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Andy Smith in Costa Rica (left), Mali (centre) and Greenland (right)

Tour Leader Spotlight: Andy Smith

Paul Stanbury
By Paul Stanbury
Operations Manager
16th April 2020
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Andy Smith began leading for Naturetrek 23 years ago, only a couple of years after I first joined the company. He’s been a keen birder and avid naturalist since childhood and has enjoyed a varied career divided between conservation work in Britain and Ireland, school teaching and wildlife tour leading. Andy lives on the edge of Dartmoor in Devon and is one of our most widely travelled guides having led more than 150 tours for us over the past quarter century from Spitsbergen to Antarctica, Canada to Costa Rica and Morocco to Madagascar. Andy and I have led together in Spain and even shared an office for a while back in the late 1990’s. As such, it was great to catch up with him again for this interview. So Andy, please tell us…

When and how did your interest in wildlife begin?

I began noticing the common birds and butterflies around me, with the encouragement of my grandfather, at quite a young age and when I was about eight years old I had a close encounter with a Green Woodpecker that completely took my breath away. I was climbing an oak tree in a hedgerow near our home when I heard the bird calling and then it flew past me at arm’s reach, a dazzling green and yellow thing with a red crown and a mad white eye. I was hooked!

When and where did you lead your first tour for Naturetrek?
My first tour for Naturetrek was Southern Morocco in February 1997 with David Mills himself. I assisted him with one group and then he left me out there to a lead a second. It was all very exciting; I hadn’t been to Morocco before and I loved pretty much everything about it: the landscapes, the culture, the food, the business of leading a tour and of course, the wonderful birds and other wildlife! It was a great education and I ended up leading the tour 12 times or more over the ensuing years.

What is, or was, your day job?
I’m a schoolteacher, teaching mostly geography and history to teenagers, although over the years I’ve taught other subjects too and organized and led some exciting student expeditions. For many years I’ve mixed teaching with tour leading and found that the two things complement each other very nicely; certainly the tour leading has provided a great source of inspiration for my classroom work.

What other interests do you have outside of wildlife?
My main interest is certainly natural history and hand in hand with that I enjoy walking, cycling, wild swimming and camping out in remote places. I’m a big cricket fan, I love films and books and I play guitar (badly). On a practical front I enjoy carpentry and green woodwork. It’s been furniture and sheds so far but one day I’d like to build a wooden house! Beyond all this I have a number of children and grandchildren whom I love spending time with.

What current conservation projects or issues most concern you?
Like many people, damage to the natural world from climate change, pollution and habitat loss has concerned me greatly for a long time now. One thing I’d really like to see is a greater shift back to farming systems less dependent on toxic chemical inputs. The loss of biodiversity in our wider agricultural environment here in the UK for example over the last several decades has been sad and alarming. In this respect I’m pleased to see the growing interest in re-wilding and organic farming and I’m grateful to organizations like the RSPB and others for all the positive work they do in promoting a more integrated and wildlife friendly approach to agriculture and countryside management.

Do you have a favourite bird, mammal or plant?
I’ve always loved the European Nightjar since I was first taken to see some displaying near where I lived in Hampshire when I was a youngster; I was entranced by the sight and sound of them and they remain for me a wonderful evocation of long summer evenings; there’s a real magic about them. Further afield I’ve always enjoyed Parrots and Macaws because they’re so colourful and engaging and I also especially like the American Warblers; they’re often stunningly beautiful, sometimes challenging to identify and there’s a good range of them to keep you going. Amongst mammals, I think Elephants take some beating. There’s nothing quite like being close to a group of them; they have a wonderful majesty about them and there’s always something interesting going on.

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European Nightjar

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Yellow-throated Warbler

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African Elephants

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter to date?
There have been many of course but two that stand out together were when I went to Antarctica with Naturetrek some years ago. The first was seeing Wandering Albatrosses, a lifelong ambition for me. As the ship lurched and clanked its way through gale-force winds and a huge sea these magnificent great birds cruised effortlessly past us with perfect grace and control; quite amazing!

A few days later we were out in a zodiac inflatable exploring the icebergs off Booth Island in the South Shetlands. The silence of our calm little world of dazzling ice shapes and crystal-clear water was suddenly interrupted by a loud breath as a three-metre long Leopard Seal surfaced just a stone’s throw away. It proceeded to investigate us closely, swimming under and around the boat and repeatedly surfacing just a metre or two away – quite a thrill! I was perched in the bow of the boat and at one point it swam right past me just below the surface, and as it passed it turned and looked up at me and made eye contact, a really fantastic moment!

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Wandering Albatross (Peter Dunn)

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Leopard Seal (Andy Smith)

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St Kilda, Scotland

What do you enjoy most about leading tours?
For me, the best part of tour leading is being out in wild and beautiful places not knowing what you’re going to see next and sharing that excitement with the group. It’s really satisfying to see the look on people’s faces when you do see something special and there’s a great sense of achievement at the end of the day when you know everyone has had a good time. I enjoy the conversation too and getting to know people; I’ve met so many interesting people over the years!

What new destinations would you like to visit next?
I’d love to visit Australia and get some kind of experience of the geography and wildlife of the place; the birds look pretty stunning and then there’s all the marsupials and some great reptiles too. Queensland or the Northern Territories first I think. Chile and Argentina are high on my list too; I’d love to visit the Torres del Paine National Park and see a Puma. Closer to home I’ve always wanted to get out to St Kilda; it looks and sound like a pretty extraordinary place!

What are you reading at the moment?
I read a wide variety of things. Currently I’m working my way through “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond in which the author tries to explain why human history has developed the way it has across the globe. It’s interesting, thought provoking and very thorough. I’m also reading a collection of poems by the American poet Wendell Berry. He has a wonderfully  evocative way of expressing his close attachment to the Tennessee countryside around him.

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