Living Life on the Wild Side

Alumnus Billy Heaney (Zoology 2015, and MRes Biosciences, 2018) is a Zoologist, filmmaker, wildlife presenter, patron of the Brighton Dolphin Project and an ambassador of MARINElife, and, most recently, Digital Communications co-ordinator for the Gloucester Wildlife Trust.

We recently caught up with Billy to find out what he’s been up to since graduating, how he rekindled his love of nature during lockdown, and the importance of the environment on our wellbeing.

Billy’s love of the natural world started at an early age and then flourished throughout his time at University as he started making vlogs in his second year and became busy producing his own films for YouTube, as well as presenting on NatureWatch which is a project run by student societies to create short episodes focusing on Cornish wildlife. He also set up MuddyDuck Productions with fellow alumni Hattie Lavender (Zoology, 2017), Robbie Phillips (Zoology, 2018), and Russell Barnett (Conservation Biology & Ecology, 2017), and got involved various opportunities throughout his studies such as the Cyprus Turtle Project.

He says: “For me it was a mixture of things that led me to where I am now in my career: my passion for the natural world, the opportunities I took up at University and pushing through myself with creating content. University was great, I couldn’t have gone to a better place for me and I don’t think I would have done any of the things I’ve done if I hadn’t gone to Exeter.”

During the spare time whilst studying, and after finishing his masters degree Billy went travelling, and found that this further fuelled his passion for nature and wildlife. During his travels, he made a YouTube travel series “Billy’s Travels”, updated his show reel and was involved with the filming of “Virtually Wild” with Isaac Rice around the British Isles.

As part of his travelling, he’s explored Iceland and saw orca for the first time in the wild, gone on Safari in Sri Lanka, and visited New Zealand, Australia and British Columbia just to name a few places. For Billy, travelling gave him purpose and allowed him to see species for the first time.

He says: “I’ve always had that mentality I’d rather not buy fancy clothes but go do something and explore. I’ve been very lucky but I’ve always thought that every time I've earnt enough money to go away for a week I’ve done it.

"For instance when I was doing my masters, I worked for the National Trust, took part in demonstrations and marking as postgraduate students do, was a tour guide on a boat, worked in a bar, and freelanced as a filmmaker; I just worked until I had enough spare cash to book my next trip.

"It’s always been worth it though as it’s provided amazing opportunities, including sailing around the Hebrides with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust and working out in Cyprus with the turtles. Measuring a turtle whilst looking at shooting stars every night that was pretty rad and definitely one of my adventure highlights.”

Right: Billy in Sri Lanka and a nesting turtle in northern Cyprus

The three month trip Billy took with his girlfriend to film his YouTube series “Billy’s Travels” involved two weeks in Sri Lanka, one week in Bali, five weeks in Australia and four weeks in New Zealand, and enabled even more opportunities to encounter new species.

He says: “Sri Lanka was amazing; for me it was like waking up seeing a tropical bird and wondering ‘what’s that one’ and trying to learn all these new birds and their characteristics each day. I loved that about travelling - learning about new species. Because marine life is my main passion, I always knew what I was looking for, but terrestrial life not so much.

"In the evening, I would be checking the field guide or Google to try to figure out what it was. I also kept a notebook, with a species list and travel list for the three months, logged every species I saw during it, sketches etc. I’m glad I had all these experiences and did what I wanted to do, there’s obviously more I’d like to see and places I’d like to visit, but I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had especially over the last year when I’ve been unable to travel as much.”

This year Billy has taken part in several wildlife projects closer to home such as featuring on the BBC 4 show The Nature Table with host Sue Perkins, comedian Jessica Fostekew, and fellow Exeter alum Lizzie Daly (Animal Behaviour, 2016).

He also produced a four minute film on pine martens for Countryfile, and is currently working for Gloucester Wildlife Trust.

Billy found that whilst the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted both his travel and career plans for 2020 it also created opportunities in terms of being able to reconnect with local wildlife and get creative career wise.

He says: “I basically got in touch with Gloucester Wildlife Trust at the start of the first lockdown, I was freelancing at the time and I did a little bit of remote work for Brendan Godley, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Exeter. But I needed a project to keep me busy and channel my energy."

"I’ve been using camera traps for years, I moved during lockdown, and have woodland behind the house and during my daily exercise I found badger sets so I thought I’d get some new camera traps. Then got in touch with Gloucester Wildlife Trust via Instagram and my now current boss read it. I filmed 10 weeks of Camera Trap Tuesdays, getting to know the team, then an ambassador position came up and links to Countryfile and now I’m working for Gloucester Wildlife Trust as a Digital Communications Co-ordinator.”

