Chris Packham: ‘I would lose my voice immediately if I went to prison for protesting’

The huge electric gates have cameras on them. When they open, numerous trees come into view – oak, ash, sweet chestnut, horse chestnut, cherry, beech. Look closely and you see cameras suspended from branches like digital nests. Surveillance has become a necessity in Chris Packham’s life, and he’s not happy about it. “It’s on police advice,” he says. “Unfortunately, we’re really well guarded now. And that upsets me. There’s a Yoko Ono song that says a psychotic builds a castle; a neurotic lives in it. And I don’t want to fall into either of those categories, so I hate the idea we’re living in a stockade.”

The TV presenter, naturalist and activist has been making all sorts of news recently. There’s the BBC TV series Earth, about five pivotal moments in our planet’s history, which saw him touted as the new David Attenborough when broadcast this summer. Then there’s the activism – in April he called for “every last person who cares” about the planet to join Extinction Rebellion. A month later, he won £90,000 in libel damages at the high court after an online campaign published on the Country Squire Magazine website falsely accused him of fraud and dishonesty in relation to his charity work.

Then there are the very real death threats that he has faced over the past four years, believed to be incited by those opposed to his various campaigns. He has long been a vociferous opponent of foxhunting, and Wild Justice, the not-for-profit company he co-founded in 2018, has mounted a number of legal challenges against the government and its agencies, fighting the illegal shooting of birds of prey, badger culling and sewage discharge in rivers, among other things. In 2019, days after dead crows were strung up outside his home, he received an anonymous letter suggesting: “We could organise a car crash, we could organise poisoning you, we could organise all of these sorts of things.” In October 2021, a Land Rover was blown up outside Packham’s house, destroying the gates to his property. Hence the cameras.

He is sitting at a table in the front room of his New Forest home. Packham points to the replacement gates and says: “They put the vehicle outside, filled it with fuel and torched it.” Was he there at the time? “Yes,” he says. “They had sunglasses, hoodies and masks on. It was like a bomb had blown up. It melted the engine block of the car.” The offenders were never caught.

He stares down at the table as he talks, or glances to the side. He might not be able to look me in the eye, yet he’s one of the most disarmingly open people I’ve met.

Packham is a wonderful TV presenter – natural, knowledgable and passionate. When he speaks to the camera, it feels easy and personal. So it came as a surprise to many when he opened up about being autistic in the 2017 documentary Asperger’s and Me, which he followed up earlier this year with a two-part programme Inside Our Autistic Minds. Packham, a youthful 62, was only diagnosed in 2005. I’d assumed his condition must be relatively mild, but it doesn’t take long to discover how much it has dominated his life, even if he and his parents never had the word for it.

He grew up in Southampton, with a marine engineer father and a mother who had a range of jobs, including legal secretary. His younger sister is the clothes designer Jenny Packham. To say he was difficult as a boy is an understatement. The young Packham was as bright as he was obstreperous. If he was in the middle of a project and his mother called him for dinner, he would refuse to eat until he had finished. He was obsessed with wild animals, and already had a large reptile collection by the age of eight. “My parents lined my bedroom with tanks for me so I could keep all my snakes and lizards,” he says. He owes his love of history to his father, and his love of art and literature to his mother. But his relationship with his mother was difficult. She struggled to understand him as much as he did himself, and was critical of his life and his lifestyle. She worried what kind of person he was and what would become of him.

At school, he excelled in subjects he liked and refused to attend class for those he didn’t. “My dad would come to the school whenever there was an issue and they’d say, ‘Look, he gets straight As in biology, history, geography, physics and chemistry, but he refuses to go to French lessons and won’t do religious education – what’s going on?’ So my dad would say to me: ‘Just go and sit there.’” But he couldn’t. “This was my perspective as a child: we fought the French for a thousand years, we started in Crécy and Poitiers in the 1300s, we gave them a good beating in 1415, we carried on at Trafalgar 400 years later – that was all I wanted to know about the French. I didn’t live in France. I was never going to live in France. I didn’t know any French people. What the fuck was the point of me learning that language? That was the way my mind worked then.” There is the hint of a smile. “I ended up living in France and having to learn French, can you believe?”

