Meeting the wildlife warrior, Chris Packham

2nd March 2018


Chris Packham talks to Chris Seekings about his battles for the environment, animal welfare, and how time is of the essence.

Whether he’s confronting illegal wildlife hunters, protesting in the streets, facing jail abroad or presenting television programmes, Chris Packham’s relentless pursuit of animal rights and environmental protection is unmatched. The crusading naturalist and broadcaster, who has been described as the heir to David Attenborough, is on a mission to preserve the natural world, unafraid to raise his head above the parapet and tackle issues that many might find too controversial.

I travel to a café in Central London to meet Packham, who arrives dressed as though he has just stepped off the red carpet, adorned in a slick black coat, shirt and golden bow tie – a far cry from the customary anoraks I have come to associate with him on BBC’s Springwatch.

Despite his dapper appearance, he exudes an unassuming vibe, and as an obvious regular of the café, whisks me off to a quiet area to begin our chat. I start by asking what it is that attracts him to one cause over another. “It is not random, but nor is it entirely led by the heart,” he says. “There are lots of people campaigning for lots of different things, so I try to avoid overlap because there is an awful lot to achieve.”

This overlap is a cause of much frustration within the environmental conservation movement, with Packham highlighting how many charities and organisations fail to work in sync, implementing policies that do not complement each other. “I don’t think that is an optimum way to behave, and I don’t have any time for anything that isn’t efficient and optimal anymore,” he says. “If someone else is working on something and doing a good job, I don’t need to tread on their toes, I will find something else to do.”

He also concedes that some of the battles he picks are both “calculated and manipulative”, with a statement he made in 2009 about too much money being spent on the giant panda designed to provoke a wider discussion. “I wanted to initiate a debate around conservation spending, highlighting that we have a limited amount of money in a pot, and very little time to spend it effectively.”

There is a sense of urgency in Packham’s voice. He describes a deep personal guilt over the amount of animal species that have declined in recent decades, lamenting a 90 million fall in birds from the British countryside since the 1970s, as well as a 93% decrease in the black rhino population worldwide. “That is on my watch, when I should have been an effective conservationist,” he says. “We are losing, and I don’t like losing. Things have gone down the pan, so my point about the panda was to think about how we spend our money so we can maximise our efficacy.”

Battling blood sports

Although Packham is keen to avoid getting involved in areas where others lead, there are times when he simply cannot take a back seat. One cause he gives his passionate support to is the anti-foxhunting movement, voicing his disapproval so vehemently that he has been accused of spreading “blatant political propaganda”, with the Countryside Alliance even calling for him to be sacked by the BBC.

Packham says the fox population can be managed humanely, but that attempts to promote drag hunting, where an artificial scent is laid down for dogs to follow, have so far had limited success. Instead, he says, hunters want to continue a “barbaric sport that belongs in the Middle Ages”, adding: “It no longer has any place in our society, is outdated, and needs to stop.”

He believes this will happen sooner rather than later, pointing to a national poll that suggests 86% of people in the UK are anti-foxhunting, particularly young people. “Tomorrow’s voters are not going to support fox hunting – that’s the simple fact of it.”

Another issue he has spent much of his time attempting to highlight is the persecution of raptors. Illegal shooting has resulted in birds such as the hen harrier seeing their numbers fall to just four breeding pairs in England, when there should be more than 350. He says the biggest perpetrators in the UK are those who organise driven grouse shooting, which comes with a “plethora of ills”, such as a mismanagement of the environment through the burning and poisoning of land. “The whole thing is hideous and needs reform,” he adds.

Last year, while making an independent film about Malta’s annual spring hunt, Packham was charged with assault and trespass after confronting a hunter he thought had illegally captured protected wild birds. Detained in a police station for more than three hours before being charged, he was later cleared after providing video evidence in court proving it was the hunter who had manhandled him, rather than the other way round.

