Chris Packham: a force of nature

By Caroline Rees , Friday 28 December 2012

He’ll battle for badgers and beavers, and wait hours for a glimpse of a hummingbird, but won’t pander to the panda lobby. TV naturalist Chris Packham explains why he’s driven to stop fluffiness getting the better of facts.
Chris Packham © Dan Burn-FortiChris Packham © Dan Burn-Forti

For someone who is uneasy with the idea that he is the successor to David Attenborough, naturalist Chris Packham bears some remarkably similar traits, indicating they could indeed be of the same species.

Both were obsessive about wildlife when young, and have lamented today’s health-and-safety fears that prevent children from taking part in the tree-climbing, fossil-collecting adventures that turned them into naturalists. They share an infectious passion for their subject, too, as well as some radical opinions. But whereas Attenborough’s delivery is old-school and careful, Packham’s outspokenness and quirkiness lend him a contemporary edginess. 

He bats the comparison with Attenborough aside. ‘It’s a burden,’ he says. ‘It’s like saying someone’s the next Neil Armstrong. You can only be the first to land on the Moon once. But in terms of Attenborough being an authoritative voice, yes, I would aim towards that. I want people to believe what I say.’

The presenter of BBC Two’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch sees himself as a campaigner and educator as much as a TV personality. ‘I’m trying to excite people about stuff that lives on their doorstep so they value it. But I’m not interested in packaging anything up to be fluffy or pretentious. I like hard facts.’

Nonconformity comes naturally to him. His mobile ringtone is David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel and he refuses to travel to China as a matter of conscience. ‘It’s my job to agitate. Unless people speak out, how can we expect people to modify their behaviour to improve things?’

He sees no problem with wind farms, favours a pet curfew to stop bird predation, wants reform of EU agricultural policy and believes too much money is devoted to saving pandas and cute ‘T-shirt animals’ when preserving habitats as a whole is more important.

‘Most people never see otters or dormice,’ he says of the UK’s cuddly headliners. ‘I like animals that we have contact with. Charities have picked on the dormouse – a dull little thing that sleeps half the time – simply because it’s got big eyes and a fluffy tail.

‘If the money raised for dormice is spent on woodland conservation so every bug and bird is being looked after, fine. But not if they’re just breeding more dormice.’

The most controversial topic he addresses is population control. ‘I’m no expert, but I have a duty to talk about it. We’ve passed the carrying capacity for the planet. People are aggressive. There are not enough resources to go round. In the UK, I’d suggest we paid people through tax reduction to have fewer kids.’

Perched on a kitchen chair, cradling a mug of Earl Grey tea in his rented farmhouse in the New Forest, Packham is earnest and straight-talking, but also self-critical. His attitude, he says, can be traced back to when he was 14 when, echoing the storyline of Kes, he reared a kestrel in defiance of adult counsel: ‘both acquiring the bird and losing it had a profound effect on me’.

His obsession with natural history, which began as soon as he could crawl round his family’s small Southampton garden, had already alienated him from his classmates. He was then rebuffed by a falconer whose advice he wanted on training a bird of prey. ‘He was objectionable,’ says Packham, who was left with a deep-rooted suspicion of authority – and a willingness to encourage youngsters who seek his help today.

Knowing no better at the time, he took a chick from a nest, read all the books, made the equipment and retreated into a secret world, flying his feathered friend every morning before school. Six months later – he can still quote the exact date – it succumbed to a fatal disease. ‘I was beyond devastation, and I dealt with it by separating myself from everyone.’

In the late Seventies, after losing the kestrel, punk rock gave him ‘a massive breath of fresh air – the separatism, the flagrant do-it-yourself-and-don’t-take-no-for-an-answer. I’d had to do that with my kestrel. I was growing up in a two-up-two-down, going to a school with 2,000 kids and there was no National Lottery so, if I needed to do something, I’d have to do it myself.’

He wasn’t rebelling against his parents, he says. They tolerated him turning their home into a menagerie of venomous snakes, foxes, badgers and owls – ‘things flying around and pooing on their carpets’ – most of which he tried to sneak up to his room. But what he views as the ‘perfection’ of the animal world has been his refuge from the disappointments of human contact.