Chris Packham sitting on a log by a lake

Did fellow students think he was a freak? “Yeah.” Did he think he was a freak? “Yeah I did, and I didn’t want to be a freak, and it made me really angry.” With himself or others? “Both. I didn’t have a lot of time for my peers at that point. There was a lot of aggression.” Was he tough? “I wasn’t particularly tough, but I wouldn’t take bullying. I wasn’t good at controlling my temper. I subsequently learned to control it. When you’re a kid and it seems it’s you versus the world, you tend to lash out.”

In his early years, Packham had thought everybody was like him. “It was only when I got to my teens that it became statistically proven that I was not the normal one.” What does he mean, statistically proven? He could just look around and see, he says. “There were more of those people who thought they were normal, and then there was me. That generated an enormous amount of confusion, then anger, then self-loathing. I blamed myself for being broken.”

Away from school, Packham was solitary but happy. He was becoming increasingly obsessed with the natural world. “As I got older, I tried to rehabilitate wild animals – foxes, badgers, owls, you name it. Anything I could sneak into the house.” How did his parents react to this? “They would go to virtually any lengths to entertain my desire to learn stuff. My dad became quite a keen natural historian as well.” Packham pauses. “They got pissed off with foxes and badgers in the bedroom, because they made so much mess,” he concedes. How many did he have? “Never more than one at once. But we had three foxes and a badger, a tawny owl, a buzzard, quite a few kestrels, a sparrowhawk.”

He says it all in such a low-key way, as if it’s perfectly normal to share your bed with foxes and badgers. He stresses that he wouldn’t do it these days. “You’d try to minimise human contact if you’re going to put them back into the wild, but I didn’t know that at the time. Back then it was all about acquiring and capturing animals, and containing them and studying them.”

At the age of 14, Packham became obsessed with kestrels. He would cycle a 70sq km area between Southampton and Winchester searching out the bird of prey. “I was single-focused. If a peregrine falcon had landed on my shoulder, I wouldn’t have given a damn. It was just kestrels. I found all the nests, counting the eggs, counting the young. I’d draw up my maps, measure the distance between them all, and I did that before and after school.” Had he seen the Ken Loach film Kes, about the troubled boy who trains a kestrel and finds a purpose in life? “Yes, but it didn’t leave the impression on me that it left later. I was too young to understand the social context and the message.”

One particular kestrel had a lasting impact. Just as he had with the foxes, badgers and snakes, Packham brought it home to share his bedroom. As with Kes’s Billy Casper, the kestrel became Packham’s raison d’être. “It became a point of security. I devoted myself to it entirely.” One day it caught a disease that would be easily treated nowadays. “The local vets didn’t have the knowledge to diagnose it, and it went into a downward spiral. It died on 6 December 1975 at about 6.15pm.” What was the kestrel called? “It didn’t have a name because it was bigger than a name. It was like God. God’s not called Jim or Steve is he? For a long time I couldn’t accept that the bird had died. It was impossible for it to have happened.”

How long did he keep the kestrel? “I’d had it about six months.” So not that long? “No, but I managed to cram a lifetime’s love into six months, and foist it on one fragile bird.” I ask what happened after the kestrel died. Packham is on the verge of tears and starts to stammer. “Everything fell apart for the first time in my life. I lost the power to speak. Unfortunately my parents still sent me to school, so that made things a hundred times worse. It led to a pronounced period of bullying because I couldn’t speak to anyone.” Words just didn’t come? “I’d think them, but I couldn’t make myself say them. It was a form of trauma, obviously. For 20 years I went back to that site where I buried him that morning on the seventh, and I would go to the tree. The whole year was like a countdown to that date. The dating points that people use, like birthdays and Christmas, didn’t exist – everything was just about that day.”

