15. April 2011 · 1 comment · Categories: Birds, News

Time for the third and final instalment in our interview with Chris Packham. Check out the first and second parts if you haven't already done so.

A large and varied set of questions to finish, ranging from the whimsical to the serious and taking in the view of Chris' garden, including his laundry. Thanks to Chris for agreeing to the interview and to Allinson bread for setting it up as part of their Conservation Grade association.


UKNB: Now for some quick fire questions. If you were an animal what animal would you be?

Chris: I'd be a predator, no doubt about that. If I was feeling lazy I'd say a peregrine falcon, if I was feeling less lazy I'd say something of a completely different order, maybe a dragonfly. Trying to even imagine what it's like to see through their eyes and do what they do is beyond our comprehension, so I suppose that would be it. I'd probably be a predatory insect of some kind.


UKNB: What extinct animal would you most like to see back again?

Chris: There's only one animal – the animal – the greatest animal that's ever lived as far as we know: T Rex! It's the million dollar question isn't it – if a genie came out of a bottle and gave me a wish I'd have to turn down the night with Audrey Hepburn just for 5 minutes looking at a T Rex – no question.


UKNB: And if you weren't a naturey TV presenter, what would you be?

Chris: Well hopefully I'd be a photographer, and if I wasn't involved in natural history at all I'd hope to be an artist. I've always had a very keen interest in art, a lot of my friends are artists, and I spend what leisure time I can ever summon thinking about, looking at, visiting galleries and enjoying art.


UKNB: Do you think it's true that people who are into nature do tend to be aesthete/arty types anyway?

Chris: No, I would hope that a lot of people who are into nature are into the science. There's beauty in the physical structure of each organism, but I think there's a greater beauty even in the ecosystems that they inhabit – a beauty greater than the sum of all of their wonderful parts. Part and parcel of being able to access that beauty is science and the understanding of how they work. I'm looking at my great tits out here and I'm watching them displaying and fighting over the last few nuts (which I'll have to top up in a minute) and understanding what's going on there and why they're doing it is adding to their beauty. So I think you can come at nature from many different directions and for me the aesthetic fuels the science because I want to see it, which makes me look at it and ask the question. It's not enough to just sit here and think "Wow, great tits, they look cool" – I've got to know why that great tit is dominant over the other one – it's the width of the stripe on its chest at the moment.


UKNB: What's the single most exciting bit of wildlife you've seen in your own garden?

Chris: Difficult. I've had a succession of gardens because I've lived in rented houses all of my life here in the UK. I had an Osprey once during the league cup final. I had a nightjar once fly past one of the windows of my house. In the house that I'm living in at the moment I've had a goshawk flying over as I was hanging out the washing, and to be honest if you'd have told me that that might have happened when I was a teenager I'd have probably burst or just laughed and walked away. So it would be those species that have made remarkable recoveries, and where I live the Goshawk has certainly done that. So yes Goshawk flying over whilst I was hanging my punk rock T-shirts up to dry was pretty much the highlight.


UKNB: What's your single favourite place in Britain to go and spot wildlife?

Chris: Very difficult. It always becomes a place that I also want to take photographs. If I'm having a lazy day it would be somewhere like the Farne Isles, Bass Rock or the Skomer island complex of South Wales, where on a nice sunny day you can go and lie on the cliff top and point your lenses at seabirds that are very close to you. So that's always a treat. If I was working harder then I do like desert environments so sand dune systems appeal to me. I like the dunes at Holcombe, at Anglesey and at Culbin sands. Big sand dune systems. There's a nice sand dune system as well off the lakes near Barrow in Furness, in a little offshore bar there. I like the landscape there, visually.


UKNB: What is your favourite nature related joke, if indeed you have one?

Chris: Let's have a think. I do have lots of sad jokes. I suppose the one that I've known the longest because I remember reading it as a child in the Beano or Dandy, was "What happened to the hyena that fell in the soup? It made a laughing stock of itself!" I've probably been occasionally laughing at that joke since I was about ten, and I'm still laughing about it, so there you go!