Despite the altercation, Packham is glad he placed a spotlight on Malta’s spring hunt. “There are generations of people unaware of what’s going on in the Mediterranean, which is illegal and leads to the death of about 26 million songbirds a year,” he says. As with foxhunting in the UK, he believes most young people in Malta are “horrified and embarrassed” by the hunt.

He says his intention is not to stop people having fun, but it cannot be at the expense of wildlife. “My opponents have labelled me as anti-shooting, but I am not. I am anti illegal and unsustainable shooting.” He illustrates this stance by explaining how a type of deer, with no natural predators, is damaging the environment in UK, reducing bird and butterfly numbers and woodland regeneration. “So at this point we have no choice but to cull those animals – which is valid, as long as it is done humanely and scientifically.”

China crisis

Packham also believes western governments must do more to tackle the issue of animal rights in the East, explaining that 80% of the earth’s wildlife crime is perpetuated by or trafficked through China, from the ivory and tiger trade to deforestation of tropical hardwoods and overfishing.

He argues that the UK has been doing all it can to “get into bed” with China as it has developed into an economic powerhouse over the past 20 years, but asks: “Is that ultimately ethical? Is it ethical without saying ‘we will invest in your country but you have to change your behaviour on certain issues’?” Prince William’s work highlighting the illegal ivory trade should be a source of inspiration for the government, according to Packham, who praises the royal for taking a lead when others seem to be too afraid to do the same. “Thankfully he has been able to say to the Chinese in a diplomatic way that this is a problem we need to sort out, which is impressive, and I think our government should be doing the same.”

He goes on to talk about the Yulin dog meat festival in China, where tens of thousands of canines are consumed every year. As a vegetarian and dog lover, whose Twitter account is littered with pictures and videos of his beloved poodle Scratchy, Packham is repulsed by the event. However, he says that it is not the eating of dogs where the West can take the moral high ground, but instead animal welfare in general, where the West has a better record. “We don’t eat dogs but we eat sheep, and the Chinese would say ‘what’s the difference?’ But you can’t just get away with blue murder when it comes to domestic animal husbandry, and especially their slaughter, so I think there is a secure argument,” he says.

Our interview coincides with an announcement by Japan’s Fisheries Agency that the country plans to continue whaling, despite a 30-year ban on the practice. The Environmental Investigation Agency says Japan lands thousands of tonnes of whale meat and blubber every year under the guise of scientific research. “We could cripple Japan economically if we wanted to stop whaling. Instead, we have all this posturing by the US, UK and Australia,” he says. “Our government could end that, but there is no will to do it. However, I think that will change, because these things, like foxhunting, are becoming vote-winners.”

Although Packham is keen to see more political pressure put on countries in the East, he also says that a a growing middle class in places like China has resulted in a burgeoning number of animal rights groups. “So it is no longer only pressure from outside, but also from within.”

The greatest threat

Packham admits that he “obsessively” recycles, never leaves the water running and keeps his energy consumption as low as he realistically can. However, he fears that efforts to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss will be in vain without addressing human population control. “That is the single greatest issue we face, but very few people will even talk about it,” he says.

He believes this lack of discussion is why so few solutions have been offered to the problem, in stark contrast to most of the other environmental challenges facing the planet. “We know how to preserve habitats and redress the impact of climate change, so why don’t we have the solutions for this like we do other things?” He suggests that many people would rather not think about the potential impact of having lots of offspring because it is too big an inconvenience for some to contemplate.

It is for this reason that he – along with others including David Attenborough – has given his support to the charity Population Matters, in the hope that more people will talk about the issue and own up to their responsibilities. “There is a limited amount of space to produce food, maintain ecosystems, and so on. Ultimately, it is a conversation we all must have, because it is the one no-brainer.”

His concern for the environment is what has partly informed Packham’s decision not to have any biological children of his own. He says that a rise in the human population is inextricably linked to consumption and energy wastage, arguing that the exponential growth will only exacerbate the “replace-rather-than-repair society that we live in”.

