Colin Stafford-Johnson has a standout memory of his childhood visits to Co Wicklow. When he was nine, the family bought a holiday cottage by the Devil’s Glen.
It was a bit ramshackle and overgrown, but his father, TV gardener Barney Johnson, soon set about getting it all into shape.
A huge wall made from local granite ran along the side of the property, and on one of his first days at the cottage, the Cabinteely native remembers the excitement of finding a big wooden door in the middle of it.
“It hadn’t been opened in a very long time and I remember forcing it open, and there spread out before me was a fantastic view of hundreds of acres of woodland,” recalls Stafford-Johnson.
That ‘Secret Garden’ moment fired-up his imagination and those woods would soon become his playground. Idyllic days spent adventuring with his siblings — he had three sisters and two brothers — would feed the burgeoning interest in animals and nature that eventually lea to him becoming Ireland’s best-known wildlife cameraman.
The 53-year-old has produced 50 episodes of the Living The Wildlife series for RTÉ, filmed for such prestigious BBC series as Planet Earth, and won a slew of awards for his very personal documentary, Broken Tail’s Last Journey.
In that film, Stafford-Johnson travelled over 200 miles on horseback across India to try and find out what happened a three-year-old tiger that he had been filming since he was a cub.
He will talk about his beloved Broken Tail, and many of his other incredible wildlife encounters at various venues around the country over the next few weeks.
These family-friendly talks will be accompanied by footage he’s taken through the years, and he also hopes to engage in Q&A sessions with the audiences.
It’s all part of the Westport-based father-of-four’s mission to spread his own passion for a natural world that’s obviously been coming under severe pressure from human activity. He also gives occasional talks in schools, but hasn’t been impressed by the education system’s approach.
“It’s seen as something very extra-curricular... ‘We’re going to get somebody in to talk about birds for the day’, and that’s it, job done. I was looking at the biology courses for Junior and Leaving Cert level, and I was staggered at how little has changed since I did them.
“Kids are very aware of global warming, etc, but often couldn’t name the five commonest birds in the country. The basic interest in natural history is externalised from the school curriculum. You can get your A1 in your Leaving Cert biology and you couldn’t identify a blue tit.”
Whatever about the education system, Stafford-Johnson has tried to pass on his love of nature to his own two sons and two daughters, who range in age from eight to 18.
“You feel a responsibility as a parent. You don’t expect them to turn into naturalists, but you hope that they’re aware of what’s around them a little more. My older two are typical teenagers with their own interests but hopefully some of it has lodged in their heads.”
When pressed to pick out some magic moments from his decades of filming, three stand out for Stafford-Johnson.
“Toward the end of 2000, I’d been following Machli the tigress for months in Ranthambore wildlife sanctuary in India. I decided I couldn’t leave her at Christmas as she’d been acting funny. On Christmas morning, she found a male and they mated in front of me.
“It wasn’t just the shot itself, it was the whole background to it and not getting home for Christmas, and the fact that I got the payoff.”
Another took place around 2005 when he was up in the rainforest canopy in the Amazon in Brazil. “I was in a hide in the trees about 120 feet, waiting to film a seedpod explode as, when they do, all the parrots come in and feed on them.
"There were scarlet macaws and monkeys all round in the trees, even snakes coming through the hide — I really felt part of it all. And then one morning at dawn, looking out over the rainforest for miles, and there being absolutely no no sight of human influence for 360 degrees — It just really felt like the garden of Eden.
For an Irish pick, Stafford-Johnson selects a night staying on High Island, off Connemara. “I was sleeping in a beehive hut there, filming storm petrels, which are one of the most Irish of birds. Most of the world’s population of that bird nests here but very few people know they exist. I went to sleep that night to the sound of them roosting in the hut around me.”
Wildlife filming can involve long days waiting in hides with the camera ready to get the required shot, and Stafford-Johnson shakes his head ruefully as he recalls a particularly frustrating time in Guyana trying to film jaguars for the BBC’s Planet Earth series.
“It was in a very remote part. We had travelled up an uninhabited river for 200 miles, having to carry our boats over waterfalls, go fishing for our own food, sleep in a hammock for two months. But the weather came against us, and it rained every night, and we came back with nothing.