Chris Packham with Spook the barn owl at the Natural History Museum in London in 1989.

The obsession carried on until the mid-1980s, when he was working for the BBC, co-presenting the children’s wildlife series The Really Wild Show. “I needed to go to the graveside and I was late for one of the shows. I couldn’t help myself; I had to go.” Did he tell people on the show? “No, of course not. Nobody ever knew about that. I couldn’t tell anybody.”

Now I’m welling up as he tells me the story. There is such intensity, such purity, in the way he describes his relationship with the kestrel. I want to give him a hug, but that’s the last thing he needs. He’s never enjoyed physical contact – let alone with a stranger.

After school, Packham went on to study zoology at the University of Southampton. He lived away from home, but in his first two years his withdrawal from the world of his contemporaries was almost complete. “My management technique, which was one of utter self-protection, was to not engage with anyone of my age at all. I just shut down and tried to live in the world of one.” The one he is referring to is himself. “But by the time I got to my third year of university, there were people I spoke to.”

What’s difficult to grasp is how somebody so withdrawn from the human world could make such a successful career for himself in television. In his early 20s, he worked as a camera assistant on nature documentaries such as The Living Planet. By his mid-20s, he was on The Really Wild Show. He looked so cool and confident – a peroxide-haired punk who seemed totally at ease with the world. “When I started TV, somebody said to me, ‘You can either be confident or not give a shit,’ so I think it’s not giving a shit. If we’re doing something like Springwatch, it’s not brain surgery; nobody ever dies because you messed something up on television. You’ve got to keep things in perspective. I try to do my job well, I try to maximise my professionalism. I work very hard at that. But I don’t take the overall thing seriously.”

Does he find it easier to talk to the camera than to people? “Yes. It’s just a piece of glass. It’s much easier. I trained myself to look at people in my 20s. I realised that was a social inconsistency, along with lots of other things, and I used to make lists of things I needed to do. I suppose it’s the evolution of masking. You’re trying to hide aspects of the condition that other people find disturbing.” You’re not looking at me now, I say. Packham lifts his eyes from the table. I prefer it when you’re not masking, I say.

With his stepdaughter Megan at Extinction Rebellion’s Big One climate protest in London in April.

He offers me a coffee and an energy bar. Despite the four state-of-the-art ovens in the kitchen, there’s no food in the house, he says. He lives here by himself with his two miniature poodles, Sid and Nancy. Before that, there were another pair of poodles, Itchy and Scratchy. His girlfriend, Charlotte, lives on the Isle of Wight (where she inherited a zoo) but often stays here. His stepdaughter, Megan McCubbin, the daughter of his former long-term girlfriend, Jo, also visits regularly as well as presenting Springwatch with him. But Packham still insists he has no friends. “People always get upset about that. They say: ‘I’m your friend.’ I mean, I do have long-term working relationships with people, and I like those because I’m fortunate to work with some really talented people, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to have a conversation with them about anything other than work, really.”

Does he socialise? “I remember Charlotte saying to me, soon after we met, ‘Let’s go and see so and so,’ and I said, ‘Why?’ She said it would be nice to see them, and I said, ‘But what for?’ Why would I give up my time just for the purpose of seeing them unless they’ve got something interesting to tell me or we’ve something to do. What’s the point?” His words sound callous, mercenary even, but his tone is tender.

Packham’s house says so much about him. It’s spotless, hi-tech, somehow both minimalist and maximalist at the same time – lots of empty space between all the stuff. The walls are splashed with pop art and punk art (a Keith Haring print, a copy of Jamie Reid’s original artwork for the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen) and sculptures of raptors and triceratops are dotted around the place. In the loo, there’s a cheap copy of Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull For the Love of God alongside a garden gnome sticking up his middle finger, saying: “Fuck off.” One room is full of brightly coloured Carnaby vases, which he has been collecting for 40-odd years. Over by the corner is a bar he designed, stocked with Japanese whiskies.

