As is becoming tradition, our latest episode begins with me being hopelessly lost, facing a locked gate and no signal, trying to find our guest. Luckily, Kate Humble kindly came to my rescue to get things up and running again! We caught up with the presenter, author and farmer back in spring in the stunning, remote part of Wales she calls home.

Join us as Kate and her two dogs guide us through the magical ancient woodland of the lower Wye valley she delights in having on her doorstep. With infectious enthusiasm and occasional impressions, Kate tells us about the plants and animals we see and hear along our walk, from wood anemones and waterfalls to blue tits and dippers. She also tells us the fascinating story of her accidental career, from starting out as a waitress, model and driver in Africa to hosting the long-running Springwatch series, having never wanted to be a TV presenter!

Also hear Kate on:

  • the ‘technicolour’, ‘mindblowing’ natural world she’s discovered on her travels
  • access to nature and how we can save it
  • caring for ancient trees including the Old Man Oak and planting trees with the Woodland Trust on her smallholding.

Listen to the podcast now on iTunesLibsyn or Soundcloud.

You are listening to Woodland Walks, a podcast for the Woodland Trust presented by Adam Shaw. We protect and plant trees for people, for wildlife.

Adam: Well, in early spring I went on a woodland walk in Wales with presenter, author and farmer Kate Humble, who was taking me around what promised to be some amazing woodland with her dogs. But as is increasingly common in these podcasts we of course had to begin with me getting absolutely and entirely lost.

This is an absolute disaster. Although I am bad at directions, this is not my fault *laughs* So Kate sent me a pin, she said look this is going to be hard to find my place, she sent me a map pin. I followed the map pin. Look I’m here I don't know if you can hear this you probably can’t hear this. This is the gate that's locked, which is across some woodland path. So I can't get there. And of course there is no phone signal, so I'm going to have to drive all the way back to some town to find a phone signal. And I'm already late.

OK. I have managed to find a village where there is a phone signal. I've managed to call Kate and Kate *laughs* Kate has clearly got the measure of me and told me to give up and she is now going to get in her car and find me in this village and I will follow her back. In the meantime, we have passed Google map pins back and forwards, which apparently tell her that I'm sitting outside her house. But I really am nowhere near her house, so I seem to have broken Google which well, that's a first. Anyway I've got a banana here, so if she's a long time, I have dinner and I'll just wait. This will never happen. This will actually never happen.

Well we’ve found Kate. We’ve found a whirly country drive lane. Feels a bit like rally driving. It's like, I mean, I don't understand why my map wouldn't find it, but this is certainly a bit of rally driving we're doing here getting to her house. My goodness. We found her house.

OK. Well, we're here. Which I never thought I I really thought it was really lovely. The idea was nice, and next time I'm in Wales, I'll give you a call so really, it's it's better than I thought better than I thought. Anyway, so you're leading me off with your two dogs.

Kate: I am. I am. I'm leading you off into one of the most beautiful I think I mean, obviously I'm a little bit biased but it is one of the most important areas of ancient woodland in Britain. This is the Wye Valley. We're the lower Wye valley, so we are the the the the bit really where the River Wye is in its sort of last bit of its journey. It's risen in mid Wales, about 136 miles from here. I know that cause I’ve walked the whole route.

Adam: Really, we're not doing that today, are we?

Kate: No we’re not no I promise. I promise Adam. So yes and we are basically about 5 or 6 miles from where it flows into the River Severn and then out into the Bristol Channel and the woods around here are a lovely mix of broadleaf, so we're walking through broadleaf woodland now and this is literally this is what I walk out of my front door. Aren't I lucky?

Adam: You are lucky.

Kate: I'm so lucky. So we've got a lovely mix of broadleaf woodland now and we're just coming into that time of year. Which is the time of year that makes everybody's spirits lift, because we are coming into spring, and if we actually just stop just for a second. You can hear that's a blue tit calling *imitates sound* and I mean, this isn't the perfect day for birdsong, but the birdsong was really picking up. And that's the lovely thing about living alongside woodland. So even in the winter, even when you don't think there are any birds at all, what you hear in these words is *imitates sound* that's a very, very bad impression of a great spotted woodpecker.

Adam: OK, I'm glad you. I I was guessing it might be a woodpecker, but I didn't want to.

Kate: So they start to drum around about sort of late January, they'll be drumming. And and then as the and we also have tawny owls, lots of tawny owls in these woods. We've got an owl box and we used to have an owl that we called Percy who we have no idea whether it was a boy or girl.

Adam: I was gonna say it was, a reason it was called Percy?

Kate: Don't know, just it just it looked like a Percy.

Adam: Just fancied the name. Fair enough. Yeah. Yeah.

Kate: But we have lovely tawny owls here. So, you know, at dusk and and when when I take the dogs out sort of last thing at night round about 10 o'clock 11:00 o'clock at night we walk down this track and and you stand here and you hear this wonderful and everyone thinks you know, tawny owls go toowit toowoo. They're the classic toowit toowoo owls, but actually you've got 2 owls calling, so you've got the male going *imitates noise* and then you have the females going *imitates noise*. And they're calling each other, establishing territories or going ooh I like the sound of you, there's a bit of flirting going on. So these are, as I say really it's it's just the biggest treat to live with this on my doorstep.

Adam: Right, so fantastic. You you clearly I mean, you've launched into a sort of fantastic description and detailed knowledge, but you are not a country girl by birth are you?

