“I’ve been chased by bears ele­phants and tigers”

The Scot­tish wildlife pre­sen­ter talks to No.1 about close en­coun­ters with po­lar bears, liv­ing along­side wolves and meet­ing David At­ten­bourgh

No. 1 Magazine - - INTERIORS & LIFESTYLE -

Igrew up in Mull and dur­ing my school years I re­ally mucked around, so by the time I got to 16 I didn’t re­ally know what I wanted to do. I’d messed up all my choices and hadn’t worked hard so I had no chance of go­ing to univer­sity or col­lege.

I de­cided to take a job in a restau­rant over the sum­mer and the owner’s hus­band was a wildlife cam­era­man.

I chat­ted a bit with him about what he did – he needed an as­sis­tant and of­fered me a job. I’d never thought about do­ing that for a liv­ing but I loved be­ing out­side and I love wildlife shows – I’d just never thought about the per­son who made them. I packed in my job and off I went to Sierra Leone in West Africa for 18 months at the age of 17.

While all my friends were at univer­sity, go­ing out and en­joy­ing them­selves, I was sat in a for­est in West Africa.

In some ways it was good that I didn’t re­alise what I was get­ting my­self into, but it was tough, there wasn’t so­cial net­work­ing or email, so I’d write home once a month.

BIG CAT DI­ARY I spent a few years try­ing to get enough work and then I man­aged to get in­volved with the BBC work­ing on Big Cat Di­ary. It

was a dream job as I used to watch ev­ery episode. We set­tled on Bella as a name for our leop­ard and we filmed her in her prime, leop­ards liv­ing in the wild have a tough time, and by the time we fin­ished she was start­ing to lose her edge. A few years af­ter we fin­ished film­ing I spot­ted her in a pro­gramme and by then she was on her last legs. I felt re­ally sad – we fol­lowed her so in­ti­mately for many hours of a day that it was hard to see this an­i­mal at the top of her game on her way out.

CLOSE ES­CAPE I’ve had a few close en­coun­ters. Some of the most fright­en­ing have been get­ting chased by ele­phants, tigers and bears, all of which were pretty scary.

Some­times you wouldn’t know they were there then you’d stum­ble across them and get a real shock. Dur­ing the film­ing of The Po­lar Bear Fam­ily & Me was one of the times I worked in what would be classed as real dan­ger as po­lar bears do see peo­ple as food.

Po­lar bears are not to be messed with, so we de­cided to use a po­lar bear proof hide that looked like a big per­spex box.

It meant we could ob­serve out on the ice with­out be­ing in dan­ger. But never did we think that we would have such a close en­counter. We had tri­alled it and the bears had walked by not re­ally both­er­ing with it.

But once I be­gan film­ing this po­lar bear be­came a lit­tle bit too in­ter­ested and headed straight for me.

And whilst the box was de­signed to with­stand a bear at­tack, the lock on the win­dow had rat­tled off. The po­lar bear be­gan sys­tem­at­i­cally try­ing to get in, she had picked up my scent strong­est from the weak­est point of the box – the door. To make mat­ters worse the hide was on a sledge and at one point she was push­ing it, slid­ing it across the ice which had huge holes in it! The safety mea­sure was if it got too hairy the rest of the crew were 3oo me­tres back, but it wasn’t some­thing I’d want to re­peat. It was fright­en­ing but it was con­sid­ered and con­trolled. A few days later a po­lar bear wan­dered up to the ship we were us­ing as a base whilst we were film­ing and stuck her head through the port­hole into the kitchen where the chef was mak­ing cook­ies!

There has been one oc­ca­sion that I thought my time was up – but it didn’t in­volve a wild an­i­mal.

When we were film­ing the po­lar bears we were based on a ship in a re­ally ex­posed part of the Arc­tic. We ended up right in the mid­dle of a 48-hour storm and there was nowhere to take shel­ter. These boats are de­signed to with­stand a lot, but when you start hear­ing things crash­ing about that aren’t meant to, it’s time to worry as it means the boat is do­ing some­thing that it hasn’t done be­fore. The boat wasn’t rock­ing like you would ex­pect, in­stead it was plum­met­ing down­wards with each enor­mous wave then crash­ing into each wave. Two days we spent think­ing one huge wave was go­ing to even­tu­ally sink us. Dur­ing that point I just kept vi­su­al­is­ing where the lifeboats were and how we would get them ready. Our field pro­ducer was re­ally badly sea-sick so he folded his mat­tress in half and sat in the cup­board in his room wedged in­side his mat­tress for two days.

LIV­ING WITH WOLVES One of my favourite jobs was trav­el­ling to the Arc­tic to film Snow Wolf Fam­ily And Me.

One thing ev­ery wolf knows is that they should be scared of hu­mans as for thou­sands of years we have hunted them. So in the few places you do still find wolves, they aren’t ter­ri­fied of hu­mans, but they know to be ex­tremely wary. Whereas when you go to the Arc­tic there are no peo­ple so the wolves don’t know to be wary. That re­la­tion­ship there isn’t based on fear, it’s cu­rios­ity.