UKNB: But back to more serious matters…

Chris: Let me talk a bit about Conservation Grade and Allinson. I have a very curious job, in the sense that I am able to exercise my vocational interest through my professional engagements. Springwatch and Autumnwatch are programmes that I'm very fortunate to play a role in because they are tailor made for me – they are about engaging with an audience and effectively saying to that audience "come and be us – you do this". They're all about stimulating contact and engaging with people, so it's very much promoting wildlife to an interested but not necessarily 'expert' audience that have an interest that I hope we can develop. So those programmes are tailor made for me.

Outside of that I'm able to exercise my vocational interest with other associations and I'm very very keen to promote industrial relationships between corporate bodies and conservation, because I'm not somebody who sees bad guys and good guys. I remember those days from the 70s when everyone who worked for a petrochemical company was a bad guy and then all the conservationists got in their cars and drove home. I could never figure that out. So when opportunities arise to support things like the Allinson association with Conservation Grade, I'm very keen to do it.

Conservation Grade is a method of farming whereby farmers are rewarded with premium prices on their produce for farming practices that have been proven to increase biodiversity on their farms. There are many schemes which are available, some through government (higher level stewardship, entry level stewardship etc.) that offer something, but many don't offer a panacea because they haven't been well thought through and are trying to offer all things to all people and that's very difficult. Conservation Grade farming is tailored to each individual farm, and tailored by the farmer which means that he or she is empowered to do it rather than being told from an office in London. They're being asked to look at their farms as individual entities – a place that they understand – and to best manage it for biodiversity given a framework of ideas and supporting information that's provided by Conservation Grade.

Conservation Grade works, there's no question of that, it's been measured to give rather profound improvements in biodiversity. The problem with it initially was that the number of farms that had bought into it was just too small, so it was really exciting when earlier this year Allinson, who are only one of a number of companies beneath a much larger umbrella company, agreed to come in and take Conservation Grade produce for their breads. The bread ends up on yours and my tables, the information's on the packet and the website and if it works then maybe the sister companies of Allinson bread, which are also huge consumers of produce, will also come on board and we'll see an expansion of the improvements that Conservation Grade offers.

It is a drop in the ocean but I'm very much of the opinion that one of the mantras of the UK is Do It Yourself – we all try on a Sunday, with greater or lesser success. I'm looking out of the window at my bird feeders which I'm about to top up. That's me doing it myself. There's loads of bird boxes in my garden, some of which I've made myself. Hundreds of thousands of people do that across the UK and what we want is for Allinson to 'do it themselves'. There's no difference philosophically between a company doing that and us, and I want to give them every support possible and I will buy Allinson bread. I will make a conscious decision as a consumer and if they respond as a business (because it makes them money, which is important same as for the rest of us) then they might make the right decision.

So I think these sorts of associations are very important and I hope very sincerely that this one grows and that other people realise this. If such a large producer is on board and it's working then they might think about it too. To bring things full circle to where we started, there are undoubtedly species which we've developed the ability to look after and their numbers have increased and for which we can embrace a degree of security. But the wider landscape that I'm looking at out of the window is in a terrible state of catastrophic decline where species that are less conservable – sub-saharan migrants in the case of birds like the cuckoo, wood warbler and swallows are in terminal decline. It's the bigger picture that we need to find the courage to focus upon and to do that we need to help the farmers and we need to pay them for helping us and we need to support them. This is one of the ways to do that which is why I was keen to support Allinson and Conservation Grade right from the start over a period of years.


UKNB: Finally, you've mentioned the birds outside a few times. What do you see?

Chris: I get a few finches and sparrows. I'm looking out of the window now and I've got chaffinches here, house sparrows, a couple of collared doves but they don't come to that feeder because it's too enclosed and occasionally a pheasant in the garden. But I've got dogs so I try not to encourage the pheasants in because they become catchable by the dogs and I don't my two poodles eating the local pheasants. I have a tough enough time with my neighbours blowing them out of the sky, so the last thing they need is too poodles catching them.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading the posts that formed this interview – thank you.

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