Kate: No, I am a country girl by birth.

Adam: Oh you are? I though you were born in London?

Kate: I am. No. Well, I was you're right, I was I was

Adam: Sorry, do I know where you were born and you don’t.

Kate: Well, being born and where you were brought up is different.

Adam: Yeah, OK. OK, fair enough.

Kate: So I was, you're absolutely right, I was born in London. I was born in well, I was born in Wimbledon in fact. This is my neighbour by the way.

Adam: Right. Right. Wow. I didn't, we’re in the middle of nowhere I didn’t know there’d be a neighbour.

Kate: I know, but I know. But there are other people mad enough to live in these woods, and he's particularly mad.

Adam: OK. Does he mind you saying that?

Kate: Not at all. Not at all. No. He's absolutely used to it. Hello. Come and say hello to the Woodland Trust podcast.

Adam: No. OK, I'm just checking. OK. Hi, I'm Adam. Hi. Nice to see you. Yeah, I hear you're her neighbour.

Kate: This is this is this is writer Mark Mccrum and his dog Jabba. Yes. So I'm just dragging Adam down to take a look at the ponds and talking about the ponds down there.

Mark: Oh lovely. Which ponds?

Kate: The ponds down there.

Mark: Oh those ones? Yeah, very good. I might see you on the reverse cause I'm gonna go all the way round.

Kate: Oh you’re gonna go round. OK, fine. Lovely.

Mark: These are lovely woods cause you never see anybody here. *all laugh*

Adam: I'm sorry.

Kate: Apart from you

Adam: I was gonna say, and me, I've ruined it.

Kate: Yeah we're the only people who see each other aren’t we.

Adam: So you were telling me you are you are born in Wimbledon, but you you grew up in the country then?

Kate: Yeah. So I was I was born in Wimbledon and yes. So after about, I think I was about six months old, my mother always says that she realised that London was clearly not the place for me and

Adam: From six months? Outward bound baby were you?

Kate: Yes! She said she said there basically wasn't enough space in London for me. So so yes, so I was brought up in Berkshire, right? And I was brought up next to a farm. So I was always a sort of vicariously farming kid. Even though my parents weren't farmers and and spent my childhood looking after various animals of various descriptions, and I think the wonderful thing about being the age I am, so everyone bemoans being old, but I think I just I I am so thankful that I was born in the sixties.

Adam: Why?

Kate: Because no one had invented health and safety, climbing trees, no one had climbing frames, you climbed trees. And I think the trees enjoyed it, and so did you. And if you hadn't fallen out of quite a lot of trees by the time you were 10 and had various, you know, scars or broken bits as proof of a proper childhood, it wasn't a proper childhood.

Adam: Right. OK.

Kate: So I had a lovely proper childhood of, you know, not being plonked in front of a screen of some description or another. We're going to cut off piste a little bit and head down here.

Adam: OK, I'm is this a precursor warning that I'm about to get bumps and scrapes and?

Kate: This is a precursor warning that you might yes, you might. It's quite a steep descent.

Adam: OK just as long as my, my face is my fortune though, as long as that's safeguarded throughout this, that'll be fine. OK. Well, that's good. Yeah. Lots of leaves around. Yeah.

Kate: Of course it will be a soft landing whatever you say. Lots of leaves. One of the nice things again about broadleaf woodland. And as you can see, I'm sure your leaf identification is brilliant, but we've got a lovely mix of oak here and beech, as well as the evergreen so the hollies and lovely, lovely mosses. But yes, what you’re walking on is is a sort of glorious mulchy carpet, but we have a profusion of bluebells.

Adam: Already they've come up?

Kate: Well the bluebells, the the plants themselves have come up so the leaves are up and there are one or two I'm going to show you, is it, will it be your first bluebell of the year?

Adam: It, almost, almost we we can pretend it is for dramatic purposes. Let’s let’s go along.

Kate: OK, OK. They are, they're just, they're just starting to come here now and and you get that lovely moment. It'll be about probably about three weeks or a month’s time, slightly depending on on what the weather does, where you get the, the unfurling of the beech trees. So that glorious kind of neon green which when the light goes through you get that sort of wonderful, almost disco light effect show.

Adam: And aren't they in Welsh, aren't they called cuckoos? The Welsh translation for bluebells is cuckoo clock. I think it's because it's like it's a harbinger of spring along with the cuckoo.

Kate: Oh, I didn't know that.

Adam: Oh my God, I found something you didn't know.

Kate: You know, you know, you'll know lots, I don't know, but

Adam: No, no, let's hope that's true that's that's I'll have to go check that. Do check that before you tell anybody.

Kate: Well, I'll just blame you.

Adam: But no, I do think in Welsh the translation for Bluebell is is cuckoo clock or something like that because it is this harbinger of spring and I think that's it's a really nice I I won't even try the Welsh but in Welsh it sounds very so I mean, I thought we were going to chat about your conversion to nature and everything, but actually that's a lot of nonsense. This is this has been a constant in your life?

Kate: Well, it's been, I mean, coming to Wales, so I did live in London, you know, after I left home.

Adam: Except, I mean, you didn't choose a a nature career, did you? I mean, you you're involved now we can talk about that. But first, what was your first career?

Kate: Well, I mean. Career always seems such a grand word and that you've planned it.

Adam: Yeah. OK, so your accidental career.

