To his vast television audience Chris Packham always comes over as that calm, self-assured presenter, who is in total control of the situation.
Chris has built a reputation as one of the country’s most knowledgeable wildlife experts, and has captivated viewers with a range of programmes ranging from ‘The Really Wild Show’ to ‘Autumnwatch and ‘Springwatch’. His busy schedule also includes being a nature photographer and author.
But away from the TV cameras Chris reckons he is a totally different animal, and was certainly not in total control when he experienced a few close encounters of the wrong kind!
He smiled: “I have to have close encounters because they are part and parcel of my life. I have spent a lot of time being scratched and bitten by animals; you just don’t want the scratches and bites to be too big. Therefore you take good advice and calculate the risks involved. It is in photography that you get more problems because you are so pre-occupied with what you are trying to achieve, and tend to be a bit more neglectful.
“It doesn’t have to be crocodiles and Great White sharks. It can be camels or lemurs; if you are doing the wrong thing you can get into trouble. I have been charged by lions, and I once had an alligator have a go at me.
“But the most horrific experience was a prolonged attack by a male baboon in Kenya. I was lucky to get out of that one without being very badly injured. We were filming in a picnic area where it was used to people, so it had no natural fear of humans. It was massive and would have torn me to pieces if I had done the wrong thing. So it was just a question of me standing my ground and shouting at it, which I had to do for a long time before it went away.”
Chris’s partner is Charlotte Corney, owner of the Isle of Wight Zoo, and as such he spends as much time as possible on the Island. He maintains he was interested in wildlife almost before he could even walk, ‘crawling around the garden, picking up insects to examine them’.
One of his first recollections of the Island was when he was 12 years old, and he stayed at Gurnard Pines with a friend and his family. He said: “It was a particularly poignant visit for me because I found my first kestrel’s nest, which was in the pines behind the chalets. I climbed up to it, and all the birds had fled apart from one young one which had died. I picked it up to examine it, and remember being enthralled by it.
“For the rest of the holiday we spent our time catching small animals in bottle traps that we made. Then when I started working I visited the Island more often, taking photographs of red squirrels among other things. There are still areas of the Island that haven’t changed, and the amount of damage done to the environment is reduced here, and that is something of a rarity in the south of England.
“Not only is there a large population of red squirrels, but other wildlife like the dormouse. Then there are areas like the undercliff which is great for wild flowers and insects. But of equal importance is the palaeontology interest; the Island is an incredibly important site for dinosaurs, with plenty of fossil activity.”
Chris was educated at Bitterne Park Secondary School, Taunton’s College, and the University of Southampton, where he received a BSc in Zoology. After graduating he cancelled his study towards a PhD to train as a wildlife cameraman.
He said: “I like trying to be creative. Writing and taking photos are good, and I enjoy the challenges that come with them. They are disciplines where I have my own space to try to create something new, and I suppose photography is the favourite part of my work.”
Chris first came on to our television screens back in the mid-1980s on the ‘Really Wild Show’. He recalls: “I had been making films for the BBC before that, and had made one of kestrels. But the Really Wild Show was the first presenting job I did on TV.
“It has been fun but hard work. It is not coal mining, but there are long hours, commitment, and a lifestyle that a lot of people might imagine that they would like, but many wouldn’t. I don’t do weddings, birthdays or Christmas, so you wouldn’t want me as a friend because I am never there.
“In my job I can’t be late; I can’t turn up drunk; I cannot be ill; I have to be there – it is that simple. You have to get out there and do it, because you are part of a team that is trying to achieve something. It requires a certain type of commitment, but there are a lot harder jobs in the world, and I am very lucky to have mine. But it’s not just about roaming around looking for animals and talking about them; it’s the travelling and getting from A to B that is the most problematic.”
He also accepts: “It can be a bit of an anti-social life, but that doesn’t bother me. I am happy with my own company. I have worked with lots of different people, so I don’t need to spend social time with them. I have a small circle of about three people – Charlotte my girlfriend; my stepdaughter, and a guy who lives near me, and that’s about it. There are other people I know, but I only see them very occasionally.”
However, Chris always ensures that he engages with his audience when he tours the country, usually twice a year, talking about his experiences and conducting question and answer sessions. He said: “I greet the audience, and then thank them for coming to see me. I need them on my side to help me achieve my objectives to improve conservation.”
Chris is perhaps best known these days as one of the presenters of the popular TV programmes, Springwatch, Winterwatch and Autumnwatch. He said: “They are live, unscripted, and basically a conversation with people who choose to watch the programmes. Hopefully people are not just watching me, but listening to our message that you should get out there and enjoy the environment, and help us look after it.
“The programmes provide the platform to communicate with people. There are parts of all seasons that I like, although more recently I have got a bit fed up with the rain and the mud. And it has had a disastrous effect on wildlife. I like some aspects of winter and enjoy the snow, and spring is always spectacular.”
Chris added: “I like the Isle of Wight for more than just the wildlife. There are some lovely buildings, and a great range of architectural styles. I like being amongst that as much as anything.”
His busy work schedule this summer includes the making of two new three-part series for the BBC. One is about what animals do when they live underground, and what they are doing when we can’t see them. The other is on animal intelligence, and he is excited by both. The programmes are due to be completed by the end of the summer, with the screening dates yet to be decided.