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A Life with the Wild

Chris's interest in wildlife seemed to have formed before he was even able to speak. His parents say that he liked to crawl across their modest lawn looking for ladybirds and fish for tadpoles and mosquito larvae in an old baby's bath set in the corner of the garden. Soon jam jars were filled with hot sweaty caterpillars and all the bugs that didn't bite too hard. Lizards followed, and then snakes along with plenty of pets. An early but aggravated obsession was with bats. Utterly inaccessible to the urban boy they were merely stuff of legend, pictures in library books and this led to a furious and somewhat hysterical desire for substitutes. Black rubber bats on pieces of elastic gave way to a pet black mouse called . . . Batty. Oh how Chris dreamed that the mouse was in fact that. It died on the 13th of November 1965 and was buried at the top of the garden under a green wooden cross. Perhaps this humble rodent helped fertilis the lifelong passion of a determined young naturalist. Otters came next, thanks to Ring of Bright Water, and the theme tune to the movie was played endlessly on the family's old gramophone. His mother made him a fake fur otter which he would coil at the foot of his bed and in weak torchlight imagine was the real thing - a little Mijbil of his own.

Dinosaurs were there all along of course but it was only when he discovered a song thrushes nest just before his 12th birthday that birds appeared on the agenda. The Observer's book of Birds Eggs became the Bible and Chris became a young egg thief. Every day before and after school he would comb the hedgerows and woodland of the neighbourhood and in a few years amassed a representative collection of the local species eggs. His goal, the Grail for the young oologist, was to find a kestrels nest. Thus in 1974 he climbed on his bike and began cycling lanes of Hampshire entering all sightings of kestrels and other wildlife in the diary which he kept throughout his youth. At the same time he had the great good fortune to meet a teacher at his school, John Buckley, who immediately quelled the young rougues interest in egg collecting and set him on a course of scientific examination instead. Thus Chris found nests, counted eggs and chicks and made maps of all their locations and within a couple of years he embarked on his first proper scientific study - The Population and Breeding Density of Kestrels in the Lower Itchen Valley. This was written up in his last year at secondary school and won the Prince Philip Zoology Prize a couple of years later. Chris was hooked as a young scientist and so sparrowhawks followed kestrels, barn owl pellets were examined with monthly regularity, graphs were drawn, tables formulated and results published.

In parallel with all this fieldwork at home Chris had expanded his collection of reptiles until the bedroom walls were lined with tanks and he was soon keeping kestrels, barn owls, buzzards and sparrowhawk in the garden and flying them free every day before school. Fox cubs came, grew and went as did baby squirrels, hedgehogs and badgers. John had also taught Chris the elementary skills of taxidermy and he supplemented his pocket money by stuffing birds - a worthy pursuit for any teenage boy!

Then one Saturday morning in the late 70s whilst looking for a particularly elusive sparrowhawks nest Chris met Clive Brown on a badger set above the river Itchen. They got into a conversation about what they did and didn't know about badgers and within a couple of weeks had formed a partnership designed to uncover some unknown aspects of the species ecology. They began feeding several groups of badgers marked food and mapping their territories, they visited each of the setts several times a week and counted all of the animals, getting to know many of them as individuals. Soon the study expanded to the New Forest where the work was replicated with a very different group of badgers. Clive joined the police force and Chris went to university but still the badger study went on. Every week they would collect samples of badger faeces and Chris spent every Thursday night for five years analysing the diets of the two different groups of animals. Thus whilst the rest of the teenage world were meeting girlfriends in pubs and clubs Chris was bent over a microscope looking at badger pooh. Nice.

Conservation and the environment

It is unthinkable that anyone could maintain interest in wildlife without formulating a parallel interest in its conservation and the environment. Many of the species that interest us most, that excite us, are rare and many in that condition because of our actions. Chris cannot put his finger on the point where his own environmental awareness was born but by the time he was in his mid teens he was volunteering for the Hawk Trust to protect red kites and peregrine falcons nests during his school holidays. He hung out in filthy caravans filled with flies and lived on a diet of fish and chips but from before dawn until after dusk he manned his watch point to protect the birds from egg collectors. He also wardened his favourite birds, Red Backed Shrikes, every summer until they finally disappeared as a British breeding bird in the mid-1980s. But in a way this is very old-fashioned single species conservation and we have learned so much more since.

Chris feels that we live in exciting times for conservation, we have learned how to rebuild habitats, reintroduce extinct animals and plants, we have audited, mapped and studied much of our flora and fauna and we are increasingly clear about where our conservation priorities should lie. However, coincidentally we live in the age where our awareness is countered by an extraordinary pressure on our natural environment and it is therefore clear that action is required with desperate urgency. That this often seems impossible through lack of funding, poor planning or political disinterest and stagnation is appallingly frustrating. Chris is a fervent believer that conservation urgently requires maximal modernisation, that we put our old ideas and outdated methods behind us immediately, admit that we have made mistakes, learned the lessons and move on. Single species conservation should be as dead as the pandas should be extinct. It's time to give up on the cute and cuddly because we just can't afford it and we need to think of a much bigger picture. We need to forge powerful partnerships with industry and the commercial sector, we need to infiltrate and influence, we need to stop fighting and look for fair and effective compromise both in terms of conservation and wholesale care of the environment.

For example, Chris was insulted to be asked to help celebrate the fact that a new port would not be built on the edge of the New Forest at Dibden Bay. He had been in fervent opposition to the plans but the idea that this was a victory for conservation was a complete anathema to him. It was wrong that the developer thought that a pathetic and pitiful degree of mitigation would satisfy contemporary conservationists, and the law, it was wrong that those conservationists did so little to work with that developer to improve the offer, it was wrong that we were asked to waste millions of pounds on a public enquiry the results of which could easily be overturned on a spurious political whim. The only victors were the now rich lawyers and consultants. A port will be built, somewhere, at some time and victory in Chris's eyes would be co-operation throughout its planning and construction between conservationists and the developers. You only need to look at the London Wetlands Centre to see how much can be done with and for so little and what a fantastic resource can result.

Of course, fighting over the future of the Dibden foreshore, the airport proposals at Lydd, continuing the campaign to restructure the Common Agricultural Policy which might save some of our farmland bird populations, improving marine conservation or looking after a small piece of woodland at the bottom of the road all pale into utter insignificance in the face of some of the potentially disastrous changes to our planet's climate. Once again it is a question of priorities, but there's no question that our number one priority should be making our politicians act, and act now, to reduce those things which most immediately seen to be influencing climate change. Or else you can kiss the rest goodbye.

Is Chris demoralised by this outlook and the seemingly impossible task at hand? No, he believes that self empowerment is the key to success. We have a conscience and if we act upon it as individuals we can make a difference, that's why we recycle, why we pay our RSPB subscriptions, it's why we should all realise that we count and we should stand up and be counted by those who are accountable to us. Just do it!

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A young Chris Packham
Chris Packham with Squirrell on his head
Chris Packham with fox
Chris Packham - wing walking
Chris Packham with tribesmen