Kate: So my accidental career, well, I had this idea that that I that I wanted to work in television, although again I don't really know where that came from. We're going just down here. Part of me also wanted to be a a safari guide.

Adam: Good. I can see the appeal of that.

Kate: I went to I when I was 19 having never really been abroad at all, because again, our generation didn't really go abroad as a matter of course. So I went to Africa when I was 19 and.

Adam: Sorry we're not talking on a holiday?

Kate: No it was a well it was a it was probably a rebellion.

Adam: Right. You went as far away as your your parents as you could. I'm not going out for the evening I'm popping off to Africa?

Kate: Yes, yes. I'm popping off to Africa and I don't know when I'll be back. One of those.

Adam: Right. Yeah, good. Good exit line. So where, where, where in Africa were you and what were you doing there?

Kate: So I I started in South Africa. I ended up in Egypt.

Adam: Right, just bumming around doing sort of bar work or doing something more serious?

Kate: I did I did I was a waitress for a little bit, but I was very, very bad and was sacked. I I was a model for a little bit, also very bad, very bad at that too.

Adam: Why were you so bad at that?

Kate: Because because I really don't like having my photograph taken and I really like food.

Adam: Yes, OK well I would I would have guessed I could have advised you that wasn't the career for you.

Kate: So so the two things, yeah, didn't really weren't terribly compatible to that. But I then got a job as a cook and a driver on a safari, and I drove a truck aged 19, having never really been out of Berkshire, from Cape Town, through Botswana and into Zimbabwe. And and then I hitched back to Cape Town. So I had a a real adventure. But what I what it really did for me was, having had this very sort of unconsciously wild childhood, I don't mean you know lots of parties and taking drugs I mean, a natural wild childhood, I then went to a place where the natural world was was so extraordinary and so mindblowing, and on a scale, you know, everything was was was like technicolour. You know, the birds were amazing. The the you know the the the size of the animals, the proliferation of the wildlife, the size of the landscapes, the emptiness and I think it was that journey that turned my mind to really re-look and re-examine the natural world and think it's, you know, it's extraordinary, it's it’s mind blowing in every way and so even though I then came back and thought I want to have this sort of career in telly what I really wanted to do in my career in telly was work for the natural history unit.

Adam: Right. And is that what you did?

Kate: No. Not initially anyway.

Adam: OK, but you have done, I mean you've done nature programmes, lots of nature programmes. What did you first start doing?

Kate: We're going down here. I have. So I first started sweeping streets in the East End.

Adam: In EastEnders?

Kate: No, in the East End, no. I was a runner so I basically got jobs wherever I could get jobs and I got a job on a commercial that happened to be shooting in the East End and they needed the streets swept and so that was one of my jobs. But had no plans to be on the telly that that really did happen by mistake.

Adam: I think you know my first job in telly. I don't know if you remember That's Life with Esther Rantzen. Do you remember they she always had rude, funny vegetables?

Kate: I do, yes

Adam: That was my job to find them, yeah so only only marginally above the street sweeping.

Kate: Oh my goodness!

Adam: So you got how did you get picked there? I mean, we gotta get back to the natural world. But you’ve had such such a fantastic life. So I mean, I think people will be fascinated to know you have not much of even a vague plan about what you're doing. You're fumbling about a bit.

Kate: None, yeah. Living in a squat. Eating crisps.

Adam: So yeah, right. So not many models will be will be living like that and eating crisps, I get that You’re sweeping streets as your way into telly, all of a sudden you're on telly. How did that happen, was that more of a plan or did someone just turn around and go, hey, you, street sweeper, you’ll do?

Kate: No, it wasn't. So I had I had graduated from street sweeper, so it took about probably four four or five years I have become by now a sort of senior researcher. And I got a job at the BBC. My first job at the BBC on a programme called Animal Hospital.

Adam: Right. Yes. And you were still a researcher there or presenter?

Kate: Yeah, as a researcher. And and I think the reason that I got the job was actually my childhood. Because I think it was the first series, in fact, I think the only series that they did of Animal Hospital in a rural practice. So we went to a practice that didn't just do small animals, pets type animals, but also bigger animals like farm animals and horses and I think the only reason I got the job was that I was the only person they interviewed who knew what to do with something bigger than a hamster.

Adam: Right ok great.

Kate: And I had my own wellies.

Adam: Oh good. Always important for a career in telly, your own wellies, see these are the secrets people wanna know. Good. So you've got your wellies?

Kate: Always really, really important. They are. So I got that job I got that researcher job. And at the end of it, the BBC do this appraisal thing. And they said we thought you were alright, you did OK, will you come back and do the next series and I said I'd absolutely love to. I'd really loved it, absolutely loved it. Can we just pause here a minute because this,

Adam: A sea of wild garlic?

Kate: No, these are bluebells.

Adam: These are bluebells? Oh, sorry. Look at the ignorance here.

Kate: These are bluebells. Well, those white flowers let me show you these because they're beautiful.

Adam: I thought like I I think that's what I thought was wild garlic shows you *unintelligible* OK, we’ve got a proper safari expert.

Kate: No. So look, look, look, look, look, look, look, look, look, first bluebell starting to unfurl except my dog’s just walked all over it. Come on you’re not supposed to walk on there.

Adam: So this is, all of this is bluebells?

