One of Britain’s best-loved wildlife presenters for over 25 years, Michaela now lives in South Africa but regularly returns to the UK
By Susan Gray
What, for you, are the mental and physical benefits of walking?
I can’t think of a time when I went for a walk and felt worse for it. I hate being at my computer all day, so six hours is my limit. Then I get up and take the dog around my beautiful surroundings, and in five minutes I feel better. You can feel the stress lift off your shoulders. You can feel your body get more comfortable. The benefits of being outside are huge, and a lot of people don’t realise that. There’s definitely a link between being outdoors and feeling good – it’s been scientifically proven. Being disconnected from wildlife, the outdoors and natural habitat, makes people very unhappy. It’s probably a factor in why we have so many people on antidepressants. Too many people feel disconnected from what human beings are supposed to be connected to.
How does walking in South Africa compare with the UK?
South Africa’s landscape and sky are more dramatic than the UK’s. Walking trails in South Africa are a really big thing. People love to exercise, particularly in Cape Town. There are a lot of well-known South African five-day hikes, such as the Whale Trail and the Otter Trail. My husband Nick, son Ollie, and I did the Fynbos Trail in the Cape, two hours away from Cape Town, with three families and six kids over three days. The travel company took our luggage – I love the ones where they take the luggage! You have this lovely walk, then you get to the B&B and your bags are there, they feed you, then off you go in the morning. The next day, they had left us a picnic basket by the river. That’s really slackpacking walking!
How can we get children interested in spending time outdoors?
Parents are struggling with trying to get our kids off their iPads and social media. There must be a way we can harness digital for the greater good and into making it fun to get outside. On holiday with my son I made a game out of looking for wildlife – we had to try to find an animal for every letter of the alphabet. He’s competitive, so that got him interested in what birds are called – mainly because he wanted an ‘N’ to complete his list. Now he’s 13 he says: ‘Mum, we only do this for you now, you know that!’ And I say: ‘Fine. Do it for me!’ When we were doing Springwatch, I went for weekend walks around Mount Snowdon. I was astonished how many families were there, with kids of all ages. Let’s celebrate the positives: there were a lot of children climbing that mountain.
Is walking’s social dimension important?
I like walking with friends. I have a group of girlfriends and we go for a walk with our dogs. Walking is definitely something that’s appealed to me more as I’ve got older. I was exactly like my son when I was his age. Walking to get somewhere was fine, but walking to come back to the same place and get in the car – I just couldn’t see the point of that. Funny how, as you grow older, your appreciation of going for a walk changes dramatically.
What does being able to access nature mean for you?
Because we have a massive drought in Cape Town, I don’t have a vegetable garden at the moment. But there’s something that makes me feel so in tune with nature when I put my hands into the soil to lift a potato. I just feel incredibly connected, comfortable and at peace when I do something like that.
Have you noticed a change in attitudes to environmental protection?
Why are we still talking about bringing fox hunting back? We have a massive choice of things to do with our spare time, so why are we doing things that harm another being? I can’t understand why anybody would want to watch a fox being pulled apart by dogs. In South Africa, we have canned hunting, where lions are bred in captivity, then sold to canned hunting reserves, where rich people shoot them and then take the heads and put them on their walls. What hasn’t evolved in those people that they enjoy this bloodthirsty sort of sport? A lot of the bad stuff that happens to wildlife is down to the greed of human beings, wanting to make too much money from the land, taking the land away from wildlife, degrading natural habitats. It’s just greed and lack of empathy.
With Winterwatch, Springwatch and Autumnwatch, are you under pressure to show a ‘family-friendly’ vision of nature?
These aren’t children’s programmes, but obviously we encourage families to watch them together. I love it when people say to me: ‘My four-year-old loves you!’ One year we had rabbits nesting in a pile of straw, which is unusual as normally they nest underground. Crows and magpies came and pecked the baby rabbits to death. We had a camera on our website, and we did have complaints from people saying: ‘My child has gone to bed sobbing.’ We can’t Disneyfy things – this is wildlife and it can be brutal. But we do warn people that if they don’t want to see it, they can turn away or decide it’s bedtime for children.
Your fellow Winterwatch host, Chris Packham, is famously outspoken on the environment. Do you see yourself as a campaigner?
I do campaign for causes I’ve been involved with, such as Animals Asia because I did a film with them and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for orphaned elephants and rhinos following two series I did there. I also do a lot for South African penguins because I once did a series with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB). It has a seabird rescue centre close to where I live. The African penguin is dropping into extinction. Every year around Christmas, SANCCOB takes in hundreds of small, fluffy chicks. The parent penguins are moulting and unable to hunt fish, so they abandon the chicks which have yet to fledge. Without intervention by SANCCOB, these chicks would not survive. With less than two per cent of the population remaining in the wild, caring for them is crucial.
What’s your favourite?
Constantia Nek, part of Table Mountain National Park. It’s a 30-minute steep route up and a 20-minute run down.
Across London’s Waterloo Bridge.
Cape Town, Alt Bay and Cape Point from the top of Table Mountain.
Nuts, wine gums, egg sandwiches… I’m a real snacker!
Bird book and binoculars.
My rescue puppy Rio.
Winterwatch returns to the BBC in January 2019