Steve Backshall on what he loves most about the Berkshire and Buckinghamshire countryside
PUBLISHED: 10:00 08 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:00 08 June 2015
For once Steve Backshall is closer to home – so Jo Neville caught up with the worldwide explorer to discover why he loves our countryside
Wildlife expert Steve Backshall has explored exotic and remote locations all over the world and encountered some of the planet’s most beautiful and deadly species. The 42-year-old award-winning presenter is also a best-selling writer and has competed in numerous endurance events including the Marathon des Sables across the Sahara. When he’s taking a break from swimming with great white sharks, tribal initiation ceremonies and scaling sheer mountains, his home for the last 15 years has been near Marlow. Why did he decide to settle here?
“Well, it was by mistake really. When I returned from living in Japan in my twenties, a lot of my friends lived in London. I joined them, but hated the environment. I visited a friend in Marlow and absolutely loved it. Being by the river is the biggest draw; it offers such peace and solitude.”
In the last few months Steve has moved about a mile and a half just over the border into Berkshire, but is still beside the Thames. “Being on the river so often, I recognise individual birds and track their progress. I have watched a pair of Great Crested Grebes through the year, following their courtship displays and nest-building, then seen them carrying the young grebes on their backs to teach them how to swim and dive. I usually see a kingfisher every day. Seeing an egret used to be a red letter day, but now I spot them regularly. There’s just a cacophony of wildlife.”
Time spent on the river isn’t just a relaxing hobby. During March he trained for the gruelling DW Race to raise money for World Land Trust which protects rainforests from illegal logging. Held over the Easter weekend, The DW Race is a 125 mile kayak race from Devizes to Westminster that competitors aim to complete in under 24 hours. With his race partner George Barnicoat, an Oxford Brookes sports coaching student, Steve completed the race within the time limit, an experience he describes as ‘23 hours and 17 minutes of hell’. He has however, raised up to £50,000, enough to save an area of Colombian rainforest the size of Monaco.
Closer to home, Steve is committed to protecting local wildlife. Since 2010 he has been President of BBOWT, the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust. “It’s a great honour. I’ve travelled the world visiting extraordinary places, but I think it’s so important to treasure and conserve the natural beauty in our own back yard. It’s our heritage and our responsibility to protect it.”
The trust was founded in 1959 by local ecologists and protects over 2,500 hectares spread over 80 nature reserves. BBOWT runs events and environmental programmes which inspire and educate thousands of children, and plays a key role in influencing politicians and planners. With no core governmental funding, it can only continue its work with the support of the 54,000 members. Steve says: “We are fortunate that our area is so diverse and spectacular, ranging from the wonderful Chiltern Hills to ancient woodlands and flower filled meadows. I love College Lake in north Bucks – it’s such an iconic reserve and an example of how a natural landscape can be restored.” Once a chalk and cement works, the 65 hectare site supports many habitats. Its marsh is the breeding ground for a third of all the lapwing and redshank in the county and the reserve is regarded as one of the best places for watching water birds.
“I also love the ancient woodland at Warburg Nature Reserve – it’s incredibly peaceful and you can spot owls, moths and jewel-like ruby tailed wasps. It’s amazing to see something so exotic-looking living in this country; nature always has the power to surprise.” Four miles from Henley, the reserve is home to 15 types of orchid, and 900 varieties of fungi and rare butterflies, including the purple hairstreak and the silver-washed fritillary. The reserve is named after Dr E F Warburg, a distinguished Oxford-based botanist and trust founder member.
From 1 to 14 June BBOWT is running the Oxford Festival of Nature and on June 7 Steve will join entomologist George McGavin for ‘Bugs and Beyond’ at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Having worked together on documentaries including Expedition Borneo and Lost Land of the Jaguar, they will be sharing stories of their adventures and revealing favourite bugs and wildlife at the ticketed event.
Despite breaking his back in a climbing fall in 2008 and undergoing 13 operations on his shattered ankle, Steve competed in Strictly Come Dancing in 2014. During his nine week run, numerous children had their photo taken with the life-size cardboard cut-outs of Steve draped in a green feather boa at BBOWT reserves. Through his programmes such as Deadly 60, Steve has inspired children to become interested in nature and he believes that, in our world of technology, it has never been a more important time to get them outdoors.
“Children love to experience the tangible sights, sounds and smells of nature, to feel that moment of elation when you see a species for the first time. It’s so important to get them intrigued and inspired. They are the decision makers of the future – so we must get them involved now. Nurturing a love of nature when they are young will stay with them for life.”
Even with his hectic schedule, Steve makes time for the trust’s members and according to Wendy Tobitt, BBOWT’s Media & Campaigns Manager, he always makes an impact. “Steve has a brilliant rapport with children and wows everyone who meets him at Wildlife Trust Family Watch events. Hundreds of members have been able to have fabulous close-up contact with native and non-native wildlife thanks to Steve. He loves answering their questions and encourages parents to let children have more fun getting close to nature. Steve is a great inspiration.”
Given his positive influence would he ever go into politics? “I wouldn’t be drawn into politics any time soon, but it’s important that people consider environmental policies when voting. Some politicians are genuinely concerned for conservation and act on their beliefs rather than paying lip service.” And HS2? “It’s a tricky one because I believe it’s incredibly important that we have an updated public transport. At present, it’s so bad that it is almost impossible to use and our reliance on cars is bad for the environment. However, I think the current plans for HS2 have been badly thought through with not enough care and attention given to environmental issues.” BBOWT are calling for the government to properly address the impact of HS2 on wildlife and ecosystems.
Having achieved so much, what is Steve most proud of? “It would have to be the first ever ascent of Mount Upuigma in Venezuela filmed for Lost Land of the Jaguar in 2007. We spent 5 days climbing and sleeping on the vertical cliff face and discovered previously unknown species on the table top plateau.” A few months later, Steve had his life-changing fall. Given his determination, it’s no surprise that this year he will be returning to Mount Upuigma for another climbing expedition.
In autumn, Steve will be taking his ‘Steve Backshall’s Wild World’ tour to UK theatres to talk about experiences that have inspired his fictional children’s series, ‘The Falcon Chronicles’.
For most of us, this is the closest we will get to the experience of a jungle expedition. Fortunately for residents of our counties, however, The Great Outdoors is on the doorstep.
For more information on BBOWT’s reserves and events go to www.bbowt.org.uk.
• Karen Kay: discovering a relatively cheap way of visiting more of the world - Look! There’s a big, wide world out there and Karen’s discovered an intriguing - and relatively cheap - way to see and enjoy a lot more of our planet’s great outdoors
• Kate Humble on growing up in Bray and presenting Kew on a Plate - The TV star says her Bray childhood was like ‘The Famous Five’ with the bonus of growing her very own ‘Five A Day’. Photos courtesy of BBC/Lion Television/photographer Laura Rawlinson