Kate: So all of this will be bluebells and in about 3 weeks time you get this absolutely, it’s so blue it's like the colour actually detaches itself from the flowers and floats above it in this sort of glorious mist, it's beautiful. But this these flowers here I love. And these are these are one of the flowers along with celandines which are the kind of waxy yellow flowers that people will see in woodlands and even in their gardens at this time of year, these are wood anemones. And they are lovely, very delicate white flowers with these slightly sort of hand-like leaves and the lovely thing about these, they're not looking at their best at the moment because it's been quite a wet day. But when the sun's out, they open to the sun like these brilliant white stars. And sometimes there are areas around here where you'll see carpets of wood anemones and they're one of the first I've seen these as early as January, although not this year because we had lots of frosts.

Adam: It's funny you, you, you, you use the word magical I'm just looking at this tree with covered in moss and everything, there is something magical about these sorts of places, a sort of sense of, sense of, a Tolkien type moment isn't there?

Kate: Absolutely. Absolutely. I've I I don't think it is a coincidence that lots of fairytales are set in woodlands because there is something otherworldly about them. We're going to head keep heading down just so that you have a really good climb on the way up.

Adam: Yeah, I was gonna say I'm fine going down, I'm assuming you're sending a car to pick me up? It's well a little, a little Uber will just I'm sure,

Kate: Nice try, Adam! Lots of Ubers around here. Look, look, look.

Adam: Oh look now that is OK that's a proper bluebell.

Kate: That is a, a, a bluebell that's a proper bluebell.

Adam: Yeah, that is my first proper bluebell of the year.

Kate: And you can see all the others are just starting to come.

Adam: And that's and it is lovely because clearly so few people come here that's the problem often with bluebells is when people trample all over them. And we've got just one clean path down here and it's completely undisturbed for as far as the eye can see. So yes, we OK, we we did a little pit stop for bluebells. We're back on and the what was the programme, animal?

Kate: Animal Animal Hospital.

Adam: Animal Hospital. So they wanted you back as a researcher. I'm interested in the jump from behind the screen to on screen.

Kate: So so they basically said lovely we'll see you in four months and I said oh well, I've got a landlord and rent to pay, I can't not work for four months. I'm going to have to get another job and it may mean that I'm not available. And they said ohh well, maybe we can find you something else within the BBC as a stopgap. And I had also at that point, so this is the mid 90s now, started writing. I was writing travel. And I'd spent at the the a end of a a, the second Africa trip that I did between 94 and 95, I’d spent the last two months of that in Madagascar.

Adam: Right.

Kate: Madagascar was a place that I was obsessed with because of its wildlife because it has unique flora and fauna. I came back and got an article commissioned to write about it, and it was the first,

Adam: Your first commission?

Kate: Yes, my first commission and my first article, and it was in a broad a broadsheet newspaper, and I was very excited and very proud about that. And so when I was asked by the series producer of the BBC Holiday programme, whether I would consider coming to work for them because I was a travel writer,

Adam: Right OK, yeah, you’re now a travel writer because of your one article.

Kate: I am I am now a I am now a travel writer on the strength of one of one article.

Adam: Whoa oh Kate, I'm so glad you were the first person to sort of go over *Kate laughs* That was before me I just want that on record.

Kate: Yeah.

Adam: OK so I haven't gone over yet.

Kate: You haven't got over yet.

Adam: OK. Yeah. Sorry. Yeah.

Kate: Yes. So I got a job on the BBC Holiday programme. Anyway the next day I got called into the big boss's office. And I assumed that my short lived career at the BBC Holiday programme was about to be ended because I wasn't quite sure why, but perhaps because I hadn't been taking the producers guidelines as seriously as I might and that also I had smoked on a fire escape, which probably wasn't a good idea. And instead I was asked to do a screen test and I assumed that this was the sort of common test that the Holiday programme did and I tried to say I really don't want to be a presenter thank you, I love doing, I love making the programmes, I love the research, I love talking to people, I love putting things together. I'm quite, I like logistics. I'm quite, you know, I like all that stuff I don't want to be a presenter. And they went well do a do a screen test. So at this point I just thought I've just got to get out of this office because I feel very embarrassed by the whole situation. So I will just nod smile say yes, do it, it'll be a disaster, and then everything can go back to normal. So that's what I did. Three weeks later, the boss came into the office,

Adam: Sorry, we have to stop. This is a story that's gonna last all day, cause I keep stopping because your dog is posing or it was posing beautifully by this river.

Kate: Well, so this river is an important, one of the sort of parallel streams that run into the River Wye for this is the Angidy, we are in the Angidy Valley, surrounded by amazing woodland on both sides, it’s a very steep sided valley. This river is particularly good for dippers, which are those lovely chocolate brown and white birds, they look like little waiters.

Adam: Right *laughs*

Kate: And they and they, they're called dippers because that's exactly what they do. So we'll keep an eye out because we might see some, but they’ll sit on a stone like that exposed stone within the waterfall there and they will jump into the water and literally completely submerge. They'll disappear completely and they're looking for things like caddisfly larva, which is what they feed on, and then they'll bob up and come back up and they're they're just these wonderful, perky, very smart little birds.

Adam: Brilliant, OK.

Kate: They're the only British songbird that is also a water bird.

Adam: Wow, OK, good. All right.

Kate: There you are, little bit of, little bit of,

Adam: No, I like these these these sorts of diversions we take, it's it's almost like doing a stand up routine, so we're gonna go gonna go back to the story now. So you thought everybody in the world gets a screen test. So I'm just doing this and then they’ll leave me alone.

