Interview by RSGS Writer-in-Residence Jo Woolf who sat down with Chris Packham before his talk to RSGS at Perth Concert Hall in December 2019. This interview first appeared in The Geographer magazine, Spring 2020. 

Chris Packham’s favourite habitat is woodland. Most humans, he tells me, prefer open areas – a throwback, apparently, to our origins on the plains of Africa, when we could spot prey and predators from a long distance away – but personally he would rather be enclosed by trees. From his home in the New Forest, he has travelled to Perth to give a talk to RSGS, and a couple of hours beforehand, in the Explorers’ Room of the Fair Maid’s House, he is chatting about lots of things: Scotland, birdwatching, wildlife conservation, fish farming, the climate crisis… and Tyrannosaurus rex.

As a long-standing presenter of BBC’s Winterwatch, which is based in the Cairngorms, Chris has fond memories of visiting Scotland as a child. Inspired by the books of naturalist Lea McNally, he would keep an eager watch for wildcats, eagles and capercaillie from the back seat of his family’s Vauxhall Viva. Since then, he’s probed most corners of Scotland: favourite haunts include the Dornoch Firth, where, on a bleak January day, “with a strong onshore wind you’ll have long-tailed ducks just off the shore,” and South Uist, first in May, when snipe, lapwing and redshank are breeding and the skies are filled with birdsong, and again in July, when the machair is ablaze with colour. But when pressed for a favourite place, he reluctantly opts for the Cairngorms, and the woodlands that are close to his heart: “In the last year we’ve been going to the Cairngorms to do Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Winterwatch, and I’ve had an opportunity to walk under those granny pines again, and to caress their trunks, and to see them as the magnificent organisms that they are.”

“Since 1970, when I got my first pair of binoculars, we’ve lost 90 million birds from the UK countryside. We’ve lost 40 or 50% of the world’s wildlife globally.”

While Chris visits Scotland to enjoy the wildlife, he harbours serious worries about it. He points to the ongoing persecution of raptors on grouse moors. One-fifth of Scotland’s land, he says, is given over to driven grouse shooting, but “from the figures that we have, which are ambiguous, we think it’s worth just 0.04% of Scotland’s economy.” He would like to see more sustainable, walked-up grouse shooting, such as that practised on the Glenfeshie Estate: “I would argue that in the UK our singularly most impressive conservation project at this point is the Cairngorms Connect project, where Forestry and Land Scotland, SNH, RSPB and the Glenfeshie Estate under Anders Povlson have come together to represent, with a commonality of management practices, a long-term vision, community involvement and significant landscape management.” The overall approach, he says, is more compatible with eco-tourism and landscape resilience. “Times have changed – people need to change their minds and their practices.”

Around Scotland’s west coast, open-cage salmon farming is causing serious concern among environmentalists. The damage to ecosystems could be avoided, says Chris, if the operators observed international standards. “Overseas, salmon farming can be profitable and generate jobs, but it can be done in a way which is far less environmentally damaging. In Norway the fish are effectively enclosed rather than open-caged. They are also fenced underwater, to prevent seals getting in.” Scotland lacks the necessary legislation to make such fencing mandatory, with disastrous results: “People are still shooting seals around these things. There’s no ambiguity about it. We go to the shore and we see the animals with a bullet-hole through their head… it’s cheaper to kill them, and it’s cheaper to pollute the seas in a disastrous way and utterly ravage those eco-systems. We don’t any longer live in a time or a space where we can tolerate that, so we’re constantly lobbying for effective change.”

Chris acknowledges that fish farming provides local jobs and is a major contributor to Scotland’s economy. “Figures are hard to come by, but it’s certainly in excess of a billion pounds a year. That still doesn’t provide us with a contemporary excuse for doing that at the expense of the environment. Short-termism is our greatest problem. Short-term politics, short-term views from people who go on about the fact that they’re resistant to change because that would compromise them in some way. Well, turn your TV on and look at what’s happening north of Sydney. Look what’s happening in California. Look what’s happening in Indonesia.”

