Wildlife expert Nigel Marven

PUBLISHED: 11:24 15 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:57 20 February 2013

Nigel Marven in China

Nigel Marven in China

From dinosaurs to pandas, wildlife expert Nigel Marven has seen it all. He talks to Damion Roberts about his latest trip, growing up in Hertfordshire and what the future holds next

BRITISH wildlife television presenter Nigel Marven was in China filming a new series when Hertfordshire Life caught up with him to discuss his career.

Having just completed filming for his latest television series Panda Week the zoologist is back in the Peoples Republic filming another series which wont be finished until 2011.
Its a long way from a childhood spent newt catching in St Albans.

How did you become interested in wildlife?
I was born in Barnet, but it was while growing up in St Albans that my fascination with wildlife began. Like many kids, my first pet was a hamster called Hammy. He sparked my interest, and before long I had an entire colony in the bedroom of my parents terraced house. I soon moved on to collecting more unusual animals. One of my favourite pets was a free flying magpie that used to follow me to school, Francis Bacon comprehensive. I also had salamanders, pythons, boas, even a young caiman (South American alligator) that grew nearly two centimetres every month.

Were there any locations around your childhood home where you used to observe wildlife?
I used to cycle to some gravel pits near Sandpit Lane and catch rare crested newts; it took my breath away the first time I saw one of these spectacular amphibians. Most of my natural history expeditions, with my best mate Kurt Jackson (now one of Britains most successful artists), were around the fields and waste ground near New House Park. We found slow worms under pieces of corrugated iron and spectacular elephant hawk moths, bright pink.

What does Hertfordshire have to offer in terms of wildlife?
As with much of England, people in Hertfordshire often dont realise how much amazing wildlife is just on their doorstep. Places like Amwell Nature Reserve provide winter sites for a range of migratory wildfowl, including the elusive bittern, as well as being a home to dragonflies, water bugs, newts, frogs, and even otters, reintroduced 20 years ago and going strong.

Your mother used to go fishing for newts in ponds in Barnet did her interest in wildlife influence you?
Yes my mum was a newt-fisher, and my dad had a pet magpie when he was a boy during the war. I certainly followed in their footsteps and then some! For me animals became an obsession.

Was your family happy with you having all of the creatures you collected in your room? Did any ever go missing?
Snakes are mini-Houdinis, I was always losing them, but I only kept harmless species. I released some tree frogs in the garden pond; their loud croaks caused some complaints from the neighbours. I really think my parents thought my love of animals would pass, but Im now nearing 50 and its as strong as ever.

Is it true that when you married Gill you had animals at your wedding?
At our wedding, Gill and I had a skink as the ring-bearer, a monitor lizard plodding through the champagne reception, and even a python made a guest appearance. It was a wonderful day. Our daughter Ella is not yet two but already she is fascinated by birds and horses and loves to ride on our giant tortoises. My seven-year-old son Theo wants to be a snake catcher when he grows up and hes already seen a blue whale with me in California.

How did you go from being a boy collecting animals at home to turning your interest into a career?
I pursued my interests by studying Botany and Zoology at Bristol University. Bristol is also an international centre for wildlife filmmaking, so when I got my first break in the business wrangling worms for the BBCs Galactic Garden, I never looked back.

You worked with Sir David Attenborough on First Eden what impact did he have on your career?
Sir David was one of my heroes, so getting the chance to make a programme with him was a dream come true. He and Gerald Durrell inspired me as a child. In fact, during my career I was lucky to meet both of my heroes. I directed the creature sequences for the BBC series My Family and Other Animals, and Gerald Durrell came out to Corfu to watch the filming.

Have you ever found yourself in danger while making television shows?
There is always a small risk when working with animals, but to my mind its much more risky driving to and from the location, particularly in far-flung locations where at any time trucks can hurtle around hairpin bends towards you. Having said that, when filming Bull Sharks some years ago I was standing next to a scientist in shallow water when he was badly bitten in the leg by a curious shark it could have just as easily been me.

Does the fact that the animal kingdom is varied keep your job as exciting as when you first started out?
Yes, theres always a new thrill. In Panda Week on Five this autumn I fulfil two life-long dreams. Firstly to cuddle a panda cub I did that in the city of Chengdu, where there is a world class panda breeding centre. Secondly to go trekking in panda country in search of a wild one - youll have to watch the series to see if I succeed.

What are your plans after finishing filming in China?
Ill be back and forth to China over the next year or so, and Im also filming in Malaysia for a series on snakes. Also on the horizon are shows on the Galapagos and more short films for Webosaurs.com, an online virtual world where kids can explore, meet friends and learn about natural history from the T Rex to the tiger.

Finally, what advice can you give to any budding wildlife enthusiasts interested in forming a career studying the natural world?
Firstly, work hard at school, especially in biology and the sciences, but also take time to volunteer for your local wildlife trust or conservation charities, and get hands-on experience. Most wildlife-related careers have tough competition, so a good university degree and skills in the field will be a big help when it comes to getting that dream job. Good luck!

How he got there...

Nigel started as a researcher on David Attenboroughs First Eden and as a worm wrangler on a series called Galactic Garden, presented by Andrew Sachs.
The zoologist followed this up with a 10-year production stint with the BBC's Natural History Unit working on such shows as Incredible Journeys and Life of Birds before setting up his own production company Image Impact in 2001 to make shows such as Penguin Safari (Animal Planet & Five) and Prehistoric Park (ITV).
Nigel has been awarded official Panda Ambassador status by the city of Chengdu in China

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