When we touched down in the he­li­copter I no­ticed about 15 me­tres away this wolf wan­der­ing to­wards us. I ab­so­lutely jumped out my skin.

I’ve never had such a big wild an­i­mal walk up to us so blasé. We thought maybe it was blind and hadn’t no­ticed us, but then it very de­lib­er­ately looked at each one of us. We backed off and it walked round sniff­ing our equip­ment and then walked off. I knew then we were onto some­thing re­ally spe­cial as it’s not of­ten you go to such a re­mote part of the world to find an elu­sive an­i­mal and it just walks up to you. It was the best thing I’ve ever done, they would come up and sniff our boots. By the end of the project we were happy to be sur­rounded by the whole pack and they would go off hunt­ing and leave us with the cubs.

Although wolves have killed peo­ple in other places, we didn’t have any con­cerns.

I was con­fi­dent that I knew them well enough that they wouldn’t at­tack us, but that said you could def­i­nitely have done things that would have made it hap­pen. Like if we were ly­ing on the ground and looked vul­ner­a­ble, or hap­pened to make a squeak, or funny noise they com­pletely changed their be­hav­iour. Sud­denly the at­mos­phere would change and you could see them look­ing at you dif­fer­ently and very in­tently.

I think even­tu­ally they will rein­tro­duce wolves in Scot­land, a wolves’ job is to curb deer num­bers but also to keep them mov­ing to stop them stay­ing in an area and de­stroy­ing the veg­e­ta­tion.

Beavers are com­ing back and we may in­tro­duce lynx, so it’s a nat­u­ral pro­gres­sion to­wards habi­tat restora­tion. We use the land in a very dif­fer­ent way than in years gone by, there’s a huge amount of Scot­land that’s ded­i­cated to a few species. I’m not against grouse shoot­ing for ex­am­ple, but there’s only a lim­ited amount of peo­ple who can af­ford to do it.

DED­I­CA­TION Some peo­ple think it would be ter­ri­ble spend­ing end­less days (or nights) just wait­ing on an an­i­mal ap­pear­ing but I see it a bit like a game.

With each pass­ing day you get closer to un­cov­er­ing what these an­i­mals are do­ing. The long­est stint I had was when we were film­ing Planet Earth Two –I spent 30 nights wait­ing and wait­ing for a sight­ing of this leop­ard. Even­tu­ally I got the footage I needed and the wait paid off.

MEET­ING AN IDOL I didn’t think David At­ten­bor­ough would have a clue who I was.

Then dur­ing an in­ter­view a jour­nal­ist men­tioned that he had spo­ken re­ally highly of me. I didn’t want to be im­mod­est and ask ‘What did he say?’. But I was des­per­ate to Google it! I wrote to him and said it would be fan­tas­tic to meet up and he wrote straight back say­ing to

call him as he doesn’t do email. It was re­ally sur­real call­ing David At­ten­bor­ough! He’s so in­flu­en­tial and such a fig­ure­head in this in­dus­try. They al­ways say not to meet your idol and I was ner­vous about meet­ing him but he didn’t let me down, he lived up to my ex­pec­ta­tions.

AD­JUST­ING TO FAM­ILY LIFE When I’m home I have to switch off this windswept and in­ter­est­ing life­style. I love be­ing back with my fam­ily, but some­times I strug­gle to get used to do­ing the bor­ing stuff, like go­ing to Mor­risons.

I used to have a good tol­er­ance do­ing the mun­dane things that you have to do in life but I’ve been spoilt.

I love nor­mal­ity though, I can’t get enough of Satur­day night TV – be­fore my last trip I was glued to Bri­tain’s Got Tal­ent and Take Me Out! I think peo­ple are sur­prised I like that type of thing!

In some ways I want a nor­mal life but I sup­pose my job is my ver­sion of nor­mal. I’m not com­pla­cent about the op­por­tu­ni­ties I’ve been given and the places I get to go to. But I’ve been do­ing it such a long time – the last trip for ex­am­ple I was up in the moun­tains of Tur­key then I flew straight to Aus­tralia for 10 days. I re­ally look for­ward to get­ting home, I re­ally miss it when I’m away.

I love the job and I’m pas­sion­ate about it but I also want a nor­mal life, my job is very self­ish, I leave my wife Wendy on her own with two kids which is re­ally hard.

My wife didn’t nec­es­sar­ily choose this life but us hav­ing kids co­in­cided with when I needed to be re­ally busy and I needed to take ev­ery job that came along, but I look at my friends and I re­alise that hav­ing kids in gen­eral is re­ally de­mand­ing. The most im­por­tant job I have is be­ing a hus­band and fa­ther and if I had to pri­ori­tise they would come first.

Gor­don gets a lit­tle too close to a Po­lar Bear

The wolves showed no fear of the film crew dur­ing film­ing of Snow Wolf Fam­ily and Me

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