TV

From living in his car to winning Strictly – Hamza Yassin risked everything for mother nature

Hamza Yassin made everyone smile on Strictly as he danced his way to victory, and now he wants to fill us all with the joys of the natural world

Hamza Yassin on a walk in Pollok Park

Yassin at Glasgow’s Pollok Park in February. Image: Steven Jones

“I can happily say to you, there will be an otter in this river. If you give  me 10 minutes, I can find you the scat of the otter.” It’s the morning after the final date on the Strictly Come Dancing live tour and – following some tearful farewells to his fellow dancers – we’ve taken reigning champion Hamza Yassin for a restorative walk in one of Glasgow’s dear green places. He’s ditched the sequins for his more usual, practical outdoor wear and, walking stick in hand, he’s climbing down the side of a narrow brook, poking at mossy roots and branches. In terms of wildness, Pollok Park may not compete with the natural history filmmaker’s home in the remote west coast of Scotland… but that’s not to say there aren’t surprises to be found. 

Well within the promised 10 minutes, there’s triumph. Poo has been located, proof of otters secured. “There! There’s the bit of scat! It’s just a little tiny bit, but you can see they’ve been along this particular branch. They would want to spraint [otter dung] on a high bit for the scent to travel. From that one sniff a male will know everything about the female: if she’s in season, if she’s not, how old she is. And it’s all from a scent place like this.” 

Hamza Yassin smiling
Yassin at Glasgow’s Pollok Park in February. Image: Steven Jones

Pollok is a pretty park, but it’s better known for its Parkrun, the local Highland cows and The Burrell Collection museum than it is as a wildlife destination. I must’ve been here 100 times, but had no idea there were otters sharing the space. “It’s about knowing the right places and the right knowledge to find the bits of information that you need,” says Yassin. “So if I’m in a place like this, I’ll be looking for violent green colour like that, because otters will always spraint in the same spot. It’s kind of like marking their territory. And over years, you will get a mound that is a perfect V, full of scat. You can go to the bottom and carbon date it – and go, this is 200 years old.” 

Hamza Yassin’s skill in tracking animals, and his ability to capture their behaviours on film, have led him to be one of the country’s most in-demand cameraman. He’s filmed polar bears in the Arctic and sparrow hawks hunting in the UK. Up next from him is Wild Isles, a programme that treats the wildlife of the British Isles with the same lavish production values more usually seen in globe-trotting, blue-chip series like Planet Earth. It may well turn out to be the last time we see Sir David Attenborough presenting from the field. Yassin contributed to a number of sequences, including filming white-tailed eagles swooping over windswept Scottish seas. “It’s a dream come true,” he grins. 

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

The dream didn’t come easy. Yassin was eight when his family moved to the UK from Sudan. “I think I had four words of English,” he remembers, “please, thank you, pizza and chips.” In Sudan, the extended family – a clatter of uncles, aunts and cousins – lived together in a big house within sight of the Nile, had a pet monkey called Durbis, and were “surrounded by all the wildlife that you can get in an African savannah”. So, when he first arrived in England with just his mum, dad and brother, the place looked bleak to young Hamza.  

“I realised I had such a privileged upbringing being in Africa, surrounded by the wildlife,” he says. “When you first come to the UK, you think it’s barren. It’s just green and loads of trees. At first sight, you don’t see anything. But all you’ve got to do is sit and be patient.” Yassin’s mum would take him to RSPB reserves, where his love of British wildlife grew and the goal of filming it took root.

Yassin was a teenager at school in Northampton when he was diagnosed as dyslexic. At that point, he realised the usual paths into his longed-for career wouldn’t be open to him. “Because I’m severely dyslexic, I couldn’t go to the BBC in Bristol and become a researcher or a runner, because I know I can’t read and write very well,” he says. “I can speak fine. But reading and writing is a nightmare. So I’ve got to do it a different way.”

So it was that, aged 21, after successfully completing a degree in zoology with conservation, Yassin packed up and left home to live in the Scottish Highlands. With no accommodation secured, and no money coming in, Yassin’s first Scottish home was his car. “For nine months, I was living as a homeless guy,” Yassin says. “I was voluntarily homeless, in the sense that I knew I couldn’t live in a city any more. And I knew I wanted to be a wildlife cameraman. Moving to the west coast of Scotland, within a 20-minute car journey, I’ve got the alps of Scotland, Jamaican looking beaches, honestly – crystal blue waters. You’ve got the dolphins, the orcas, the red deer. You’ve got so many stories around you that you can tell.” 

Strictly winner Hamza Yassin searching for scat at Pollok Park
Searching for scat at Pollok Park. Image: Steven Jones

The wildlife may have been stunning and the landscapes incredible, but a car is not a home. During that time Yassin would pretend to his mum he had a “lovely little cottage” to live in, covering his tracks by claiming she couldn’t phone him there because he didn’t have any reception. “I’ll call you,” he’d say.  

When he’s told this story in the past, Yassin has always emphasised the happy ending, and his gratitude to the people of the Ardnamurchan peninsula, where he still lives. A local family – who he now refers to as his “Scottish mum and dad” – took him under their wing, getting him “out of the car and up on my feet”. They helped him get a caravan, where he lived without running water but in comparative luxury set against his car. Thanks to the success of his photography and guided tours, he worked up to the non-imaginary cottage he calls home today. It’s a beautiful story of community and the power of sheer ambition. But, he now admits, there were dark moments.  

