She is the new darling of Sunday night television, where her appearances not just on Countryfile but also Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival have garnered almost as many comments for her looks as her presenting.
But Ellie Harrison, the ecologist and broadcaster, has insisted that viewers should judge her on more than her appearance. Today, the 35-year-old addresses what she describes as the “blonde and fluffy thing”, and how her looks continue to frustrate her attempts to be taken seriously.
She accepts that her appearance was a factor in helping her to get her break, but she now pleads that people move on.
“Look, I don’t kid myself that while I was sitting around doing some humble admin job, someone suddenly saw me and thought: ‘Wow! There’s the next great zoologist’,” she says. “But I would hope that now I’ve established some sort of credibility, and shown that I’m really passionate about what I do, and that I intend to stick with it, I could be given some credit.”
She began her broadcasting career six years ago when, while working as a secretary at Channel 5, a producer spotted her and asked if she could fill in as maternity cover for Michaela Strachan on Michaela’s Wild Challenge.
Harrison already had the qualifications, having studied geography and ecology at King’s College, London, and visiting Africa, where she worked on a farm in Kenya and wrote a thesis on elephant conservation in Zimbabwe.
After university, she settled in London, where she was temping by day and singing in a pub band by night. “I didn’t have any burning ambition to do anything in particular. I was just young and living week to week,” she says.
But within weeks of being approached by the producer, she was surfing with sharks off the coast of Namibia. The BBC soon took notice, hiring her for slots on The One Show.
From there, she graduated to Countryfile, and then last month came Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival, with the likes of Bill Oddie and Ben Fogle.
It means she has quietly become one of the BBC’s hottest properties, with the two shows taking up much of BBC One’s Sunday prime-time evening schedule, and with healthy ratings. Countryfile regularly draws in more than five million viewers.
There are two more BBC shows in the pipeline — one, to be called Earth’s Ultimate Treasure Map, which will tell of “the most expensive things in the natural world”, such as dinosaur skeletons; the other is Wild Orphans.
All this means that Harrison is likely to become a much bigger name, and the focus of greater interest. She seems to have mixed feelings about the prospect — partly because all the work drags her away from two daughters, aged three and two, her doctor boyfriend, Matt Goodman, and their home in the Cotswolds.
“Being away from them is the hardest thing of all,” she says. “When you are a working mother your whole life becomes a compromise, and it’s fraught with guilt.”
She also feels she may be too insecure to deal with her growing fame. “I just have this really fragile ego,” she says. “We have this thing at the BBC called a viewers’ log, where people can have a say on what they think of you, and I can’t bear to read it. I can’t bear to Google myself or anything like that. I’m just terrified that someone will have said something awful, and I’ll be hurt. I’ve got a neurotic personality.
“I’m nervous, quite introspective. Maybe it’s something do to with being a woman, but I find myself taking the blame for things. I’m not great in a crowd. Sometimes I get quite pumped around people, but there are times when I just have to scurry away.
” Harrison grew up near Stroud, Gloucestershire — close to where she lives now — the daughter of a carpenter and a midwife. “We lived in a very quiet little place with cats and dogs and chickens. There were fields and cows all around us. It was a real country upbringing.
” Yet there was no room for sentimentality. When the family’s cockerel turned vicious, Harrison’s father simply shot it and put it in a hotpot. Thus was the truth of man’s relationship with the beasts revealed. She says that part of her role now is to sprinkle “a bit of grit” into her programmes, which means explaining some of the more brutal realities of the countryside. “Nature is a rough, tough place,” she agrees. “People will always have strong feelings about how it should be covered. There’ll be those who want to preserve the natural world, and those who need to make a living from it.
“On the BBC, of course, you have to watch what you say. I’m personally against the badger cull, because I’ve followed it very closely, and don’t think the science supports a cull. I think we need to hurry up with a vaccine rather than shooting badgers, but on the television I have to play it very straight.
“What I can do is show that not everything in nature is necessarily nice or straightforward. I don’t think that’s anything we should hide away from.”
Ellie Harrison presents Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival, BBC 1, Sundays 5.25pm.