Interview: Springwatch presenter Iolo Williams

John Miles chats to the BBC Springwatch TV presenter...

Iolo Williams with Ewan Miles

Iolo Williams with Ewan Miles

We were sitting in a hide on the RSPB’s reserve at Loch Gruinart on Islay watching a number of different species – Barnacle, Greenland White-fronted and Icelandic Greylag Geese, ducks, such as Teal, Shoveler, Pintail and Wigeon, and waders like Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff – when an adult female Hen Harrier flew into view. Many of the ducks exploded into the air, as the raptor searched for prey around the many pools.

Myself, my son Ewan and naturalist and TV presenter Iolo Williams were helping guide a small group of birders with Nature Scotland, and this bird was one of Iolo’s specials, as he had found them close to where he lived as a young boy. But he was enraged about the eradication of this bird from many parts of Scotland, England and even Wales, especially from areas managed for Red Grouse.

It was his taid (Welsh for granddad) who took him out into the countryside to look at nature and started his interest. It was not just birds of prey, but all species, with nest-finding a great way to learn about the habitats needed by each species.

His mum Meg was a great nest-finder, showing the patience to sit and wait and watch the bird’s movements to follow it back to a nest while his dad, Dai, was happy to be out in the countryside as a break from his job as a headteacher in local schools. Iolo learned about fishing from his granddad, too, as well as which plants and fungi you could eat, and even where to look for lizards sitting out in a sunny spot.

It was this upbringing that pushed Iolo to his first job with the RSPB in Wales, after gaining a degree in Ecology in London. His job was to look after protected species, such as Hen Harrier, Chough and even Nightjars, in his beloved Wales.

He loved being out in ‘his country’ and, as a fluent Welsh speaker, was well adapted to the job. It covered the whole country, but the Berwyn Mountains was one of his favourite areas, as so much moorland wildlife could be found there then.

Iolo worked under Roger Lovegrove, who spent 27 years building up the Welsh office for the RSPB, and folk like Stephany Tiller, who had a thing for Dippers! But this came to an end when the RSPB tried to have him sitting behind a desk. Gone would be that sense of freedom, walking out in the moors. Instead, pushing paper was to be the way forward. So, his 15 years working for the RSPB finished in 1998.

It was a very hard decision as he now had a wife and two young sons to look after.

The last few years with the RSPB had brought him to the attention of TV. In 1997, BBC Wales approached him to work on a new series called Visions of Snowdonia which followed the lives of six people living and working on the slopes of Wales’ highest mountain.

It was a success, so he was offered a second series – this time, Iolo was ‘Birdman’, in a series following him around looking at birds. It even took him to Italy, where he woke up to the start of the shooting season there, with 800,000 guns blasting away. Not even at game birds like Pheasants and Red Grouse, either, but often species as small as Robins and House Sparrows. The experience made him sick to the stomach.

It was this taste of the camera that would keep him busy, especially on Welsh TV. New series included Wild Wales, Wild Winter, Iolo’s Special Reserves, Iolo’s Natural History of Wales and Iolo’s Welsh Safari’ These were done both in Welsh and English and he also co-presented several network series such as Nature’s Top 40 and Countryfile. His big break came in 2011, while filming in North America.

As a boy, Iolo had loved playing cowboys and Indians – though he always wanted to take the role of the native American, rather than cowboy! He was filming a six-part series for the Welsh channel S4C, meeting up with six different tribes. This series showed him how easy it was for tribes to lose their language in a modern society, something paralleled at home in Wales.

After completing the series he was having a few drinks with a couple of French Canadians before flying home, so the last thing he was expecting at 4am was a phone call from England and none other than Chris Packham asking him if he wanted a shot at presenting on Springwatch. It was Springwatch that brought Iolo firmly into the public eye, so much so he has been called The Ambassador for Nature in Wales. This took another step forward on 22 May, 2013, when he memorably addressed the Welsh Assembly. Speeches were being given simultaneously in London, Edinburgh and Belfast regarding the State of the Nation’s Wildlife, but this one caught public attention for the sheer dedication and devotion to Wales Iolo spelt out, and his views on how the country had been let down by those who should be looking after it – the heads of conservation!

Watch Iolo’s speech

All this TV, now including Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch, as well as more Welsh programs such as Rugged Wales, Snowdonia and Great Welsh Parks for BBC 2, brought him new adventures, such as tour guiding. This was down to the Grant Arms Hotel in Speyside offering him his first tour, and he now regularly returns to the hotel at least twice a year.

Other tours take him to the wilds of Mull (with my son Ewan), Islay, North Wales, Shetland, Orkney, and many other UK destinations with other tour companies, as well as South America, India and Africa.

Iolo with Hugh Gillings and Ewan Miles

Iolo with Hugh Gillings and Ewan Miles

Writing books is another part of his life, having written several on and around Wales, including some in Welsh. His Wild Places: Wales Top 40 Nature Sites has been reprinted, and he is currently doing a British version of this – being such a proud Welshman, I suggested this was just the same book with 40 sites in Wales! “Well, 39,” claimed Iolo, laughing.

With everything happening, you’d think he had no spare time but one sport is his passion and that is Rugby Union (best not to mention England then!), which he played for many years.

He still keeps fit and, even on tours, can be seen running, before guests get up for breakfast. Both his sons follow his love for sport and Tomos has already got a cap for playing for Wales, but in football at Under-18 level, not rugby, while Dewi is studying Sports Science at university and has a feel for nature, going on a trip to Zambia with his dad.

In 2017, Iolo received an honorary fellowship from the University of South Wales for his work promoting wildlife and Wales. He is involved with 10 charities either as president, patron or ambassador, and gives talks to local wildlife groups and the like. He is a professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) dive-master as well as being a qualified paraglider (a real birdman!) and one of his dreams is to fly with all the great birds in the world.

So far, he has flown with Red Kites and Buzzards in Wales, but wants to do the same with vultures in Nepal and hopes a series can be made of it in the near future.

As the late Steve Irwin found out to his cost, working with wildlife can have its dangers; and filming in Fort Yates, North Dakota, Iolo stepped on a rattlesnake. Fortunately, the snake just grabbed his jeans and not his leg.

“Had I been wearing shorts, I’m sure it would have been a very different story,” he said. “I would have had to spend quite some time in hospital, as they are very venomous. But it was a beautiful thing, with lovely markings, about four feet long, and about six years old – you can tell because of the rings on the rattle.”

With Britain on a new road after Brexit, nature needs folk like Iolo more and more, and let’s hope not just the Welsh Assembly listen to what he has to say, but any British Government as well, because we are a poorer nation if we lose our wildlife.