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Endangered crabs helped new Winterwatch presenter Gillian Burke claw her way on to our screens

Gillian Burke (BBC / Glenn Dearing)
Gillian Burke (BBC / Glenn Dearing)

NEW Winterwatch presenter Gillian Burke has revealed how she owes her biggest of breaks to the smallest of creatures.

Gillian has joined the ranks of the hugely popular BBC2 series and will be presenting four days of special reports from Islay this week.

Landing the prized role, though, came about in unlikely circumstances for the biologist who was already a natural history veteran on the other side of the camera.

“I moved down to Cornwall and had stepped out of work for a while,” said Gillian, who has two kids aged nine and 11.

“I couldn’t see myself producing and directing like I did before I had children, when I’d be away for weeks at a time.

“That wasn’t the kind of mother I wanted to be, so I started thinking about doing short pieces for the Watch programmes.

“The first thing I came across was a story about a rare species of hermit crab which had become extinct in Britain as a result of the Torrey Canyon oil spill disaster in the 1960s.

“There were reports in 2016 of them being established here again.

“I took the idea to the programme makers but these things are only the size of my thumbnail and I’d had so many ideas turned down I didn’t think they’d go for it.

“To my utter surprise they said yes and before I knew it, I was rooting around for hermit crabs and doing pieces to camera.”

Gillian’s winning screen persona, impressive knowledge and obvious passion saw her invited to join the established team of Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games on Springwatch and Autumnwatch.

She says she was warmly welcomed by all.

The Winterwatch team (BBC/ Jo Charlesworth)

“Michaela is so caring and she always has an eye on how everyone on the crew is,” said Gillian.

“I really enjoy hanging out with her, and I’d known Martin long before the Watches through my natural history work – although I did have to remind him of that when we met on the set!

“Chris was the one I was most nervous about meeting. He’s such an icon and I was thinking how I was going to be sitting next to this person I’ve admired for so long and that I couldn’t just be in awe and had to hold my own.

“But he was great and so encouraging right from the start.”

While the others will be at the usual base for the show, Gillian is now on Islay for the series of reports she’ll be presenting.

“We’re hoping to capture some of the wildlife Islay is famous for because of the milder microclimate that’s caused by the Gulf Stream,” explained Gillian.

“We’ll be looking for otters, golden eagles and white-fronted geese in particular.

“Older otters tend to be able to hunt very efficiently and conserve energy through the winter, whereas the juveniles aren’t so expert.

“We’ll be looking at those differences and how the first winter is a real struggle for the juveniles.”

Although fairly new to our screens, Gillian has a wealth of wildlife experience through Animal Planet and Discovery Channel series.

The switch to being in front of the camera was made easier thanks to her years as a producer and director, seeing how presenters worked and exactly what was required.

She has lived and worked on four continents and has had close encounters with some of the world’s scariest creatures.

“When I worked on a snake series, one of the first films was on king cobras in India,” said Gillian.

“I hadn’t done very much with snakes up until that point. I remember stepping into the enclosure, getting a briefing from the safety guy and thinking, ‘Hang on, I’m not sure I’m OK with snakes – but I guess I’m about to find out.’

“That was a baptism of fire but they are magnificent creatures.

“People think of these fierce creatures with their hoods raised – which they do if they’re threatened – but otherwise they are very inquisitive and they’ll nose around their environment.

“They’re really fascinating to watch.”

Winterwatch, BBC2, Monday to Thursday, at either 8pm or 9pm.