Billy with Sue Perkins (left) and in his role with the Gloucester Wildlife Trust (above)

He has also found that lockdown and the pandemic has had an impact both on people engaging with his content and wildlife in general. Billy believes that wildlife benefited from the reduced movement of the human population and maybe got a bit bolder: “I’m fortunate where I live I’ve got foxes, deer and tawny owls keeping me up at night.

"I also do feel people took the time to appreciate what was around them during the first lockdown because they had a reduced amount of activities they could do. They made the most of those little pockets of time and space, whether living in a flat and it’s a walk to the park or if you’re lucky enough to have a garden spending time in out there in nature. People felt more connected and aware of that time outdoors and nature had on their wellbeing.”

Above: A Pine Marten filmed for Countryfile;

Right: Billy recording woodland sounds and with one of his camera traps

One of the aspects that Billy has found helped increase his career profile during lockdown has been social media as it’s allowed him to share his footage and connect to people all around the world showcasing his skills. He feels it’s been an advantage for freelancing but also creates its own challenges: “I’ve nearly 4,500 followers now and managed to grow by nearly 2,000 during lockdown. It’s definitely a great outlet to get you noticed and helped me a few times in work opportunities, with conversations coming through social media, and collaboration.

But I have a love-hate relationship with it as I feel it can sometimes be consuming and I’m much happier when I’m not on my phone but out in nature. I think it’s important to find that balance and take breaks as well as avoiding comparing yourself to other people. I find it key for me to regularly take a step back to keep my brain ticking in the right way.”

The benefits of wildlife, the natural world and his career on his wellbeing is something that Billy is also keen to promote and to advocate to others in this time when looking after our wellbeing is so crucial. When he was younger, Billy spent a lot of time watching the sea from the coast or out on a boat.

“One of the moments I remember distinctly was New Year’s day 2020, I was at Godrevy with some friends and a pod of bottle nosed dolphins swam past the lighthouse which was incredible and made me feel so relaxed.

“This year, I’ve developed a slightly unhealthy obsession with badgers and pine martens and through lockdown I had all the time in world to focus on them due to the woodland near where I lived, and by teaming up with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust in the Forest of Dean. I even managed to watch badger cubs grow up! You’d watch Countryfile/Springwatch as a kid and think I’d love to do that and then all of a sudden I had the time to do it – so why not? I was very lucky having the woodland five minutes from the gate and it massively cheers me up to have that routine and escape when things have been challenging.”

Billy has found over the last year he’s had to take action to prioritise the aspects of his life he finds beneficial to his wellbeing such as a visit to Scotland once restrictions allowed.

“The main reason I went up there was to go to the Moray Firth to watch Bottlenose dolphins because I’ve not seen dolphins since 1 January 2020.

"People look forward to a football match, concert, whatever your hobby is, to spend their money on, for me it’s always like what’s the next thing I want to see wildlife wise – it always cheers me up. That’s why I booked Scotland to be honest – I got a bit low during August, trying to find work, as everyone has had their own lockdown struggles. I kept motivated for a long time then burned out. So, I booked a week in Scotland, one of my favourite places, and then went full steam ahead into other things. I’m glad I booked that time off now and had that adventure. It keeps me happy and motivated. People massively underrate the UK, but it’s still special and there’s lots of places you can visit locally.”

As we’ve moved into winter the pandemic, lockdowns and further restrictions have meant it has at times continued to be difficult travelling Billy also had some tips for people continuing to feel the benefits of nature for their wellbeing both physically and mentally, in the darker days.

“It’ll be harder as last year we were so lucky with the days, with extra daylight and the days being longer people were able to go out in the evenings or take a break if they were working from home.

"So, I think again it’s going to be relying on those little local spots with not being able to drive out as much and it is getting darker earlier.

"It’s just going to be feeding garden birds during the winter as they’ll appreciate it, taking 20 or 30 minutes or an hour every day to put a coat on, have cup of tea in the garden, walk the dog, or go for a walk. You could try and go a bit earlier for dusk – and catch the back end of a fox going back home. Wildlife you’re used to seeing in the summer like foxes or badgers will still be out but it’s just that you’re not going to see them as much.

Left: Badger cubs and Billy in Scotland

"Taking the time to reach out and reconnect with what’s around you really is key, like we did before, but be prepared it’s going to be colder and wet. It’s going to be harder, but there’s beauty to appreciate such as leaves starting to change colour, morning frost, snow and it’s taking the time to appreciate the little bits going on.

“I’ve rekindled my love for the woods where I spent a lot of my childhood but then since I was 18, I was at the beach, I’ve definitely gone back and rekindled my nature love from when I was little like lakes and woodlands where I grew up. It’s been wonderful with the woodland near where I live currently as I’ve been for walks in it before but going on walks every day and seeing the tiny subtle changes like the bluebells coming out and going out, often you take that for granted but seeing it day in day out and the subtle changes is amazing.”