Jess French: The bug girl
PUBLISHED: 11:56 08 November 2016 | UPDATED: 12:02 08 November 2016
Conservationist, children's television presenter and now vet - it has been a busy few years for former Norwich schoolgirl Jess French
A committed vegetarian by the age of four, wildlife obsessed throughout her childhood and never happier than when digging around for bugs, it should be no surprise that Jess French remains so passionate about the natural world.
“It is fair to say I grew up completely, utterly mad about animals, almost to the point where I was probably considered weird at school. I always wanted to be a farmer or zookeeper,” she laughs. “When I was four and realised meat came from animals, I said, ‘That’s it, I am not eating it any more,’ and have been vegetarian ever since. I understood very early on that everything has a place in the ecosystem.”
In the past decade she has travelled all over the world working on conservation and educational projects, she has presented her own CBeebies TV show - Minibeast Adventure with Jess - written children’s wildlife books, achieved a degree in zoology and is just finishing a five-year degree course to become a vet. During the summer Jess returned to Norfolk, where she grew up, to start her first job as a qualified vet at the Anchorage Veterinary Hospital at Acle and, despite her vast experience, she admits to being nervous.
“Even though I have done hours in practice, there was always someone there over my shoulder. Now it is just me. I am so happy though because it is such a lovely vets.”
We meet on a sunny, autumnal day on Winterton beach where she is walking her new puppy, Baxter. It is, she says, one of her favourite places to be and now it is just a few miles from her new home - not that they have managed to move in yet.
“We wanted a project but we didn’t quite know how big a project it was. We realised it had a flea infestation and woodworm. I don’t like killing anything at all, and was wondering if there was any way I could get rid of the fleas without killing them, but even I realised enough was enough.”
So she and her partner Dan – a teacher at Stalham High School – moved in with her mum in Norwich while the work was being done, and she says it was quite a squeeze with their combined array of dogs and cats.
“Baxter was doing pretty well but he has definitely picked up bad habits from my mum’s dogs. It is like a madhouse! Norfolk is just such a great place to live, and since I have had Baxter I have been returning to places I loved going as a child to walk the dog. I worried I would get itchy feet and a yearning to travel, but yesterday, I was in Norwich and suddenly I had that happy, content feeling of being home.”
Jess, a former pupil of Cecil Gowing Infant School in the city and Norwich School, says that despite initially applying to study English literature at university, she couldn’t ignore the pull towards wildlife and conservation. She spent a gap year in South America, travelling and teaching English in Chile, and she says it was a complete culture shock, realising the lack of opportunity that most children had.
“I was suddenly confronted with the concept that there are kids who want to learn, who are bright, but are largely without ambition or hope. I came home and it took me a while to adjust.”
Her trip inspired her to get involved with the Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots project, in which university students teach workshops to primary school children about local and global environmental issues.
“The project really struck a chord with me, so I decided to set up my own while in my first year doing zoology at University College London and I was incredibly proud of what I achieved, getting fellow students to work with local schools, it wasn’t always easy to persuade them.” Her efforts won her the Jane Goodall Global Youth Leadership Award. While at university she attended a lecture about wildlife programming, and exchanged details with the BBC cameraman presenting it in the hope of getting some career advice in the future. She stayed in contact and it led to small jobs as an animal handler on various shows, including BBC’s Live ‘n’ Deadly and Deadly Mission Madagascar, and Sky’s Micro Monsters.
“Then during my first year at veterinary school, he called and said CBeebies were looking specifically for a female presenter for a new show. I was already known at the BBC as the bug girl because I could get my hands on all sorts of insects from my father, an insect collector, and I wasn’t afraid to handle them, and after auditioning I got the job. It was a dream, doing what I loved most, running around outside, finding bugs, teaching kids about them. It’s strange, because in real life it feels as though kids are not outside, exploring the natural world as parents are afraid to let their kids outdoors to have adventures, yet the TV shows are the complete reverse. They are about having adventures, risk and daring – that’s why shows like Deadly 60 are so fantastic.
“I think if you are a kid who is wildlife obsessed it can be quite a lonely thing. But it shouldn’t be – it is not weird, it can be cool, and hopefully we are getting better at getting that message out there and there are more positive role models they can aspire to.”