weathers, I feel a sense of intimacy.

I know the exact spots where adders can be found basking in the spring time, the tree that the tree pipits like to launch their display flights from and the best places to sit quietly and hide to watch the fox cubs or the badgers.

I love it because I can feel the pulse of the seasons. Even though I sometimes miss an entire season due to work, much like a TV soap opera, because I have known it in the past, I feel I can fill in the gaps and that I automatically get back into the story.

The great thing about getting to know a patch is that you get to try out your skills as a naturalist as well; it was in similar woods and fields as a kid that I taught myself how to observe wildlife and, if I am honest, these are the same skills that I utilise in my every day life as a naturalist now. You see you need to put the same skills into action to get close to either a rabbit or a tiger.

Obviously the outcome is totally different if you get it wrong – but you get the idea!

A bit of career advice for those who want to get a job working with wildlife

Working with wildlife is really a simple extension of that passion for living things. It is something the great E.O. Wilson calls Biophilia.

If you love the subject you simply cannot leave it alone. There are all manner of careers out there that have naturalist written all over them, it is just a case of finding the one for you. You could be a teacher, a wildlife warden, game keeper, field research scientist, artist, zoo keeper or a museum curator. The tricky bit is getting the experience to be employable and I guess there is no substitute for simply volunteering. It is a simple food chain; start at the bottom making tea for free and learn the ropes, the people and the job; be curious, make the most of opportunities as and when they come along, your passion and curiosity will take you on the rest of the journey.

Here is a plan:

1) I am a firm believer in giving something a go – setting targets. First, dream up the job you want to do more than anything else in the world and set your sights high. It could be working with primates or diving with sharks – make your obsession your profession and you will never work again.

2) Do your research. There is no excuse nowadays for not being informed. We have got the world wide web and you obviously know about that otherwise you would not be reading this! Read as much about your chosen subject or occupation as possible and become an expert on paper. This means also looking at all the sorts of jobs that may take you to the places you want to go.

3) What qualifications do you need? Obviously academic qualifications are one route and they are very useful. Speak to people in the sorts of job areas you are interested in and hear their stories.Find out from them what they found useful or if they had the chance to do it all over again what would they change and what they would keep the same. If you do not have a specific goal (I didn’t, I just knew I wanted to work with wildlife) then be as general as possible Academic qualifications A levels, GCSEs, Degrees, Masters or whatever are more than just a way of increasing your status. Yes, it is true, on job application they enable you to tick boxes, but they are so much more. From a much more human perspective the people you meet and the experience you get while studying are often more valuable than you may realise at the time. There are other types of qualification too, for example, if you want to work with sharks the chances are that becoming a qualified diver is going to be rather handy – mind you if you cannot swim you might want to start there. You get the idea, without being patronizing, you basically need to get as many relevant feathers in your cap as possible.

4) Volunteer with experts, societies or organisations that are associated with your chosen career goal. This may seem obvious, but it can take many slightly lateral moves to get what you want. My hairdresser loved stingrays and desperately wanted to work with them in the Caribbean, so she simply looked for, and found, a job cutting hair in Grand Cayman Island and went diving with her fish of dreams on her days off!!

5) Listen and learn, make yourself available to do anything even seemingly dull jobs like the coffee run. Look for opportunities to help out and that way make your own luck to a degree.

6) If things do not seem to be working out, re-muster what you have learnt and try again down another path. It may take some time but if you love it (and I mean really love it) and listen to your critics (both positive and negative) you will get there.

Good luck.