He has always preferred animals to humans. ‘People lie, don’t they?’ he says. He isn’t planning offspring of his own. ‘I don’t like myself, so why would I want to see anyone else like me?’ he laughs, awkwardly. He has plenty to offer, surely? ‘That’s other people’s perception, not mine.’

That said, he is clearly devoted to his 17-year-old step-daughter Megan, whose mother was his partner for ten years, and who has absorbed his love of zoology. ‘She has been one of the great richnesses of my life. She has stimulated me to do and think things for a second time.’ He still sees a lot of her, although he is now in another relationship, with Charlotte Corney, who runs the Isle of Wight zoo.

After abandoning postgraduate zoology research in need of a job to fund his love of Aston Martins (he has since succumbed to a Skoda for environmental reasons), Packham trained as a wildlife cameraman. But it was in front of the lens that he came to notice, as an energetic, peroxide-haired presenter on the children’s series The Really Wild Show in the Eighties. After that, he worked on regional TV in Southampton and pursued his interest in photography to spend more time with his step-daughter.

He didn’t return to primetime TV until 2009 when he took over from Bill Oddie on Springwatch, helping to turn the live nature series into such a success that it’s back this month in new seasonal plumage –Winterwatch. He put his geeky stamp on the programme by inserting song titles by particular bands, including The Smiths and The Cure, into his presentation throughout each series, though he diversified last year into film titles.

‘It’s not clever really,’ he says. ‘I find it difficult to concentrate, so it stops me getting distracted. I do them spontaneously as the show’s not scripted. And I have to be a fan of the band. I couldn’t do it for ELO.’

Co-host Martin Hughes-Games said that doing the show with Packham is like doing ‘mental press-ups’.

Packham has hardly been off the screen lately. In the autumn he reported from a melting glacier in Greenland for BBC Two’s Operation Iceberg. Prior to that, his four-part series Secrets of Our Living Planet showcased the sort of considered, narrative-driven natural history that gels perfectly with his interest in ‘figuring out how everything works, then seeing how it all fits together’.

Secrets made the connections between different creatures living in any given ecosystem: examining why the tiger needs the crab, for example. ‘It wasn’t driven by the latest mini-camera up something’s backside. It had substance and I was pleased with it. If you can get people to listen to stories, put in an entertaining way, it will increase their knowledge and they will appreciate the environment more.’

Packham enjoys working hard. When not filming, he gives talks, writes, campaigns for good causes (bats, hawks, butterflies, wetlands, a school in Sudan), takes photos (which will accompany his Wild Night Out talking tour in March) and even designs his own T-shirts. It’s easy to see how his extreme focus can shut out everything else.

He once waited eight hours outside a ladies’ toilet in Ecuador to see a swordbill hummingbird alight on a particular flower – for five seconds. He doesn’t regard it as extreme, though. ‘It’s a quest and I must win.’ Yes, he agrees, he’s ‘very driven’.

As a child, his pockets were stuffed with barn-owl pellets, the remains of his intensive animal studies. As an adult, he’ll readily spend six days trying to capture a perfect photograph of a bluetit because he feels they should be more widely appreciated.

Packham’s immersion in the natural world is such that he finds even danger intriguing. He has been charged by lions, bitten by a venomous snake and once faced down an angry male baboon that lunged at him in Kenya by screaming at it and eventually chasing it away.

With the possible exception of monkeys – ‘too much like people’ – all creatures fascinate him, even parasites. At his home in France, if ticks jump on him at night, he pops them in a glass and deposits them at the roadside in the morning. ‘Most people find that insane,’ he grins. ‘But it’s not the tick’s fault. It needs blood.’

His co-presenters joke about his lack of sentimentality, but it isn’t a sign of not caring. Knowing animals as individuals has been the most ‘intensely rewarding’ experience of his life, he says. His nine-year-old poodles Itchy and Scratchy are his best friends. ‘I live in a pack with these boys,’ he says, ruffling their ears. ‘We share food and communicate as best we can. They bring me joy every day, watching them charge around in the woods at first light.’

Outside that intimacy, his appreciation of nature’s processes is total: he finds beauty in life and death. ‘I’m described as harsh, and I’m not,’ he says. ‘I’m dispassionate about certain things. I don’t wince when things die. People confuse emotion, sentimentality and romance.’

