Colin Gannon spoke to Colin Stafford-Johnson, one of the world’s best wildlife camera people ahead of his tour of UK Irish centres
Every child is born with a natural intrigue and curiosity about the environment that they find themselves in.
Like all good documentarians of nature and its fullness, Colin Stafford-Johnson maintained that intrigue into adult- hood, fashioning it into a treasured career.
His father, Barney, was a TV gardener on RTÉ, so his blood runs green.
As a youngster, growing up Cabinteely, a village in south Dublin, Stafford-Johnson’s home extended into beautifully unspoiled areas of streams, marsh and swamp, burgeoning with wild creatures.
It’s here where he first became engrossed by anything that climbed, flew, slithered or crawled. “It’s where I spent my childhood,” he remembers.
His family later acquired a cottage near the Devil’s Glen – a large, picturesque valley in rural Wicklow rich in forestry and plant-life that became his playground. “It changed everything for me.
There was hundreds of acres of woodland to explore and there was never anyone there in those days. Every Spring was spent looking for birds nests and frog spawn and everything else.”
After a career of exploratory TV series and dramatic documentary films – and countless accolades – Stafford-Johnson is transitioning, much like good screen-actors do, to the stage.
Last November he brought a 15-date theatre show to Irish venues.
Over the coming weeks, he takes the Living a Wild Life tour across the Irish sea after a hugely positive response.
Prior to the first set of dates, a sense of trepidation took hold considering it was his first time public speaking which was neither in front of, or behind a camera.
Those fears soon vanished after highly-engaged audiences of up to 500 flocked to theatre venues around the country.
The show itself covers his career trajectory, some of his favourite clips, along with the anecdotes that explain their existence.
It is conveniently split into two distinct halves: the first focuses on overseas adventures; the second on his Irish works.
“The stories about the sequences are often more interesting than the sequences themselves.”
The first time he was commissioned for a show he was tasked with finding a tiger at ‘an interesting place’ within their life cycle in India.
Over 200 days Stafford-Johnson came to the realisation that this was the pathway for him.
He chose a young tigress carefully – one who was leaving her mother and two sisters after being together on a kill.
“There was just something about her that made me want to follow her.”
Over time this tigress, whom he had named Machali, became the most photographed tigress in the world.
During the early stages of his career, Stafford-Johnson’s work became defined by tigers.
“Tigers were my bread and butter. As I often say to people, I raised my children on tiger cubs because that’s what paid the bills,” he quips.
As well as filming for the likes of Planet Earth on the BBC, he has won a slew of awards for self-presented productions, including Broken Tail’s Last Journey.
Undoubtedly his favourite work to date, this documentary saw him travel more than 200 miles across the breadth of India to discover what had happened to Machali’s cub – Broken Tail – whom he had filmed since a cub.
The very first time he worked with tigers was also, miraculously, the first time a tiger fight had ever been caught on film and it happened just metres from where he stood.
“I felt the tension building up for weeks and it climaxed and I happened to get into the right position to film it.”
Has he developed over time the ability to predict animal behaviours?
“You definitely get better at reading signs. You’re listening like all of the creatures for alarm calls and warning calls.
“When you’re listening out, you can tell, and you’ll know if it’s coming towards you because the bird alarm calls are coming towards you,” he says. “
“You want the camera to be running when the action happens. You’ve always gotta be ready.”
His long-spanning and much-celebrated international career meant that he was overseas for up to 200 days in a year which, of course, affected family life.
For this reason, and to help promote Irish wildlife, he decided to create more Irish shows and is now based almost full-time out of Westport, Mayo.
Filming Irish shows, he says, involves finding perfect gaps in Ire- land’s unpredictable and unreliable weather. “You don’t want a grey, flat ocean. You want a sparkling blue ocean,” he continues.
“If I have to look at Met.ie one more time – I’ll scream.”
Stafford-Johnson’s homespun “projects, including last year’s breath-taking Wild Ireland: Edge of the World, have led to ad- ventures across the island of Ireland.
