We caught up with him just long enough to hear about the new Our Wildlife project he’s working on with Northumberland Wildlife Trust
I gather you’ve just come back from Sri Lanka. Did you have a fantastic time?
That’s a tale and a half... It’s a fantastic island, but I went out for a run on the last day and I was bitten by a dog so I had to have eight anti-rabies injections out there. It was an experience and a half, but these things happen. Even being bitten by a dog and having to go to a local hospital was an experience. I was out there to do a recording for the radio and also to do a bit of a reckie because I’m being asked to lead tours more and more.
You’ve had a remarkable career. Can you tell us a bit more about how you became a wildlife presenter?
I didn’t particularly like high school. When I was 11 or 12 years old I had to go to school on the bus. I had double physics followed by maths on a Monday morning and I hated physics and I hated maths, so more often than not, especially on a spring day, I’d get off the bus, think I can’t face school and go off finding birds’ nets, tickling fish, finding snakes or climbing trees instead. I was more interested in that than the formal education things really. But I did well enough to scrape two A-levels which was good enough to get me into a college in London. When I left I worked on a farm for a while, then I worked for the forestry, and at the beginning of 1985 I started working for the RSPB. I knew I wanted to become a warden or work with wildlife in some way, so it was my dream job. It was fantastic. I worked there for nearly 15 years, but then a new boss came along – we didn’t get on at all. He was a shirt and tie man. He tried to get me to move up into middle management, which meant giving up a lot of the field work and working in an office and I said it’s never going to happen, it’s not me. In the end it became clear that I had to leave. I’d done somethings for the media before, interviews for TV and such, and they asked me if I wanted to do some wildlife programmes for BBC and for Welsh TV. I said no. I had no desire to go into the media, but then nothing else came up so I phoned them up and said lets give it a go. That was 16 years ago and it’s worked fantastically well for me. I didn’t leave college with the intent of going into TV, it just happened and every day I pinch myself and think, Iolo you’re a lucky, lucky lad. Oddly enough though if I’d not had that new boss then I’d probably still be working for the RSPB now.
So you knew from a young age that you had a passion for wildlife?
Education is a funny thing. My mum and dad were both teachers, but formal education isn’t for everyone. I remember when I was in year 7 at school (form 1 they used to call it) one of the teachers, a nasty individual, had a go at one of the lads who was a farmer’s son, saying, ‘You’re thick boy, you are’. But the thing is that he wasn’t thick. He wasn’t good at history and he wasn’t good at maths, but if someone brought an engine in and took it to bits then he was the only one in that whole room who could have put that engine back together. What I love about what I do is that I learn new things every single day and the wonderful thing about working on TV is that I get to go to new areas, see new things, and meet new people. There’s nothing better than when you’re out looking at an animal or a bird and you’re with someone who knows that subject really well. I pick their brains for the audience, but I’m learning new things as well. It’s a brilliant job. I hope I carry on learning new things until the day I die.
Most of us know you from Springwatch and Countryfile. That must be a fantastic job?
Yes it’s lovely. It’s a great job because wildlife is my hobby and to be paid to work with it is a dream come true. The only downside is that I’m away from home a lot and the responsibility of looking after my two boys falls to my wife. She’s been fantastic because I couldn’t have done all of this without her.
What advice would you give to parents who are keen to get their children interested in nature and wildlife?
It’s an odd time. We’re concerned about people being overweight and not being active enough and the good thing about getting out and enjoying the wildlife is that you’re getting fit as well. They key thing is to get them hooked young. Get youngsters out looking in ponds for newts and dragonflies. You’ll get them hooked and even if they lose interest for a while, you’ve put that seed there and they’ll come back to it later in life. My kids have grown up now and Dad isn’t a hero anymore, but that appreciation of the countryside and the wildlife is still with them. In this digital age, wildlife for most people is what they see on TV or in games. If they go out to a garden, a park or the seaside, they’ll see there’s so much magic out there for them to enjoy. It’s all very well sitting people down in a room and talking, but there’s nothing better than going outside. More and more people say have a look at it but don’t touch it, I’m all for youngsters picking things up and having a look at it, as long as they respect it, put it back where it was and treat it gently.
