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20 December 2011
The Trials and Tribulations of a Natural History presenter

Ecologist, natural history presenter and writer Mike Dilger (Botany 1988) revealed more than students expected when he came back to the University to visit the School of Biology.

The BBC One Show presenter told a packed student audience he posed as a nude model in order to earn money to return to the tropics where he had been studying moths in the Ecuadorian Cloud Forest.

“I’d get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work, get undressed, spend all day naked, put my clothes on again, go home and get undressed to go to bed. I spent the whole time making money taking my clothes off and putting them back on again,” said Mike, who also holds the world record for keeping the most snails on his face for a minute (37, by the way).

 Mike naturel
Through his appearances on the One Show, Springwatch and Autumnwatch Mike has proved himself a passionate naturalist who has birded, botanized and entomologised in a huge number of countries. He regaled students with stories about how he got into natural history and then into television and reminisced about student days at Nottingham.

“I was here from 1985-88 and I was distinctly mediocre as a student. I got a 2:2 in Botany and a first in socialising. I was a regular frequenter of the Buttery Bar, I spent a small fortune in the Happy Return in Lenton and I was frequently so hung-over I had to lie down on the seats at the back of this very lecture theatre.

“I was classically what people would call a late developer. I never quite got my act together until I did a Masters much later on. But I had a terrific time here and finally met other birders and people who loved natural history so I went twitching a lot, tried to get myself invited into Florence Nightingale, Florence Boot and Cavendish Halls after hours and occasionally I did turn up at lectures. It was an amazing time.”

After leaving the University Mike worked for the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers at Burton Joyce, then got a contract with the Notts Wildlife Trust and later with the RSPB.

“I don’t know how I got into wildlife. I went through quite a few hobbies when I was about 7-years-old before I hit on birding. I was given the Blandford Colour Series Guide to Birds and each page had two oil portraits of 256 species of birds commonly found around Britain. And I remember holding a torch under the bed covers at bedtime and reading the names of these fantastic birds - Montagu’s Harrier and Red-backed shrike. I wanted to see them all and to this day there’s only one I haven’t yet seen.”

On his many trips to the tropics Mike collected an impressive array of diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis, ringworm and septicaemia which led him to the nickname of Britain’s Most Diseased Man. He returned from the tropics in order to recover from his diseases and got into television work as a wildlife film researcher, firstly working for famous TV birdwatcher Bill Oddie.

“I was known as Bill’s bitch because I had to do all his organisation. Bill is an amazing birder but if he didn’t know the identification of a butterfly or a moth he’d just shout “Dilger – what’s this” and I’d tell him and then disappear.”

In a highly entertaining presentation he also talked about “avian hows-your-father”, the One Show celebrities, Sir David Attenborough and did impressions of the Andean Cock-of-the-rock bird. He described his One Show pieces as “infotainment” and a superb opportunity for people to learn about the natural world without watching a natural history programme.

Mike returned to the University recently with the One Show team to record a film about money spiders with research geneticist and RCUK Fellow Dr Sara Goodacre who set up the unique SpiderLab in the School of Biology.

“And there we were on prime time television and Sara and myself are banging on about money spiders for five minutes to an audience of between four and six million people – People who were just a little bit wiser about the natural world because they watched the One Show.”

But this time he was welcomed back as a guest of the University by Dr Rob Lambert, an environmental historian at the University and a friend.

He said: “Mike is engaging, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge, he’s one of our best communicators about nature and people, he’s passionate and I really do believe that he’s one of the finest examples we’ve got of presenters coming through who enthuse people and get people fired up about our glorious, complex and diverse natural world.”

See gallery of pictures here.

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