Wildlife and the outdoors have obsessed Chris Packham for half a century. As a presenter, naturalist, author and photographer, he has become one of the UK’s greatest ambassadors of the natural world. In an exclusive interview with LiveMoreYHA, here he talks Hampshire, hawks and hostels.
What do you remember about your first outdoor adventures?
I grew up in the 1960s and from six or seven onwards I was allowed to explore the fields around the house. I grew up on the edge of Southampton. It wasn’t a rural area, but in between the houses there were disused fields and woodland, and at that time it was quite a rich environment in terms of foxes, badgers, birds and butterflies and all that sort of stuff. My mum would say ‘go out, come back by seven o’clock’. They gave me a watch, but I never wound it up, so I never knew if it was seven o’clock! Then they’d say come back by dark but I thought well, actually, interesting things happen after dark!
The next big step was when I got a proper bike. I would get home from school and think nothing of cycling to Winchester, which was 15 miles or so away. All of a sudden there was an enormous amount of countryside at my disposal. East of Southampton I had downland, if I went to the west I had heathland on the New Forest. That bike – I wish I knew how many miles it had ridden. Hundreds, if not thousands, of miles around Hampshire. My parents were never neglectful but they did allow me to roam at will.
Why is it so important for young people to connect to the outdoors?
To stimulate an interest in that natural environment you’ve got to meet it, you’ve got to touch it and feel it. For young people it’s where they have those formative moments, where they actually have something very personal. I remember seeing my first fox cubs, and what makes the memory so precious is that I was the only one sat in the field. It felt very privileged to be able to have those encounters. It wasn’t just seeing foxes, it was picking up caterpillars, catching snakes – it was all about direct contact with wildlife. It stays with you and it shapes and fuels your future interest. It’s very important that young people have that opportunity.
Even if we live in cities, like I did when growing up, there’s always green space there. We’re very lucky in the UK. I always think with kids that it’s the really simple miracles that make a difference. So go out at spring, find some tadpoles in a pond, get the kids to cup their hands and let them feel the tips of tadpoles on the palms of their hands, watching these little things wriggling around. Or catch a caterpillar and feed it and watch it pupate and emerge as a butterfly – if a kid sees that happening on their dining room table it’s such a miraculous thing. You don’t have to go to the Serengeti, you don’t have to go to Antarctica. You can sit and watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly and that’s going to make the difference.
You’ve recently spoken of an ‘ecological apocalypse’ in Britain. What can people do to help?
Every one of us can make a difference. We don’t have to wait for ‘them’ to do it, whoever ‘them’ are. If we wait for our government to do it, it will never happen. If we wait or hope that our NGOs might do it, that can’t happen – they’re brilliant, they work really hard but they don’t have the resources, so we’ve got to do it. That’s the most important thing, to get up in the morning and think ‘actually, this is a mess’. If everyone did that, it would be job done. It starts at home. If you have a garden, feed your birds. Let some of it grow wild. Make sure it’s hedgehog-friendly, change some of your gardening practices, put up bird boxes and insect boxes. Improve your space: you’re the manager of that space, no one can tell you not to do something. Then it’s about getting together in your community. It’s about talking to other people and getting them to understand that we’re in a crisis and that everyone can play a role. And lastly, use social media. There are a lot of problems with social media – I get nastiness every single day – but it does allow us to communicate with one another, and to start driving and demanding more positive action from the decision-makers. So sign those petitions, go on those marches, stand up for your right to exercise your voice and demand positive change in the countryside.
You have a new outdoor clothing range with Cotswold Outdoor. What made you decide to launch it?
I was very keen to make some kids’ clothing, that was the initial idea. I wanted to make some jackets which were educational and that kids might actually want to wear. So they all come with field guides, and lining with footprints on. They’ve got magnifying glasses and a detachable ‘wet pocket’ where you can put smelly stuff, so your mum doesn’t have to wash the whole coat if you take a fox skull out of your pocket. I’m constantly trying to think what can I do to add to what the other outdoor clothing manufacturers do, but designed with the naturalist in mind. See a review of one of Chris’ products here.
What bird or animal gives you the biggest thrill?
There’s one small predator, the sparrowhawk, which in my lifetime has come back from being quite a rare bird in much of the UK. If you have small birds in your garden they’ll come to eat them, but they’re very quick, they’re very shy, they’re difficult to get to know. Every few years you get a glimpse of a sparrowhawk. I saw one earlier this spring. I was in my bedroom one morning and I heard this kerfuffle going on outside. On my lawn was a sparrowhawk attacking a blackbird. It was only there for 15 seconds but it’s been the highlight of my wildlife-watching year. It’s such a dashing bird, it’s so beautiful and normally you just see a swish as it goes through the garden.
Do you have much experience of hostelling?
When we’re working it’s very often that there isn’t a B&B or a hotel in the right place, so from our point of view we want to get up and start working, we don’t want to have to travel just to get from the nearest hotel or B&B, so we do stay in hostels while travelling round. And in the 1970s, if that was the best place to stay, that’s where I would stay. I appreciated the value of proximity to wildlife. For young people there’s also a sense of community which is really important because very often the people that explore the countryside can be a little bit solitary – we like to get out in the peace and quiet, but at the same time if you come together in a hostel environment it gives you a chance to meet other people with similar interests. I wonder how many people who are walking, or exploring nature, have found equally valuable things through meeting other people in hostels as they’ve found in the solace of the great outdoors. I bet there’s any number of partnerships formed and lifelong friendships that have been forged in that environment.