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MAN FOR ALL SEASONS

Chris Packham has been a TV favourite since he appeared on the Really Wild Show back in the 1980s.  Never afraid to speak his mind, he tells beyond why being upset about climate change isn’t enough. We need to be angry. Really angry.

W hen we speak, Chris Packham is sitting outside in his garden, cup of tea in hand, watching butterflies flit amongst a clutch of wildflowers. It sounds, I say, like a pretty idyllic way to start the day. It would be, he agrees, only he has been up since 5.30am so he’s already done half a day’s work. 

Packham is a notorious workaholic. As well as his regular stints for the BBC on Springwatch and the various spin offs, he’s a regular presenter on the Discovery Channel, an active campaigner for various conservation charities and since the publication of Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, also a respected nature writer.

Something of a misfit, his memoir of how his love of nature saved his early years growing up in Hampshire became a word of mouth hit and much to Packham’s surprise was voted the UK’s favourite nature book, beating the likes of Wind in the Willows and Tarka the Otter.

“I was flattered, partly because I’d never set out to write a book,” says Packham, who will be talking about Fingers in the Sparkle Jar when he appears in Harrogate as part of NiddFest. “I wrote it for me and put it away for a long time before I happened to mention it to a publisher.

“I really wanted the nature elements to be good and different to anything else and I spent a lot of time choosing exactly the right words.  That’s what I really wanted people to talk about, but instead they focused on the other thing.”

That other thing was Packham’s admission that he has Asperger’s. The diagnosis didn’t come until he was in his 40s, but it was clear during his childhood he was a little different from other kids and was mercilessly bullied at school.

He subsequently made a documentary for the BBC about his experience with the condition and there’s a sense that he’s said all he has to say on the matter. Packham has other things he wants to talk about, namely how most of us have become dislocated from the natural world. 

“I am lucky enough to have a house in the New Forest, but I don’t consider that my home,” he says. “Where I feel at home is in the oak woodland nearby, wandering through the trees and just generally being at one with the place.

“I think we have forgotten how therapeutic isolation can be. I have a place in France and the last time I was there I went 12 days without talking to anyone.  That’s pretty extraordinary in today’s world, but it’s also very liberating.

“You eat when you want to, you go to sleep and get up when your body dictates. That sounds like a little thing, but when you start living by the world’s natural rhythms life is so much less stressful.”

While he might be a persuasive spokesman for the importance of down time, he doesn’t get to practice what he preaches as often as he’d like. When we speak he has just wrapped on a series for National Geographic and even when he’s not got filming commitments there is always some cause or other which needs his help.

“I’m not very good at saying no,” he says. “But having said that it’s only by raising awareness of what’s happening to our planet that things will change and I am happy to keep banging that drum as long as I am needed.”

With a UN-backed report published earlier this year claiming a million species are now on the verge of extinction that could be for some time yet.

“I think things are changing. Slowly perhaps, but they are changing. You see on social media that people are disgruntled by the fact hedgerows are being cut down and covered in netting or that green spaces are being built on, but we don’t need to be disappointed, we need to be appalled.

“Like single use plastic, we need theses assaults on our natural world to be seen as socially unacceptable.”

Packham was a vocal supporter of Extinction Rebellion, the environmental campaign group, which earlier this year brought much of London to a standstill and which arrived in Leeds for five days in July.

In their own words, their aim is to protest against “climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and the risk of social and ecological collapse” and Packham believes they have already made a difference.

“It was a blueprint for how to stage a demonstration,” he says. “There was actually real co-operation between the police and the protestors and while yes there were lots of arrests, but they were mostly for sitting in a road, there wasn’t any violence. 

“The festival atmosphere was extraordinary and afterwards the government declared a climate change emergency. They haven’t done anything about it yet, but it was at least a start. Now we need to keep the momentum going . During the Extinction Rebellion protests I contacted a number of high-profile celebrities, people with real influence, and asked them to join us.

“Not one of them came.  I don’t know whether it’s fear of harming their public image or looking like a trouble causer, but it’s disappointing because this is something which affects every single one of us.”

Packham is aware that whenever he speaks out he makes as many enemies as he does friends. However, he has never been afraid to meet his critics which is why he is inviting the grouse shooting community to attend the Harrogate event.

“I think grouse shooting is doomed. I don’t want to sound pompous but we have the legal, ethical and moral high ground. In order to produce the volume of birds needed for each shooting season, the landscape is intensively managed, but worse than that the shooting industry seems to be committed to protecting a criminal element guilty of raptor persecution.”

There have been a number of incidents where hen harriers and eagles – the natural predators of grouse – have been found shot or trapped, but prosecutions have been few and far between. Packham, however, isn’t deterred and if the success of Springwatch has taught him anything it’s that once you have been given a platform you have an onus to use it for good.

“Now the show is so well established it’s a bit like being a DJ, walking into a room full of strangers and playing Abba. You know that it’s going to get people on the dancefloor and I think we have that same kind of familiarity. However, every so often we chuck in a new B-side and introduce viewers to a animal they may not know much about. It’s good to shake things up every so often.”

And that right there is Packham’s own mantra for life.

Chris Packham is at Harrogate’s Royal Hall on October 19th. The event starts at 7pm and will be followed by a Q&A and book signing. To book tickets go to harrogatetheatre.co.uk

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