While Chris actively supports national and global issues through petitions and campaigns, he believes that in the UK the climate crisis “is not biting us as hard in the bottom as it is in other parts of the world, and as a consequence people seem to think it’s not quite happening yet.” We are, he says, too cosy, and the human species, as intelligent, resourceful and adaptable as it is, seems to be better at cure than prevention. In an ideal world, “we could be listening to the scientists, listening to the people who have developed technologies that will address these issues, and getting on with it.” He expresses admiration for young climate strikers, who, he says, are being a lot less short-sighted. “They’ve realised that their very future is critically in peril, and rather than pull down the blinkers and carry on regardless, they’re saying we don’t have that option.” He describes his desperate sense of shame and guilt “that on my watch, since I’ve been aware of these issues, and should have been in a position to address them, we’ve failed.”

“We use two more planets’ worth of resources than we can afford to in the UK, and if we were in the US we’d be using four more planets’ worth of resources. We are the principal consumers as humans, as organisms, in the world.”

Chris believes that, individually, we all have the capacity and the responsibility to change our lives. The flight that he took to Edinburgh in order to get to Perth was his last internal flight: in future, he will travel by train. It will cost him more, and it may influence which jobs he takes and how he fulfils them, but he is prepared to make that change. While he has an electric car, he is keen to see greater subsidies to make them affordable for more people, alongside increased investment in charging points. He doesn’t expect everyone to make the same changes, but he encourages them to do what they can afford to do.

Cleaner forms of energy mean a shift away from oil. “We know that we can’t stick with a carbon-based fuel system so we basically should stop looking for more oil and invest in a transition from petrochemicals to sustainable energies; and that should be happening now, like now, this afternoon, not at some stage in the future.” This will involve a major transition in terms of jobs, education and lifestyle, but “if we carry on regardless there won’t be any jobs, there won’t be any education, because there won’t be any hope.”

On an entirely different topic, I mention Chris’s recent documentary about Tyrannosaurus rex. His lifelong obsession with dinosaurs took him to museums, scientific laboratories and palaeontological sites in his quest to discover not only what T rex looked like, but what it sounded like. The results had an eerily lifelike quality, but of course they are only speculation. Chris admits that the creature’s intangibility is the key to its enduring appeal, but he would still love to be whisked back 65 million years, with a pair of binoculars, to study them from a safe distance. And then what? With hindsight, I can’t help wondering whether he would find some way of alerting them to their impending doom and spurring them into concerted action.

“My approach has always been forthright and relatively ferocious…”

Chris speaks his mind with passion and clarity. Because he is so unflinching about his opinions, it’s easy to forget that behind his words is a sensitive person with acute powers of perception. When asked about the individuals who particularly inspire him, he gives credit first to the people who supported him through a difficult period in his mid-twenties; he feels indebted to them, and for this reason he is keen to invest in helping young people, particularly those who may be going through a tough time themselves. Professionally, he acknowledges broadcasters like Alan Whicker, John Freeman, Sir David Attenborough, Sir Patrick Moore and Bill Oddie: he is always captured by infectious enthusiasm, even if the topic isn’t directly related to his own interests. He likes people who get things done, “people who don’t care if they upset the apple-cart, because they know that it’s the right thing to do at that point in time.”

I get the impression that along Chris’s own path, plenty of apple-carts lie in wait. For his services to nature conservation he was awarded a CBE in the 2019 New Year’s Honours List, but he is not about to rest on his laurels. When he encounters criticism or resistance, “in the vast majority of instances it spurs me on. I find it quite a compelling way to further motivate me to try harder.” At heart, however, he is optimistic. He is focused on solutions rather than problems, and he believes that we are reaching a point “whereby ethics and morality are becoming as important as the law in some instances.” As an example, he mentions youth climate strikers, who have found their own way of getting people in authority to listen.

“There will never be room for any complacency and contentment in my life as a conservationist and an environmentalist… the fact that we will not give up is what provides that hope.”

On 17th December 2019, Chris gave a talk entitled Pictures from the Edge of the World to a packed house in Perth Concert Hall.