Kate: Yes, yes. And and then the boss came into the office about 3 weeks later. And she said, can you go to France tomorrow? And I said yes, of course, assuming that they needed somebody to carry the heavy stuff. Bhcause carrying heavy stuff is the other thing that I am good at. I can whistle very loudly and I can carry very heavy things and those are really the only two things that I can offer the world.

Adam: OK, I I you, you have set yourself up for a big whistle at the end, so we'll we'll wait for that then let's hold out.

Kate: It it will blow your ears well, that's all I'm saying. So she said, we want you to present a film on a barge in Normandy, could you please do something about my hair, she said. My own hair.

Adam: I see she didn't ask you to be a hairdresser? Also could you cut my hair?

Kate: Yes could you cut my hair *laughs*. No, could you do something about your hair, she said. I thought she's been talking to my mum, who constantly despairs of my lack of my lack of grooming.

Adam: Right, also right at this point of hair hair disasters, we have to pause because we've come across as you may hear an extraordinary small waterfall, it's a weir, really, isn't it?

Kate: It is really.

Adam: I'm gonna take another photo of this before we get back to the life and misadventures of Kate Humble. So I'm just gonna take a photo. You'll find that, no doubt on one of our Twitter feeds. Oh, I know beautiful, oh no the dogs disappeared, the dog doesn't like posing for me. But all right, so now, you're off to France. You need a haircut and,

Kate: So I'm off to France. I need I need I need to basically smarten myself up. Off I went to France and presented my first film.

Adam: Right. And that was, I mean, we could talk about this forever, but that was the beginning of that was the beginning of this, the story. OK, well, amazing.

Kate: Yes. My first job for the natural history unit came in 2000. And I was asked to do a programme, which was a sort of, was made in response to Blue Planet. So the very first series of the Blue Planet, which I think everybody watched with their mouths open because we had never seen the oceans in that way before, particularly the deep ocean. And there was a phrase used which I have used many, many times since, which was that more people have been to the moon than there have been to the deep ocean. And people were fascinated by these, they were they were creatures that looked like they might have been designed for Star Wars. They were so extraordinary.

Adam: These sort of angler fish which have which have this light don’t they.

Kate: That sort of thing, and these these, you know, these astonishing, you know, plankton with flashing lights, there were Dumbo octopus with, you know, little octopus with these sort of literally did look like Dumbo the elephant, you know, deep water sharks that people had never seen before that were really slow moving and and, you know astonishingly well-adapted to live at depths and in in at water pressure that no one thought anything could exist in and come on dogs we're gonna keep, do you wanna have a,

Adam: And so yours was a response, in what way?

Kate: So we did a live,

Adam: The dogs keep looking at me like they want me to throw something for them is that what’s going on?

Kate: They do, and I'm going to just try and find a, here let's try let's try this, here we are.

Adam: Look, they're very, oh you’ve thrown it into the river?

Kate: Go on, in you go.

Adam: Oh, look at that go!

Kate: Come on Teg, do you wanna go in as well? Here you are. This one's going to sink, go on. Ready? Go. Good girl. Where's it gone? Teggy, it's just there. That's it. Well done, well done, dogs.

Adam: Oh they like that.

Kate: Well, I can't go and get it, you have to bring it here, that's the deal with sticks *laughs* So we did a live programme from a boat in Monterey Bay. I made some films to play into that live show. So I went to the Cayman Islands, which is a rotten thing to ask anybody to do, can you imagine?

Adam: Terrible, terrible. You wanted to be back in the East End really.

Kate: I did really, sweeping streets and instead there I was, doing films about coral reefs and this is the one of, this is the wonderful thing about the natural history unit or just about making films with animals is the lengths that you have to go to to be able to capture the natural world in all its wonder. And so I was asked to go and film a shark called a six gill shark that lives very deep and only about 10 people in the world had ever seen. And I was sent to go and find this creature. You know, I can't I can't even now I can't really believe that I was asked to do that.

Adam: And did you find it?

Kate: Eventually. We had to do two, we did one trip we failed to find it,

Adam: How how long was that?

Kate: So that was, we did 6 dives. It was an amazing trip. We didn't get the shark on the first trip. We went back for another trip. We didn't get it. We didn't get it. We finally got it and it was incredible. Incredible moment. And that was the first job that I did for the natural history unit and there was then somebody who came up with the idea of doing British wildlife life live at kind of springtime, like kind of now.

Adam: And this was Springwatch was it?

Kate: This was the precursor to Springwatch.

Adam: Oh I didn’t know there was one.

Kate: There were two!

Adam: What were they called?

Kate: So the first one was called Wild In Your Garden. So I'm just going to put the dogs on a lead here. Hold on, poppet. Just hold on my poppet. That's it. We've got to take Adam up the hill now. So yes, so the first one was called Wild In Your Garden and it was Bill Oddie and Simon King and me. And we did two shows a night, from gardens in Bristol, and it sort of worked as an idea.

Adam: Right. OK.

Kate: It worked well enough or it wasn't so much of a disaster that there wasn't a thought of let's try it slightly differently, maybe on a farm instead of in the garden, and we went to this wonderful organic farm in Devon and basically made camp for three weeks. And made a series called Britain Goes Wild. And Britain went a tiny bit wild. And so the following year we thought, well, we'll do it again, but maybe we'll just call it something different.