He cites the example of seeing a sparrowhawk taking prey. ‘I look at it in a mechanical way. But the speed of the sparrowhawk, the twist of its wings, the brevity of the moment, the feathers floating on the breeze, leave me with an incredible sense of romance. I was privileged to see it.’

While Itchy and Scratchy take time out from barking to stretch out by the woodburner, he acknowledges his obsessive-compulsive behaviour. He’s a perfectionist, so although he might grovel in the undergrowth on a wildlife mission, roughing it for no purpose isn’t his style. His main home south of Bordeaux, dubbed ‘Chris’s OCD paradise’ by friends, is ‘very spartan, very ordered’, he says. Paperbacks are arranged by spine colour. He collects modern chairs, but as design statements, ‘not for sitting on’.

How does he feel about still being labelled a geek at 51? ‘I don’t mind, but I think I’m a normal bloke,’ he smiles. ‘There’s nothing wrong with knowing the difference between types of animal poo.’

Never mind the next David Attenborough. Meet the first Chris Packham.

Chris Packham’s views. Brace yourself!

On a pet curfew

‘Cats are not kept at natural densities. In some areas, every other house has one. People need to manage them differently to stop bird predation. Keeping them in at night is one way, or they can put bleepers on them. In open countryside, dogs are a blight for ground-nesting birds. People say it’s their right to run them off the lead. It’s not.’

On a badger cull

‘The badger population has increased and they can carry TB, but they don’t move far. The best vector for the disease is an infected cow moved huge distances by truck. A cattle vaccine is banned by the EU because if you vaccinate a cow, then test it, you can’t tell if it has TB or not. They should leave badgers alone, increase bio-security on farms and invest in developing a workable vaccine or test.’

On saving the panda

‘It’s cute and cuddly, but the attempts to preserve it are absurd. We could be doing a lot more with the money. They’re living in the most overpopulated country in the world, in a habitat that’s extremely fragile. It’s not a successful animal.’

On reintroducing beavers

‘Some lunatics in the forestry, farming and fishing fraternity believe beavers will damage their interests. But we can manage them so flooding isn’t an issue. They’re great at generating biodiversity. They adapt the landscape and cause an increase in insects, fish and reptiles.’

On farming policy

‘Landowners have thrashed their hedgerows with flails and turned them into stumps, which offer little in terms of a wildlife resource. Why are conservation bodies not dealing with that? Because it’s easy to get people to pay for a few dormouse reintroductions; it’s much harder to lobby a government to go to Brussels and say we want to change the Common Agricultural Policy. Our farmers are crippled by EU regulations and the supermarket monopoly. We need to help farmers by changing policy so the way we farm is productive but less intensive.’

On climate change

‘We need more investment in alternative energy. I’m fed up with the nimbyism around wind farms. Massive pylons run through my property. Peregrines nest on them. People say turbines ruin the environment but we won’t have an environment without them. Wind farms are not as efficient as they could be. So let’s find out why and put it right.’

Winterwatch begins on BBC Two on January 14. Chris Packham’s photographic Wild Night Out tours in March. Visit www.chrispackham.co.uk

This interview originally appeared in Saga Magazine . For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.

Enjoy more images from our shoot with Chris Packham and his poodles, Itchy and Scratchy, below.

  • Chris Packham with his dogs, Itchy and Scratchy. Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti
  • Chris Packham with his dogs, Itchy and Scratchy. Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti
  • Chris Packham with his dogs, Itchy and Scratchy. Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti
  • Chris Packham with his dogs, Itchy and Scratchy. Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti
  • Chris Packham with his dogs, Itchy and Scratchy. Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti
  • Chris Packham with his dogs, Itchy and Scratchy. Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti
  • Chris Packham with his dogs, Itchy and Scratchy. Photograph by Dan Burn-Forti

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  • jenny burgon

    Posted: Friday 04 July 2014

    this is the 2nd year i have been unable to sttend your talk in morecambe i do hope to see you some other time in the future. the venue where you give your talk is our venue for morecambe and heysham dog society and we hold 2 shows a year there. i have been on the committee for about 30 years and owned german shorthaired pointers for 42 years but now like you i have a miniture poodle - black like yours, i love the names you gave them. long may you give us all so much pleasure on tv

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