Walk & Talk: Steve Brown

Interview by Susan Gray

Birdwatching, country trails and bonding with his young nephews – the TV presenter and former captain of Team GB’s Paralympic rugby team loves getting close to nature in springtime.


Did nature play a big part in your childhood on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent?

My dad, Paul, was hugely influential for my relationship with wildlife and the countryside. Every time we took the dog out for a walk, it was an adventure. If we were going along the beach, we’d look for shark’s teeth and in rock pools for crabs. Walking through the forests would be about the wildlife, trees and acorns, and how it all works in harmony. I’d shout that I’d found a ladybird and my dad would ask: ‘What colour is it? How many spots?’ No matter how simple the walk was, there was always something he introduced me to.


Is the outdoors still part of your life?

Because I can’t join in playing football or on the climbing frame with my four nephews, I take them out birdwatching. We go for a drive, they stretch their legs, and it gives me a chance to educate them and pass on my enthusiasm. We write down what we’ve seen and tally it up (a bit of maths and English at the same time!). Then I take them to a pub for lunch and find out what’s going on in their lives. With my disability, it’s about finding different and interesting ways to engage them. There are lots of parts of their childhood I can’t be part of, but being able to introduce them to new things and get to know them more is a blessing.


How can countryside access be improved for wheelchair users?

There doesn’t have to be a paved path – just an accessible path, even with wood chippings, as long as it’s safe. Difficulties come when lots of effort has gone into trying to make things accessible but then you encounter a barrier, like steps where they could be easily avoided. I might be on a two-mile trail and have to turn back because I can’t get through a manmade obstacle – that’s frustrating. Equipment matters too. If you’re going hiking, you put on walking shoes. For me, it’s similar. There are different wheels and adaptations to make wheelchairs more off-roadworthy and reliable, depending on the terrain. It’s all part of the planning. Some disabilities are more severe than mine, and I realise it’s not always possible for someone to change chair or navigate through woods or across fields. But it’s important to do what you can to help make things accessible for yourself. Many nature reserves hire out buggies and off-road vehicles for people with disabilities and those who struggle with long distances. Equipment to help with outdoor access is on the up, and technology is getting better, making things lighter and more durable.


How does nature help your mood?

There are a million benefits to being active in the fresh air and close to nature. You realise everything has its struggles. For a swallow with its nest in barn rafters, every day is a struggle. They travelled 6,000 miles to get here, then go straight on to building a nest, laying eggs and raising chicks, then getting their chicks fledged and feeding them on the wing for three weeks. And they have to do it all regardless of the weather or how much food they can find. Not many human trials are a daily struggle to stay alive. That gives me focus and perspective.


Do you recall your first trip outside after your balcony fall in 2005?

A walk – or rather a push – around the hospital grounds (I couldn’t push myself at that point). The hospital was in green, lush surroundings in Cologne, Germany. It felt great being back outside, among the trees, and having the sun on my face again. I was in a bad way, embarrassed at having to be pushed around, being so reliant on other people when I’d spent all my time being a big brother and holiday company manager, helping others. But that first trip was a turning point. I realised I wasn’t going to let my disability get in the way of the things I loved most: being out in nature and playing sport. I’ve been fortunate in turning my favourite pastimes into my job.


Did you know the extent of your injuries’ impact on your mobility then?

It was when I got back to England that they explained I had broken my neck, my spinal cord was damaged beyond repair and I would never walk again. You think: ‘I’ll be the miracle. I’ll be the one that gets better.’ Then I was measured for my first wheelchair and at the top of the form it said: ‘Steve Brown, non-walker’. Once I saw it in black and white, that’s when reality hit. My whole world collapsed. My time in hospital wasn’t about learning to walk again; it was about learning how to live in a wheelchair. My accident left me with limited movement in my hands and no feeling from my chest downwards. It’s not just my legs that are paralysed; there’s no motor function or muscle control below my chest.


After captaining the 2012 Team GB wheelchair rugby team and doing sports commentary, how did you get into wildlife TV?

The BBC asked if I had any other interests, so I told them about my passion for wildlife and the countryside. My first piece was on Springwatch, taking my nephew Louis out birdwatching and trying to instil a love of birds, the way my dad did with me. Then I was introduced to the Countryfile team. The programme has been running for 34 years, so it’s a great honour to be part of it.


What should we watch out for in the bird world this spring?

Make sure bird boxes are up. By this time of year, birds will be starting to have chicks, so be thoughtful about what you feed them. Seed is hard for babies to digest, so add suet and mealworms, which mimic the caterpillars that bluetits feed their chicks. Migratory birds will be coming to Britain for the summer. It’s an exciting time because they start nest-building and breeding before the grass has grown long and the trees are in full leaf, making it easier to get a good view.


Where is your top birdwatching spot?

I go to Elmley Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey. It’s nice and accessible, on a farm. You can walk down the farm roads to the bird hides on the lakes or watch from your car. In spring you’ll see marsh harriers, hen harriers and other birds of prey, including kites, buzzards, merlins and kestrels, as well as three or four species of owl. On the waterways are pairs of lapwings and other coastal birds, and a huge population of breeding wader birds. Elmley is an example of a farm working in harmony with nature. Its walks have fields full of spring lambs, so there’s lots for children to see, and ditches divide fields instead of fences – a more wildlife-friendly approach that provides a habitat for herons and egrets.


Any birdwatching tips?

Be respectful, keep your distance and make the most of binoculars. Leave everything as you found it. When driving, be mindful of hedgehogs, and frogs and other amphibians who migrate on dark, damp nights.


What are the most accessible places for wheelchair users?

A lot of reserves in Norfolk are flat and great for spotting wading and coastal birds. The Midlands and Yorkshire aren’t as easy to get around in a manual wheelchair, due to the terrain. But I never hold a grudge when it’s the landscape creating challenges; it’s human obstacles I find frustrating.



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