Adam: Right.

Kate: And someone came up with the idea of calling it spring watch and everyone said, and it always went out at the same time as it does now, sort of end of May and people go, it's not really spring though is it? And we're like, well spring enough, still spring things happening and Springwatch seemed to capture everybody's imaginations and and I presented that for 10 years.

Adam: And you presented that for how many, how many years?

Kate: Ten.

Adam: Blimey! That’s a long,

Kate: Yeah, I know. I've just grown old on telly and then Autumnwatch came into being and then Winterwatch and I did Seawatch. So I did a series about British Britain’s seas and and marine life. Yeah. So I did eventually get my wish of working for the natural history unit.

Adam: Oh, that's very good. The fairy godmother in the form of the BBC descended and granted your wish. And now from all of those adventures abroad and on TV and everything you then said, I'm gonna move to this really quite, there's another car coming, quite quite remote parts of Wales. Why that?

Kate: We're going to head up here. Hold on, dogs. There we are.

Adam: Oh there's some steps. Hallelujah.

Kate: OK, only for this little bit.

Adam: Look, stop stop taking away the hope.

Kate: *laughs* So so I we moved,

Adam: Yes so you you picked up sticks and then moved to Wales. Perhaps it's not such a big move because the natural world has seemed to be always the centre of things for you. So but why Wales in particular?

Kate: Well, that is a curious question. I had no connection with Wales as far as I was aware. I honestly honestly can't tell you why I felt this extraordinary pull to live here. But it really was it was like a magnetic pull. There is actually a a Welsh word and I'm not sure I'm really allowed to use it in my context, but I can't think of a better word to use for the feeling that I had. And it's hiraeth and is a word that it's sort of more than home sickness. It's like a deep longing for the place that you belong. A yearning, a pit of the stomach emptiness for your home.

Adam: You felt this was a spiritual home, did you?

Kate: I don’t know I really don't know, Adam. I, as I say I just had this extraordinary pull to live here. And yeah, I would look at the, there are these old fashioned things called maps, and I would look at the A to Z of Great Britain. And you know, there I was in the South East and if you look at a thing called a map,

Adam: Yes, sorry is this a point about me getting lost on the way to you.

Kate: No no not even remotely. No, it's the fact that no one uses them anymore, and yet, they're the greatest treasures we have. So if you look at a map, the South East of England is just this chaos of colour and roads and towns and names. And it's just, you know, there's not a square millimetre that hasn't got a name in it or something in. The further west you go, the browner the map becomes, and when you go over the border into Wales, it's mainly brown and green and it's got beautiful lyrical names like Abergavenny and and it's got mountains and mountains, when you've been brought up in Berkshire mountains are the height of exoticism. To live in a in a country that had mountains all of its own just struck me as being remarkable. I still, 15 years on, find it remarkable that I can I can get up at breakfast, not go terribly far, and climb a bona fide mountain. I love that. And that's what I love about Wales.

Adam: And and you've done more than, I mean, people might feel that and move to a beautiful part of the country and live there and more or less carry on with their ordinary life. But you've not done that. I mean, you're not just you don't just go for walks, the natural world is something you've created a a new career out of as well. Is that fair?

Kate: I wouldn't call it a career.

Adam: OK but you're very much well, but you make money from it and it fills your days.

Kate: Well, no, no, I don't think I don't know I don't I don't think that's I don't think that's true at all. I think you know I my working life is peculiar. I've I still am involved making television programmes, some of which involve the natural world. I still write, some of that's about the natural world, but not all of it. The natural world for me is nothing to do with making a living. Making a living. But it is about living. And it was one of the things that I was acutely aware of when I lived in London was I felt cut off from the seasons. This year you know, I know I can tell you that I didn't hear a skylark until the middle of March last year it was Valentine's Day. I can tell you that because that's what I'm experiencing. And I love feeling that instead of the natural world being something I watch on the television or I read about in a book that I am able to be part of it. And that's one of the big problems I think that we face now with trying to engage people with the importance of things like biodiversity, species loss, habitat loss. None of those things sound very sexy, and none of those things appear to matter to us because we as a species so weirdly and inexplicably view ourselves as a species separate from the natural world and the natural world has become something that we just watch for our entertainment. But we are just another mammal in this amazingly complex, beautiful, brilliant web that is the biodiversity web, where everything fits in and everything works together, and one thing feeds another thing and you know, until we feel properly part of that, immersed in it and and wrapped up in it, why are we ever going to worry about the fact that it is now a biodiversity net that's full of holes, and those holes mean that the net becomes less and less effective and the less effective that net becomes, the more it affects us, but we see ourselves as somehow immune from that process and we're not. And what I love about living here, what I love about walking in this area every day, twice a day, is the fact that I feel that I can, I'm I'm more in tune with our natural world and that is sadly, it shouldn't feel a it shouldn't be a privilege, but it is.

Adam: And do you feel, I mean, you're you feel passionate about it. Do you feel evangelical about it?

Kate: Yes.

Adam: So what do you, do you have a prescription to help to bring others on side?

Kate: I wish it didn't, I wish you didn't have to ask me that question. I wish it didn't have to be an on side.

Adam: Do you do you feel that's an unfair question? Or do you think there's?