“Consumerism is what makes this world spin round unfortunately, causing all sorts of problems. So if you are going to have kids, do you eat meat sparingly, or see they are vegetarian or vegan? These are things that you should think about,” he adds. There is also a warning that, as with climate change, some inconsistencies might arise in the modelling for population growth, the potential impact it might have, and when. “But we know that growth is going to be disastrous, so we have to address it. Otherwise, nature will address it for us, and that will be hideous.”

Environmental awakening

Packham is deeply agitated by the way humans have affected animals and the environment. His interest in nature came from observing the creatures he found in his garden growing up in suburban Southampton. “I would pick up my ladybirds, tadpoles, frogs and lizards, and all of them were perfect,” he says with a childlike enthusiasm. “I was very intolerant of any flaws, and all these were symmetrical, had six legs, and so forth – it was perfection, and I just became fascinated by all of their stories.”

He says that for many years he was “unfortunately, blissfully ignorant” of the fact that many of these animals were in peril. However, during the 1970s he went through a political awakening amid rife unemployment, industrial action, “absolutely vile racism” and football violence. “Then, all of a sudden, a light went on that said ‘it doesn’t have to be this way, but there is no point in thinking anyone else is going to solve this – you have to do it’. That was immensely empowering, and is something that sticks with me.”

I put it to him that many of the television programmes he and others have made are facilitating an environmental awakening. He agrees, but says it is social media that is the most “potent new tool in our arsenal” for spreading awareness.

Earlier that morning, he had posted a video on Twitter calling on residents of the Isle of Wight to help save a 100-year-old community tree that the authorities had decided to cut down because of a fungal infection. In the clip, he appealed for people to leave a message on the mayor’s telephone, asking them to explore alternatives to removing a tree that locals had sat under for more than a century. Within hours, his video had gone from 11,500 views to 77,899.

“That is [down to] one person in less than a day campaigning for one tree – it is an immensely powerful tool that allows us to form communities, which is a powerful thing,” he says. An independent study has since ruled that the tree poses no risk to the public, with the local council calling for an immediate halt to plans for its removal.

It is initiatives such as this that bring hope to Packham, who says the internet and social media have made more people critically observe what is going on around the world. “I am not saying it is going to be easy, and we are going to get our noses bloody, but we are an immensely intelligent, adaptable animal, and will overcome climate change, barring catastrophe.”

Despite his optimism, he often lambasts the amount of damage that has been done on his generation’s watch. “I am an impatient punk rocker, and we have lost a lot, which I am really distressed about – I know that I am going to my grave guilty, because I won’t have done enough, which I suppose also fuels my desire to work harder.

“The only way to redress what I have done in the past is to know that I have done everything I can today.”

Subscribe

Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.


Transform articles

EU and UK citizens fear net-zero delivery deficit

Support for net zero remains high across the UK and the EU, but the majority of citizens don't believe that major emitters and governments will reach their climate targets in time.

16th May 2024

Read more

There is strong support for renewable energy as a source of economic growth among UK voters, particularly among those intending to switch their support for a political party.

16th May 2024

Read more

Despite cost-of-living concerns, four-fifths of shoppers are willing to pay more for sustainably produced or sourced goods, a global survey has found.

16th May 2024

Read more

One in five UK food businesses are not prepared for EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR) coming into force in December, a new survey has uncovered.

16th May 2024

Read more

Each person in the UK throws a shocking 35 items of unwanted clothes and textiles into general waste every year on average, according to a new report from WRAP.

2nd May 2024

Read more

Taxing the extraction of fossil fuels in the world’s most advanced economies could raise $720bn (£575bn) by 2030 to support vulnerable countries facing climate damages, analysis has found.

2nd May 2024

Read more

The largest-ever research initiative of its kind has been launched this week to establish a benchmark for the private sector’s contribution to the UK’s 2050 net-zero target.

2nd May 2024

Read more

Weather-related damage to homes and businesses saw insurance claims hit a record high in the UK last year following a succession of storms.

18th April 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close