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Chris Packham: Why I'm still a kid at heart
8:53am Sunday 18th August 2013 in News
NOT many people jump for joy at the sound of the morning alarm but Springwatch presenter Chris Packham relishes the shrill start to a new day.
At 52, the wildlife expert from Southampton has retained the same infectious enthusiasm for wildlife that made him such a hit on eighties children’s programme The Really Wild Show.
And, 30 years on, he still more or less looks like the same spiky-haired nature buff.
“This morning I couldn’t sleep, so I waited for it to get light, then took my dogs out for a walk in the woods,” begins Chris, who has two pet poodles, Itchy and Scratchy.
“I saw a patch of sunlight about the size of a tea cloth in the woods. I crouched down and that little patch was filled with seven silver-washed Fritillary butterflies, these most beautiful, remarkable and increasingly infrequent insects.
“I thought, ‘I’ve seen something I’ve never seen those insects do before – I could have been lying in bed or watching the television. My day’s done’,”
he says, smiling.
Typically, for somebody with a chronic dislike of sitting still, Chris’s day was far from done.
There was gardening, admin, filming, and the small matter of putting the finishing touches to a new three-parter for BBC Two called The Burrowers: Animals Underground, to get on with.
The series, which focuses on badgers, water voles, moles and rabbits and is part of the wider BBC Summer of Wildlife season, has been filmed in specially-created full-scale burrows, and uses camera technology to capture ‘never seen before’ animal behaviour.
During filming, Chris learned that water voles store their food in separate compartments to prevent rotting. He also saw that, when offered a choice of bedding, badgers will plump for the one which is covered in wild garlic, as it’s thought to contain anti-parasitic properties.
Observing this behaviour was thrilling for the presenter, who spent his late teenage years “missing Top of the Pops” to “collect and analyse badger poo” every Sunday and Thursday.
“We naturalists see just a fraction of the lives of badgers, water voles, moles and, to a lesser extent, rabbits, when they’re on the surface, so it was a privilege to see the hidden bits,” he says.
After a lifetime of being pragmatic about wildlife, he admits that even he was bowled over by the sight of a group of badgers entering the man-made set for the first time.
“There was this silence among all of us because we were all so entranced with these cute, cuddly little badgers exploring the area, using their bedding, play-fighting and engaging in very natural behaviour,” he recalls, laughing.
He hopes viewers will walk away with a greater appreciation of the part these creatures play in our lives.
“If we have an underlying message about the programme and the Summer of Wildlife as a whole, it’s that British wildlife is exciting,” he says. “This is a unique opportunity to see that these animals are a vital part of our ecosystem and need looking after.”
Over the years, Chris has done more than his fair share of looking after animals and increasing awareness of conservation issues. But away from serious debate, this witty wildlife aficionado has some other things to get off his chest.
“I’m a very opinionated person and professionally I try to keep that under control, unless it’s something I consider to be important in the conservation area.
“But life’s short and I’m here to get things done, not make friends,” he says, referring to his amusing appearance on Room 101 last year.
“When I went on Room 101, it was a bit tongue in cheek, but I did mean it. I do hate living statues! I really don’t like Chris Moyles and I don’t understand people who have a keen interest in art and then put utter rubbish that their kids have drawn on the fridge,” he adds.
While Chris’s fridge in Hampshire is free of “drawings of some headless bird with a bent tail,” he softens when he mentions his 18-year-old step-daughter Megan’s artistic offerings.
“I always took Megan to art galleries and we still do lots of drawing and painting together,” he says. “She gave me some things she did for her A-Level preparation and I’ve had them framed and put them on the wall because they’re quite good."
This is high praise from Chris.
“When Megan was drawing stuff when she was five, it was rubbish, but obviously I’ve always been very encouraging. I’m keen that she has an artistic awareness and also an ability to express herself in a creative way.”
He treasures the moments of quiet togetherness they share.
“My girlfriend has realised it’s pointless trying to communicate with me when I’m out taking photos, but Megan has always travelled with me and takes her own photos now,” he says.
“She’s had a lifetime of it. If we’re taking photos together, we generally don’t speak, unless it’s a short snappy conversation about kit.
“It sounds unfriendly but we’ve got our minds on the task. There’s nothing uncomfortable about the silence.”
Leisure time is also spent quietly painting, and Chris is never happier than when he’s busy. He’s enthused about the projects he has coming up, including a BBC Two series about animal intelligence, airing in autumn, and a series of wildlife talks across the UK.
“What I do doesn’t lead to a normal life in any context. I’m never around, but I’m very fortunate to have my job and I’m constantly conscious of that,” he says.
“The number of times where I’ve had a quiet moment, looked around and thought, ‘I grew up in a three up, three down house in Southampton, I read all my animal books, was mad about animals, and somehow or other I’ve ended up here’.”
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