“When I was at my lowest, I’ve left home, I’ve got nowhere to go,” he says. “I’ve only got to pay for my car tax, my petrol and my food, that’s the only three things. I calculated that to be under 50 quid a month. So I started working as a gardener. I chopped logs for people. I helped clean houses. I was a house cleaner for a number of years.” 

Hamza Yassin filming
The day job on Animal Park last year. Image: BBC

All the while, Yassin was fuelled by his passion for nature, betting everything on making it as a cameraman. “You got to do what you got to do to follow your dream,” he explains. “For me, it was like, well, it can’t go any worse than this. I hope my car works tomorrow morning when I try to start it. But I’m in it for the long run. All it can be from here is up. It has to be up. And with that mentality, you will go forward and make it. I mean, I’ve just done bloody Strictly. You know what I mean?” 

Yassin’s rise on the back of Strictly has been vertiginous. He’s well aware that many people were nonplussed when he was originally announced. “I heard people say, the BBC are scraping the bottom of the barrel now. They’re getting one of their own cameramen to join in,” he says. In reality, many younger viewers already knew Yassin well as Ranger Hamza, the star of CBeebies nature programme Let’s Go for a Walk. It’s half term when we’re on our own walk around Pollok Park, and we’re stopped at regular intervals by young ramblers keen to get their photo taken with him.  

“My grandson watches you every day,” says one women, passing with her dog. “Your programmes are superb.” Yassin beams as he helps her take a selfie of the pair of them. “That’s what it’s all about,” he grins, as she happily walks off waving. “If her grandson knows how much I love the natural world, consequently, as they grow up, hopefully I just lit a little spark in them to say, ‘Mum, instead of driving to school, can we walk to school today? It’s autumn. We’re gonna see how many leaves we can find that are different shapes.’ Jackpot.” 

It’s a little trick Yassin likes to call “SF by stealth: scientific facts by stealth”. Instead of beating people over the head with the knowledge you want them to take in, it’s about finding a way to engage them that will be entertaining as well as informative. Amid the pasodoble and tango, Strictly is the best possible platform for such a sneak attack. “To take a Highlander from the west coast of Scotland, who is a natural history filmmaker, and put him on primetime television in front of 16 million people every Saturday… what more can you ask for? You cannot get a better advertisement for the natural world than being on Strictly and talking about mother nature and dedicating some of the dances towards the natural world,” he says. 

“For me, looking after mother nature, that’s the important thing. And people now see that I deeply care about it, about her. And we should look after our planet. We all live in it together. We can also understand if we all do a little tiny bit, we will make this world a better place. There’s not many other shows on television that you can say your message in such a way that everybody enjoys. This is the power of what Strictly can do.” 

Performing Salsa to Ecuador with Jowita Przystał, who won her first partnered season with Yassin on Strictly.
Performing Salsa to Ecuador with Jowita Przystał, who won her first partnered season with Yassin on Strictly. Image: BBC/Guy Levy

Yassin may have agreed to Strictly to get a message out, but he was surprised to find out how much he loved the experience in its own right. Having never danced before he joined Strictly (beyond doing the Macarena at his brother’s wedding), he didn’t anticipate the impact dancing – and his dance partner Jowita Przystał – would have on him. “I never thought in a million years I’m gonna like dancing,” he laughs. “But I absolutely fell in love, head over heels with dancing. Because I knew how much passion Jowita had for it. It changed the way I see the world.” In return, Yassin shared some of his love of nature with his dance partner. The two of them plan to make a documentary together in the near future.   

A bona fide celebrity, much to his bemusement, Yassin is in high demand right now. His gambles have paid off and he’s making his living doing what he loves. But there are still sacrifices to make. One of them is the difficulty in having a relationship, though at 33, he says he’s in no rush yet.  

“It is hard,” he says. “The job is not conducive to really having a longterm relationship or family. But it can be done. You just have to prioritise. A few of the amazing camera operators before me are in amazing marriages with family. For me at the moment, in this particular time of life, I’m on the busy stage of it. I want to make a stance for the natural world. And if someone comes along, amazing. I’ll welcome them in.” 

Wild Isles is on Sundays at 7pm on BBC One and available on iPlayer

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support our vendors this winter and beyond

If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Ex-England star Jermaine Jenas: 'I've found it hard to make peace with my football career'
Letter to my younger self

Ex-England star Jermaine Jenas: 'I've found it hard to make peace with my football career'

Apoocalypse Now: Joe Lycett vs Sewage on Channel 4 shames UK's privatised water companies
Joe Lycett on a toilet
TV

Apoocalypse Now: Joe Lycett vs Sewage on Channel 4 shames UK's privatised water companies

Doctor behind ITV's vital new drama Breathtaking on 'horrendous' truth about Covid in hospitals
Joanne Froggatt in Breathtaking on ITV
TV

Doctor behind ITV's vital new drama Breathtaking on 'horrendous' truth about Covid in hospitals

Breathtaking and The Way: These are the next Mr Bates-style TV dramas poised to shake-up Britain
Toby Jones in Mr Bates vs The Post Office, Joanne Froggatt in Breathtaking and Callum Scott-Howells and Maja Laskowska in The Way.
TV

Breathtaking and The Way: These are the next Mr Bates-style TV dramas poised to shake-up Britain

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know