His recent documentary On a River in Ireland was based on his exploration by canoe of the flora and fauna of the river Shannon; picking up prestigious awards at both the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and the Golden Panda at Wildscreen in the process.
He credits much of his successes to each production and editing team he has worked with.
Greystones-based Crossing the Line studios, who he works with frequently, are highly-acclaimed and world-renowned.
They are nominated for four Emmys next month and won the biggest prize in wildlife filmmaking three years in a row.
“Nobody, including the BBC, has ever done that.” Stafford-Johnson enthuses.
Last week, just days after Stafford-Johnson spoke to the Irish World, he took a flight to Iceland for a BBC project expected in 2019.
First Year on Earth will see Stafford-Johnson capture and dramatise the first 12 months of life for arctic foxes and sea otters.
Stafford-Johnson’s magnetic presenting style oozes class. In his voice you also hear a reverence towards untouched, unsullied areas of natural beauty, but this also translates to his how he captures wondrous images from behind the camera.
Preferring camera-work to presenting largely due to its parallels to his days roaming idly as a child, his fondest memories are of secluded bliss.
He describes such a scene: He’s built a platform and is sitting tall in the rainforest canopy. He’s watching the sun-rise, waiting for local monkeys to emerge from a particular area of trees.
Meanwhile, his eyes are drawn to flocks of large multi-coloured parrots called scarlet macaws.
Animals are beckoning, warning and calling all over in the forest in chaotic harmony.
A snake then slides through the platform’s makeshift window, sitting on his lap momentarily before vanishing again into the greenery.
“You get the sense that that is the way the world is actually supposed to be and about how destructive we are.”
A seemingly deep-rooted global system of fossil fuel productions, agricultural processes and deforestation provide little hope for the future to many.
After dropping out of a general science course in a university in Maynooth some decades ago, Stafford-Johnson – more hopeful than most – felt compelled after a period of backpacking to act.
“I saw how quickly the world is changing. How quickly the environment was changing and that really struck me.”
His journeying, in which he sought out exotic creatures he had read about in childhood books, had been sparked by a David Attenborough show, no less. Indeed he is now an esteemed peer of Attenborough’s, sharing his spirit of wildlife-minded altruism.
Fortunately for Ireland, Stafford-Johnson says, we are not suffering the same fate as other countries in, say, tropical weather zones: deforestation does not for the most part ravage our natural oxygen supply and destroy habitats; there are no coral reefs to die out; our moderate weather means there’s no increased activity in tsunamis, hurricanes, or other equally destructive forces.
“There’s an awful lot we can do to make things better. If people are saying we need more woodlands, there’s an easy solution: just plant more,” he suggests.
“If our rivers aren’t as clean as they should be: we now have the technology to clean them.”
Lamenting Ireland’s lack of land management strategies in conserving animal habitats and preserving their existence, he pointed to the recent reintroduction of two bird breeds as signs of recent improvements: Red Kites and white-tailed eagles.
“Once humans stopped poisoning them, the buzzards came back: it’s a pretty simple relation- ship.”
In their endless pursuit of short- term profits, giant, faceless, multinational corporations, Stafford-Johnson agrees, are fairly seen as the purveyors of the destruction – as well as being the greatest roadblocks to progress.
However, as individuals, we also intrinsically linked to the problems that persist.
Stafford-Johnson offers spreadable butter as a prime example: Palm oil, being of the main ingredients of non-diary spreadables, is cultivated directed on forests that have been eviscerated.
“We’re so far removed from what we do. We don’t intend to be responsible for rainforest destruction when we go to the supermarket: but we are unwittingly a part of it.”
Consuming foods and using products which are grown and manufactured closer to home – all under the umbrella of what’s known as ethical consumption – is a powerfully simple step forward.
“We can always look inwards – I guess that’s why I make programmes.”
• Living A Wild Life… with Colin Stafford-Johnson tours the UK between 29 September and 22 October, visiting 19 venues across the country including the Irish Centres in London and Liverpool, as well as Birmingham and Manchester.