Sunday, December 09, 2012

Really Wild - interview with Chris Packham

WITH Autumnwatch wrapped up for another year, and the rest of the BBC Natural History Unit preparing for hibernation, the whirlwind of naturalist energy that is CHRIS PACKHAM is Totally Wild out on tour. CATRIONA REEVES tracked him down walking his dogs, to discover more about this rare and exotic creature.

CATRIONA REEVES: A week after Autumnwatch is off our screens, and you’re on a live theatre tour. Didn’t you fancy a bit of a rest first?

CHRIS PACKHAM: I don’t stop working - you’ve only got one life, and I plan to sleep when I’m dead and eat just before. 

The theatre show is a talk about various species I have encountered and experiences I have had, all illustrated with photos I have taken in various parts of the world; exotic species from pole to pole, from Antarctica to the rainforests, and some in my garden, and within 20 minutes of my house in Hampshire.

Ultimately, when it comes to photography, the best subjects are on your doorstep. I enjoy stretching myself to take the most imaginative pictures possible in my back garden.

The New Forest is where my heart is; it’s where I grew up and where I am most comfortable in the environment. I enjoy exploring but I am made of this place. It’s where I foraged as a kid and learnt my trade as a naturalist.

CR: What started your love of nature as a child, aside from the local countryside?

CP: When I was young, I was given a set of Brooke Bond tea cards featuring tropical birds that my grandmother had collected, and it became a great source of inspiration and longing to see al the weird and wonderful birds featured on the cards.

If we want to continue to ignite this sort of passion young people we need to get them out into the  countryside to see it, smell it and touch it. Kids these days are not allowed to fall out of trees or make camps for fear of what might happen to them. We’ve turned the countryside into a dark, dangerous place, where kids are extinct.

There’s an element of risk involved in everything we do, and if we don’t let them explore, it’s going to have a massive negative impact in the future.  If you really don’t feel you can let your kids out on their own, then get out into the countryside with them, and discover it together.

CR: Do you already see that restriction on freedom to explore impacting on the next generation of naturalists?

CP: I’ve met naturalists who’ve been to university but can’t identify every British butterfly or common bird species . Universities have to run identification courses to teach their students the basics. It’s terribly sad, but it’s not their fault - it’s their parents’ fault.

As we speak, I can hear a blackbird chattering - I happen to know that there’s a tawny owl round here, so that’s probably what’s disturbing the blackbird. I got that knowledge because of spending so much time out here. There’s so much that you can’t learn in the library or on the internet. Skills and knowledge will die off.

CR: You have been at the forefront of the current campaign to prevent the proposed badger cull in order to prevent the spread of TB in cattle - are you relieved that plans have been put on hold?

CP: In my heart, I hope that this is a way of easing us into another u-turn, and the cull will never happen - if it isn’t, I will pick up the baton again, and continue to campaign against it.

If the cull was going to work, I would grit my teeth and let them get on with it, because we need to support our farmers and agriculture. But science shows that it won’t work.

We need to focus on finding a vaccine for the cattle that works, and allow vaccinated produce to be sold. We should have been doing that for the last 20 years. But instead, to do something wholly destructive to British wildlife that won’t even stop TB in cattle is absurd. If the cull goes ahead, it will be a triumph of ignorance.

CR: Are you concerned about the ash tree dieback that’s currently killing ash trees across   Europe, and has now spread to the UK?

CP: I think we will lose ash trees to the disease, just as we lost the elm trees a few decades ago, because the fungus that’s destroying them knows what it’s doing. But nature is dynamic, and there will be winners as well as losers - woodpeckers and wood burrowing beetles will have a bonanza for a few years. And as long as the dying trees are allowed to rot - which takes about 50 years - rather than cut down and burnt, they will provide a great ecological advantage to the environment.

It’s very sad that we will lose such characterful trees, but nature is a constant and active struggle.

CR: Oh dear, this is all getting a bit gloomy - can we end this interview on a cheery note?

CP: One of the things I’ll be talking about in the show is my trip to Brazil last year to make a video for Velvet, the toilet tissue manufacturer, which has a ‘Three Trees Promise' to plant three trees for every one that it uses. Two of the trees are planted in Scandinavia, where they harvest, but in the third one is planted in Brazil, where they are working with the government to  replenish huge areas of rainforest.

The scale of it is amazing - three million trees planted in one place.It’s a great piece of corporate co-operation with conservation. Much as I feel that I have a duty to comment when things are going wrong, I also like to show that we do have the ability to put things right.

  • First published on Newburytoday (, November 2012

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