Hamza Yassin has forged a career out of breaking all the broadcasting rules. He used to be convinced that he did not fit the mould of the TV naturalists who gripped him in childhood, namely David Attenborough and Australian “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin. “My two greatest idols, bar my dad, are two white men, old-aged and middle-aged,” he says. If it were not his race or his youth, he had decided it would be his size – a hefty physique built as a rugby player – that would rule him out of prime-time.
Then there is the old showbusiness adage: never work with children or animals. Yassin first found fame in 2020 introducing one to the other on CBeebies show Let’s Go for a Walk and is about to return to the channel with a second series of Eco Quest. But you can see why young viewers so adore “Ranger Hamza”. Kids know a kindred spirit when they see one.
“They are so wholesome,” he tells me. “They’re the purest form of humans you can get.
Seeing them go absolutely crazy about a woodlouse or a seal. And it doesn’t have to be massive, it could be the diddliest thing, a leaf, sparking that little… Ooh!” he breaks off, diverted by the wildlife from his window, which has an uninterrupted view of the windswept Ardnamurchan peninsula in the Scottish Highlands. “The white-tailed eagle’s just moved off! He’s flying round the bay!” enthuses the 33-year-old, his eyes darting across the room.
Yassin is on a video call from his cottage on the most westerly point on the British mainland.
He is sitting on the floor, leaning against the base of his brown leather sofa and toasting himself in front of his fire (he always has a two-year supply of wood and helps chop up timber for the 150 residents of his village of Kilchoan). A flock of ceramic birds has landed on the shelves behind him and a drawing of a gorilla hangs above his shoulder. When we are not interrupted by the glory of nature, it is by the arrival of one of his neighbours. “Come in! Erm, it’s the village, everyone comes in. Hello! I’m on Zoom, I’ll be free in about 10 minutes.”
Yassin’s unaffected charisma has seen him graduate to BBC One’s Countryfile, Channel 4 series Scotland: Escape to the Wilderness and last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, salsaing his way to become the 20th champion alongside first-time professional Jowita Przystał. It’s a world away from his birthplace of Khartoum, Sudan, where he grew up in his grandmother’s multigenerational home on the banks of the Nile.
His gynaecologist parents, Ilham and Ahmed, were invited to work in Newcastle by the Royal College of Medicine and, aged eight, Yassin arrived in Newcastle with a handful of words – “please”, “thank you”, “pizza” and “chips” – a curiosity about where exactly “Christmas” was located and a puzzlement about who had allowed it to get so cold.
“I didn’t understand who left the fridge door open. In Sudan, my grandma would never allow it. It would cost money and it would start to overfreeze.” The newcomer stood shivering thinking: “Ooh, someone is in trouble.” But, overall, he was excited, safe in the knowledge “we had a new adventure”. Plus, “when I first landed in the country, I realised that the cold was for me. I was always overheating in Africa and getting daily nosebleeds. I could finally regulate my own body temperature.”
At Wellingborough, the Northamptonshire public school, he was diagnosed with what he now sees as his “greatest gift to the world” – dyslexia.
“I have a photographic memory – the next time I meet you, I will remember what you were wearing, the state of the room. You can take me from Scotland down to somewhere in London, and I will find my own way back without a satnav. In the middle of the night, I can guide myself just using the stars.” The “King of the Dyslexics!” (according to his Instagram profile) insists: “For me it’s never a burden, it’s a gift.”
A study by the University of Birmingham found that only 2 per cent of black Britons live in the countryside. But Yassin says it is “where I feel most at home”. And he hails efforts to break down the barriers that remain. “There’s the black hiking group, there’s the Muslim hiking group, there’s the LGBT hiking group. Mother Nature is not racist or sexist or ageist. She’s just Mother Nature. And if you enjoy being out in her, then go for it.” If anything, it is urban areas that unnerve him. “I’ve never felt the tough side of racism. If I did, it would probably be in the towns, to be perfectly honest. Someone is following you round the shop thinking that you’re going to do something.”
Yassin still works as a cameraman – sometimes not seeing another soul for six weeks at a time – for Tom Hardy-narrated Sky Nature series Predators and Attenborough’s Wild Isles. His hero passed on a message that Yassin’s sequence of eagles hunting barnacle geese was one of the strongest in any of the episodes. But they are still yet to meet. “I’ve been in the same room as him twice. He’s narrated my footage, which is incredible, and he’s even said my name on a documentary.” Yassin proceeds to do a mean impression of the great man’s whispered tones. “I was like, well, I can die a happy man now! He knows who I am.”
He has also spent time with another national treasure, Dame Judi Dench, helping her fulfil a lifetime ambition – to see golden eagles in the wild – for an episode of Countryfile that went out in September. “Isn’t she fantastic?” he gushes. “Forget the eagles. I love eagles – so me saying that is a big thing.” The pair are currently pitching another documentary together.
Yassin is single, and said recently that he had a love for someone that was “unrequited”. He has five nieces and nephews, and just acquired his sixth and seventh godchildren. “To be asked, if the worst comes to the worst, can you look after my kids? For me, that is one of the biggest honours in life. But, yeah, I’m of the age where I think I want to settle down now. But ‘broody’ doesn’t mean necessarily that kids are coming. I think I need to be truly happy with how life is going before kids can come along.”
Yassin returned to the Strictly dance floor to open the series and will be back to hand over the glitterball trophy. He has a good idea who his successor will be. “But I can’t say.” All he will disclose is: “The best one is going to win, I guarantee you.” He has kept up the dancing, with “a little boogie every now and then”, and the whole experience has boosted his self-confidence and made him “more determined in life”. However, he says twice: “I hope I haven’t changed.”
He certainly is not being drawn back to the bright lights of Saturday-night showbiz, instead content with Midge, his six-year-old border collie, his deer and pine marten neighbours, plus the few human ones, who alert him to any fauna worth filming.
“A lot of people put trail cams out and wait for the wildlife and then they go and pick them up a week later. I’ve got 150 sets of eyes looking, for me, in the village. I get text messages saying, ‘There’s an otter in the bay now! Go, go, go!’ I’ve been here for 15 years and it’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Series two of ‘Ranger Hamza’s Eco Quest’ continues this Monday on CBeebies at 4.10pm and on BBC iPlayer