Kate: No, I don't. I think it's a very fair question because lots of people don't feel or don't perhaps don't experience it experience the advantages of the natural world, or they haven't been they haven't been given the opportunities to properly understand the impact that it can have on us and all those impacts are positive. I mean, there's loads of science. And you know, it was talked about endlessly during the pandemic about how green spaces are good for our mental health, blue spaces are good for our mental health, being outdoors, being in nature, listening to birdsong, sing plants grow, all those things are good for us. But we've got to a place where we've been so divorced from it, where we look for our pleasures in shopping malls and online and and we forget that actually all we need is right here. And, you know, it's a hard sell for some to to somebody who's never experienced this, who hasn't had the privileges I've undoubtedly had, you know who have not grown up in the countryside, who find it fearful or boring or inexplicable, don't understand where they fit in.

Adam: And I think one of the perhaps growing debates, I think or interesting ones anyway for me is is the balance between trying to either scare people or make them aware of the environmental challenges and potential for disaster. And then so to sort of go engage with the subject it's really it's really newsworthy, it's it's it's imperative people do things and actually turning people off going well we're we're all going to literally burn, enjoy the party whilst it lasts. So what what do you feel about that?

Kate: Yeah, yeah. I mean, all all, all you have to do, all you have to do is watch Don’t Look Up. Have you seen that film?

Adam: Yes.

Kate: And and and that, you know, absolutely embodies what you have just said.

Adam: So what do you think about that? Because I think there's a balance between going, offering hope, the power or audacity of hope is a phrase one hears as opposed to the sort of potential to frighten people into action. Actually the opposite, don't frighten them into action. Offer them hope of change. And I wonder where you feel that, if we've got that balance right, or whether,

Kate: No, we haven't got it right and I, but I don't know what the balance is because I think there's a real, I think that a lot of programmes that are made about natural history now have become so glossy and so beautiful and and so almost otherworldly that they don't actually reflect the reality of the natural world. And a lot of them again show the natural world without the context of people. And of course, that's sort of how we want to see it, we don't want people muddying those pictures. We don't want, as you say, the kind of the awful stories of the litter and the, you know, the the, the, the negative impact that human have humans have had on the natural environment. So we kind of don't want to see it, but equally if we don't see it, we don't engage with it and we kind of can watch one of those documentaries and even if David Attenborough is telling you that, you know, this is a habitat that's in peril or this is the last animal of its type that you will ever see, you don't really take that in because you're looking at these really stunning pictures and you think it's kind of OK. But I don't know what the answer is because I also know that as you say, if all you peddle is hopelessness and helplessness, no one's going to engage, they're going to stick their heads in the sand and just hope that it all goes away and pass it on to the next generation. So somehow we as communicators need to find a way that really does cut through. That really does make people feel, genuinely feel part of the natural world, that it isn't just another thing. I had the great joy of interviewing Tim Peake not that long ago, and I was interviewing him for a book that I'm writing about the concept of home. And I thought he would have, of anybody, a really unique idea of home having not just left home but left the planet. And he told me that he did a spacewalk, he was out in space for over four hours, and he said the blackness is like a blackness you cannot imagine. But he said, you know, you see Mars and Jupiter and Venus and you see Earth. And he said, when you're there, amongst the planets in that way you see that Earth is, as far as anyone’s experience, and any telescope has been able to tell us, unique. You look at it and he said there it is, this colour, this blue and green planet, whereas everything else is, you know silver and and ghostly, ours is a living planet and he said he had this, he had this sort of feeling when he was there looking at Earth and imagining somebody, some other being coming up and tapping him on the shoulder and saying hey, hi, who are you? I’m Tim. And he’d say oh hello so where are you from then? And Tim said I felt this enormous swell of pride to be able to point to our planet and say I'm from that planet there. I'm from Earth. I'm an earthling and I thought if all of us had that experience, could understand what it was like, how special our planet is in a universe that is infinite as far as we know and that we have, we have no idea what's out there, but what we do know at the moment is that our planet is unique and I think we would treasure it that much more and have moments like this of just standing amongst the trees and midges coming out, the drizzle, the mud and go, this is our home, this is where we live. It's really special. Aren't we lucky?

Adam: You're taking me uphill again aren’t you.

Kate: I am taking uphill, but you've done the worst bit and you and and actually you marched. I was impressed!

Adam: Oh OK good. You know I’ll fall apart after, I’m just doing it so I don’t embarrass myself too badly.

Kate: *laughs* I'm afraid it is going to get very, very muddy, so you're going to have wet socks, mud up to your knees, you know, that's why I spend six months of the year in wellies.

Adam: Right OK. But you know, that is the privilege of being an earthling, isn't it?

Kate: It is it is.

Adam: So you've been you've got involved with the Woodland Trust.

Kate: I've been involved with the Woodland Trust for quite a long time, but it really started when we took on a farm near here.

Adam: What’s this an arable farm?

Kate: No, it was a small council farm. It belonged to the council and people are not really aware that there are such a thing.

Adam: I've never heard this one.

