Mercers' Lecture Review: Steve Backshall

“Is this really what I do for living?”
This is how Steve Backshall opened his talk on the evening of Tuesday 7 November. The Memorial Hall at Dauntsey’s was at maximum capacity for the much anticipated Mercers’ Lecture from a man recognised as one of TV’s busiest presenters and a BAFTA award-winning wildlife expert, known and loved by many of the younger audience for presenting BBC TV's ‘Deadly 60’.

Steve started off by talking about the opportunities that he has had, such as ascents up giant mountains, and looking down from the shadow of Everest, leading the first descents of white water rivers, meeting tribes who are hunting for their food, and taking the first light into cave systems.

He talked about the honour of finding and describing a new species – The Bosavi Giant Woolly Rat, on an expedition to a remote rainforest in Papua New Guinea. Weighing in at 1.5kg, and measuring 82cm from nose to tail, this is one of the biggest rats in the world – as big as a domestic cat.

Steve is fascinated by sharks. He has spent time in the water outside of a cage with great whites, and he explained how they avoid you to get to food. He also talked of his encounters with sperm whales, and one encounter in particular where the mother was introducing her baby to the him. She was also mimicking all of his movements in the water - “dancing with me” he said.

Talking of his early life, Steve described how his parents wanted them to have a life of adventure through exploits such as snorkelling and travelling. He grew up on a small-holding which included guard dog geese, and a duckling called Twit!

The desire to explore is one of the key things that makes humans such a successful species."

For children, adventure is extraordinary."

Steve then moved on to talk about why he and his wife, the Olympic champion rower Helen Glover, took on the Devizes to Westminster canoe race to buy a section of Borneo Rainforest.
In 1991 he went to Borneo for the first time. He discovered how Rainforests are both wondrous and terrifying – such as experiencing having a leech stuck on his eyeball and attached to the roof of his mouth! There is massive biodiversity and a large array of endemic life in these Rainforests. Many native people that still live hunter-gatherer lifestyles live under the canopy of the forest, and Steve spoke about spending time with these people whose lives are so very alien to our own experiences.

He spoke about the species that live within the forest. The invertebrates that are endemic to the area such as the Orchid Mantiss, and Fireflies that light up the trees and flash in a synchronised manner, and the Cicadas whose level of noise can drive you mad!

Expeditions and adventures give you a hyper sense of life, and you are always stronger in a team."

In the Iate 90's Steve went back to Borneo. The change to the forest from the impact of agriculture was massive, and it was disappearing on a scary scale. The knock on effect of this is the loss of animal habitat and life, as well as the loss of a treasure trove of biodiversity, and potential medical enhancements. Logging is being done without tribe permission, and these ancient tribes are losing their homes.

Steve went back to Borneo again in 2005. His aim was to try to uncover its mysteries before it was too late. They explored a giant sink hole in the forest that they had seen from the air. Within the hole was a stalagmite the height of a 4 storey building, and vast colonies of bats. They were in a place that no person had ever been in before. The sink hole eventually fed into a ‘squeeze’, which Steve attempted to push through but got very thoroughly stuck! He thought he might have a wait a couple of days to lose weight in order to get out!! Whilst on this expedition Steve was climbing a rock face and came across an ant mimicking Tiger Beetle. He was enormously excited as this was a new and undocumented species, but he was clinging precariously to the rock face with no way to capture the beetle, and therefore had to take the hard decision to leave it. Since then, not a day goes by that he doesn't think about having to leave that beetle behind.

Take all the opportunities that come your way. Do not be frightened to fail!”

In the end, through the DW race, Steve and his wife raised enough money to buy three chunks of the Borneo Rainforest, and his message to all of us is that we can affect the planet positively, and we can make the world a better place!!

Following the lecture Steve took time for a Q&A session.

We are immensely grateful to Steve Backshall for taking time out of his very hectic schedule to talk to us here at Dauntsey’s. Everyone listening was inspired to explore, take chances, and above all to not take our beautiful world for granted.

Pupils, parents and the local community are really looking forward to the next Mercers’ Lecture from Nigel Owens MBE on 6 February 2018. Nigel Owens is recognised as one of the world’s best rugby referees. Born and bred in Mynyddcerrig, he first picked up the referee whistle aged 16. Nigel officiated his first international game in 2005 between Ireland and Japan in Osaka and made his World Cup debut in 2007 refereeing the Argentina versus Georgia game in Lyon. He is the first openly gay man to referee at the highest level.
Booking for this lecture is currently suspended as 'fully booked'. We will have further bookings available to parents and pupils who will be notified in the New Year.

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