Do you adopt the same attitude with your own children?
Yes, when they were at primary school, if I was doing something particularly interesting then I’d take them off school. If I was going to see dolphins or adders or puffins then I’d take them with me and they loved it.
I gather that people will have the opportunity to ask their own burning questions at the Our Wildlife day on Sunday 27th September?
I’m always a little bit nervous about Q&As because I remember giving a talk many moons ago and asking for questions at the end. People were asking great questions and I thought excellent I can answer these and then I said, ‘Okay, we’ve got time for one more’. There was a little boy sat right at the front and he asked, ‘How many feathers has a vulture got?’ The difficult questions nearly all come from children, you never know what they’re going to ask.
What are the most bizarre situations you’ve found yourself in?
Charged by grizzly bears, in the water with a tiger shark... But if you’re with the right people, people who know and respect their animals, than things very rarely go wrong. There have been hair-raising moments, but I’ve always had faith in the people that I’ve been with.
Have there been any particular moments when you’ve feared for your life?
I was in Alaska, more than 10 years ago now, and we’d flown out into the middle of nowhere. We were filming grizzly bears that were feeding on salmon that had travelled up the river to spawn. We were filming a mother and her cubs and we were a good distance away, but for no apparent reason the mother turned, looked at us and charged. They always say with a grizzly bear, don’t run because they can run faster than you, don’t jump in the water because they can swim better than you, don’t climb a tree because they can climb better than you, so I was thinking, ‘What on earth do we do now?’ Luckily we had a really good guide with us, he had a gun but he never raised it. He said, ‘Stand up, put your arms in the air and make lots of noise’. But when a nine-foot grizzly bear is bounding towards you, the only noise I could make was a little squeak. Luckily the bear stopped 10 metres away, walked up and down and then walked back. All it was was a warning – she was showing us how big she was and telling us to back off. We did and after that she was fine. That was a moment when I thought that was it. Another tip for you though, if you are going to go out filming then go out with people who aren’t as fast as you. If I’d had to run then I knew I was faster than all the others, so I’d have been okay.
What have been the highlights of your career?
I remember when I was a little lad seeing pictures of polar bears, grizzly bears and blue whales and thinking that it would be great to see these animals, but it will probably never happen. That’s the amazing thing, through my work it has happened. Highlights would have to be seeing a blue whale off Iceland. It’s the biggest animal that’s ever lived – it’s heart is the size of a Mini Cooper and a little two-year-old child could swim through the biggest arteries. It’s an amazing beast. To see that is a very humbling experience, because it reminds you of just how insignificant we are. I’ve been to look for tigers three times (India, Siberia and Nepal) but apart from a tail I’ve never seen one in the wild. They’re such amazing animals and because of the market for bones in China, they’re on the verge of extinction I fear. It’s so sad. I’d love to see tigers in the wild.
A little closer to home is there anything we can do to protect the wildlife on our doorstep?
There are little steps that we can all take. The obvious one is to join your local Wildlife Trust because you know that money is going to a really good cause and you get a lot from it too. You get access to their reserves and a lot of information through the quarterly magazine. You can also turn your garden into a little wildlife refuge – plant some natural wild flowers, a little orchard, a pond, put up nest boxes, put up a bird table, put boxes out for wasps and bees, or pile wood in a corner of the garden where hedgehogs can nest. We tend to be obsessed with tidiness and neatness in our gardens, which is a shame because it’s not good for wildlife. Everybody can do it.
Hear more of Iolo’s amazing stories, learn about animal protection and conservation, and get hands-on with local species at Our Wildlife at Kirkley Hall near Ponteland on Sunday 27th September. For more information and to book tickets visit www.nwt.org.uk