Kate: No, but there used to be about 16,000 council farms throughout Britain and they were set up as part of the 1906 Smallholdings and Allotments Act and they were there, low rent, small areas, usually 30, 40 acres that sort of size and they would be available to rent for farmers who for whatever reason, didn't have a farm of their own. And over the years, as farming practices have changed as economic models have driven farmers to need to to produce things on a bigger scale, small farms have been basically relegated to either hobby farms or they've been broken up and sold to land that's been added to bigger farms. So we've lost an enormous number of these small farms and with them an enormous opportunity for people with farming skills to stay on the land and produce as food. And that's what was going to happen to this farm. And for whatever reason, I just felt this was not the thing to do and to cut a very, very, very long story short, we ended up taking over the farm and setting up a rural skills centre o prove that a small farm, ours is just over 100 acres, could still be viable. It supports itself and that's really important. But one of the things that we wanted to do, we were really interested to do when we took it over was to add more trees. It's it's got some wonderful ancient trees. There's an oak tree on the farm that we call Old Man Oak, as did the tenants before us. They introduced us to him and we think he's about 600 years old. And but we wanted to plant more trees. But we had this conundrum of how do we increase the tree cover on the farm without taking away the pasture because obviously we needed the pasture for the livestock and it was the Woodland Trust that helped us with that conundrum. So they looked, together we walked round the farm and we identified either areas where there were small copses or where there was a bit of a hedge. So what we did with the Woodland Trust’s advice and input was to put in trees as shelter breaks, so not actually impinging on the pasture, just or very much, but adding a kind of a thicker bit of hedge if you like, or making a copse a little bit bigger and in that way we've planted over 1,000 trees on the farm in the last decade that we've had it. And then at home we have a four acre small holding and and so at the beginning of last year I started thinking maybe it's an age thing, you start thinking about legacy and when you when you take over a piece of land, what you start to understand actually very quickly is that you will never own it, that you are simply the caretaker of it for the time that you are around. And I think we've got cleverer now. Our knowledge has become greater. We understand that just planting trees isn't the answer. We need to think about we need to think of landscape as a mosaic and so what we wanted to do was to create a little mosaic. Plant trees, create water or make a space for water, make sure that there was going to be areas that had glade that was good for insects, that was good for wild flowers. And so I talked to the Woodland Trust and said, are you going to be into this idea, because it's not just planting trees and they went, that's exactly what we're into. That's exactly what we want to do. We want to create habitat. It's not about blanketing a landscape with trees. It's about planting the right trees in the right places at the right density to create something that you know, in a generation’s time will have real lasting value, and that's what's been so wonderful about working with, you know, an organisation like that that sees big picture, sees longevity as as an advantage rather than as a disadvantage. And and that's what's been so lovely is that, you know, I can go to them and say so I've got this plan. I mean, I'm not even going to be alive to see it kind of come to fruition but do you care? And they went, we don't care, do you care? No. Let's do it. And that’s wonderful.

Adam: Wonderful. OK sorry, this is a bit, this is the bit where I'm going ohh well, I'm swimming effectively swimming now.

Kate: Sorry. This is a very wet bit.

Adam: Hold on a second. OK. Right. That's a very Norman Wisdom walk I seem to have. OK. Yeah. OK, so ohh sorry, hold on.

Kate: It gets, that's the that's the wettest bit now, now we're now we're more or less home and dry.

Adam: Oh well you know what we we might be home, but we are not dry. That would be inaccurate at this point. So well, that's a neat story to bring us back to home with isn't it. So you know things are looking good. It's all hopeful. A a long journey and a long one ahead, you know, not just for you, but for that natural world you're creating.

Kate: Well, I hope that you know the the I I think going back to to what you said about how we can, we can help us all feel that we are actually, you know part and parcel of the natural world rather than observers of it or visitors of it and things like planting trees or being aware of the seasonal joys of the bluebells coming through, or, you know the leaf fall in the autumn and the colour, all those things if if i you know if we can build that awareness that brings with it huge joy and reward, then maybe we'll start to cut through again and people will start to feel more like the natural world is their world and not just another part of the planet that they live on.

Adam: Well having arrived back at Kate's home, let me just say there are lots more woodland walk podcasts for you to enjoy wherever you get your podcasts from. And indeed, if you want to find an actual wood near you well, you can go to the Woodland Trust website Until next time, happy wandering.

Thank you for listening to the Woodland Trust Woodland Walks with Adam Shaw. Join us next month, when Adam will be taking another walk in the company of Woodland Trust staff, partners and volunteers. Don't forget to subscribe to the series on iTunes or wherever you're listening to us and do give us a review and a rating. And why not send us a recording of your favourite woodland walk to be included in a future podcast? Keep it to a maximum of five minutes and please tell us what makes your woodland walk special or send us an e-mail with details of your favourite walk and what makes it special to you. Send any audio files to We look forward to hearing from you.

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Don’t miss our previous episodes, including:

  • England’s largest new native wood at Heartwood
  • Loch Arkaig, an ancient Scotland pine forest
  • how trees are making a difference on a Nottinghamshire farm
  • the urban woods and trees of Leeds
  • Joyden’s Wood, a tranquil ancient wood close to London
  • the Trust’s largest site in England – Smithills Estate
  • the ambitious Northern Forest planting project 
  • the new young people’s forest at Mead
  • a tour of our president Clive Anderson's garden
  • top tips for autumn tree ID
  • the rainforest of Devon's Bovey Valley Woods
  • how to read clues in nature with natural navigator Tristan Gooley
  • special tree-themed interviews with celebrities including Tracy Chevalier, Dan Snow, Alastair Campbell, Adrian Chiles, Elaine Paige and Charity Wakefield.

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I’ll be off on another woodland walk soon. Hope you can join me.

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