“I felt awful, but the producers were very experienced and understanding — so much so that they sent me back the following year for another two months. And again I came back with nothing usable!
“Filming is not even like getting a photo — you’ve got to get a sequence to make it work. You need the beginning, the middle and the end shots. If you don’t get all of them, you’ve effectively got nothing.”
If you spend a lot of time filming wild animals, it’s inevitable that you’ll have a few hairy moments along the way. Stafford Johnson recalls two occasions in particular when he really did feel he was in danger.
“One day in Ranthambore in India, I had got out of the vehicle and walked about 30 yards to a big bramble patch where I thought I saw something moving. And then I heard it growling. It was a sloth bear.
“Normally they say you don’t run from bears, but with sloth bears in India, it’s a good thing to do as they’re very aggressive.
“He had to go all the way around the brambles so that gave me the head start to stay ahead of him and jump in the back of my open jeep before he arrived. He stood up on this hind legs, but thankfully he stopped. I looked at my driver and he was laughing so much he couldn’t even drive away!”
Another close call in India came when Stafford-Johnson was walking along a dry river bed. “I spotted a tiger cub. I immediately thought ‘Oh crikey’. Then I heard a noise and I was suddenly aware of the mother tiger bounding straight at me.
"As it was coming straight at me, bits of me were thinking ‘This is probably a dummy charge’, but other bits were saying ‘I’m about to die’. There was nothing I could do, and I just stood there staring blankly. But then she slammed on the brakes and spun off to the right.
“In my mind it lasted for ever, but it was all over very quickly. Afterwards my entire body turned to jelly and I could hardly walk home. My legs weren’t right until the following day."
WHEN NATURE MEETS TECHNOLOGY
Wildlife filming has made some huge advances in recent years in terms of technology. Colin Stafford-Johnson identifies three of the major leaps:
Drones: “For the last Wild Ireland show we did we got wonderful stuff of basking sharks and whales that we could have never done before unless we had a huge budget for helicopters and steadicams. For relatively small amounts of money, you can get amazing shots using drones.”
- Digital: “When I started, you loaded up your camera with a roll of film, and if you shot at normal speed you got ten minutes; if you shot in slow motion you might only get three or four minutes out of a roll. So you had to be terribly picky about when you turned on and off the camera. You used to have to predict things an awful lot more — ‘I think that bird is going to fly out of the nest’, and you’d press the button. Now it doesn’t cost you anything with memory cards to just leave the camera running.”
- Low-light technology: “This means we can now film a lot earlier in the morning and much later in the evening. This is great because a lot of animal activity at those times. It really has transformed things.”
DOING YOUR BIT FOR IRISH WILDLIFE
For Colin Stafford-Johnson, preserving our wildlife, quite literally, begins at home. It’s an idea he says his father, former RTÉ gardening presenter Barney Johnson, would have supported.“Back in the 1970s when my father was around, we were surrounded by wildness — hay meadows, wildflowers, bogs, and marshes — there was very much a sense of the wild being ‘out there’. We could therefore have our garden as the opposite of that — tamed and neat and tidy. In ways, that’s where gardening came from,” he explains.
“But now, much of that wildness has been tamed with modern agriculture and development, so we need to turn our gardens wild again.
“We need to create the right conditions for what used to live out there — the butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, newts, etc. It costs nothing in terms of money and there’s no reason why anybody with an average sized garden can’t have those creatures in it.”
Stafford-Johnson concedes that a lawn can be handy when there are young kids in a household, but once they’re grown-up, he recommends digging it up and planting a wildflower meadow instead.
“This obsession with order and neat lawns is a British thing that we took on from them. But if we could get away from that — and that goes for councils as well as gardeners — it’d be great for biodiversity. And it can still be beautiful.
“Right now, we don’t have all these creatures in our gardens because we don’t give them the food plants that they need. I’d love to see gardening transformed completely.”
He cites a visit to a friend’s butterfly garden as an example of what can be done.
“He had native hedges and had recreated essentially a hay meadow in the garden. He had cut it at the end of April and had left it until the end of August. In that time all the flowers had come up and set their seed, there were patches of nettles for the caterpillars, and so on. The place was absolutely teeming with butterflies and other life. I thought to myself, imagine if every garden could be like this.”