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In his gorgeously unkempt back garden, which is gradually evolving into woodland, the milk thistle and mallow, ragwort and red campion lead down to a river. The front garden features sculptures he has made – an orange rattlesnake and red cobra – alongside many of the 260 trees he has planted over the past three years. On his laptop, he shows me T-shirts he has designed celebrating neurodiversity, and he tells me he’s thinking of opening a shop to sell them. He always has a project or 10 on the go. Where does he get the time? “I don’t sleep much.” What happens if he doesn’t have multiple projects on the go? “Things don’t go well. Generally when I’m in a bleak and dark place I shut down my projects.”

In 2016, Packham published a beautifully written memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar. The book is unsparing, describing a time he tried to take his life by overdosing. He says he has seriously contemplated suicide three times. “The first thing to say is on each occasion I’ve been in significant mental health difficulties. The autism has always aggravated that. It’s when you lose contact with everything, and no matter what people say to you, it’s not about them any more. People say, ‘It’s really selfish to have those thoughts – what about those people who love you?’ They’re not there. That’s the point. They don’t exist at that point. There are no means of them connecting with you. And when you’re entirely isolated in a really bad place, then you’re in danger.” For all his talk of not needing people, he obviously does.

His dogs have been both the cause of suicidal ideation and his salvation. One time he tried to take his life after losing a dog. “One of my dogs got run over and died in my arms. Again it was the unpredictable nature of that, like the bird dying. It wasn’t part of any plan.” The third time he considered suicide, his poodles saved him. “I couldn’t leave them. I was part of a small study at the University of Lincoln for autistic people who’d had dogs [Packham undertook the research as a visiting professor], and 16.7% recorded that they had had suicidal thoughts but had not gone through with any attempt because they felt their dog was dependent on them, and they loved them so much that they couldn’t leave them.”

We move on to a happier topic – the success of his TV series Earth. He says it was a privilege to work on it. “With those sort of productions, they’re using people at the top of their game, so I would say our success is largely down to them.” As for the talk of him being a new Attenborough, he says it’s tasteless. “I suppose the polite thing to say is I’m flattered, but we’ve currently got Sir David here so we don’t need a new one yet.”

But the most important reason we don’t need a replica Attenborough, he says, is that the world has moved on. “We’ve lost 69% of the world’s wildlife since 1970 and he started in the 1950s, so the changes he’s been able to observe and lament have been profound. He’s reached so many people and instilled that passion for the natural world the like of which nobody could probably do again. One of the reasons we can’t do it again is so much of the natural world has been destroyed in his tenure.”

A portrait of Chris Packham

He pauses. “Here’s a question: what would Sir David be like if he were my age? I’m a bit spiky, aren’t I? I’m a campaigner, a straight talker. I know we’re in deep, deep shit, and if people like me don’t stand up and say that, and try to instigate rapid change, all the science says we’re in trouble. So that’s part and parcel of my job. That hasn’t been his job. But if he were my age, would he be doing what I am doing? I’d like to think the answer is yes, because our passion for the natural world has almost complete commonality. We are driven by a desire to protect it, we love it, we think it’s beautiful, we understand its fragility.”

The more pressing issue for Packham is whether he could make more impact as a pure activist. He is now making a Channel 4 documentary, provisionally titled Is it Time to Break the Law? What does he think? “Well, people are breaking the law because the government has made it almost impossible not to do so.” What about him? “Well, again I have to ask myself what is the most effective use of me?” He went to prison this week to visit Marcus Decker, the environmental activist who scaled the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge in Dartford, Kent, with fellow campaigner Morgan Trowland to release a Just Stop Oil banner last year. The two men sat in hammocks for almost 40 hours before being removed by police, convicted of causing a public nuisance, and being handed two of the longest sentences ever passed for a nonviolent protest in British history. “Marcus got two years and seven months, and Morgan got three years. Outrageously draconian sentences.”

Now he seems to be thinking aloud. “I would lose my voice immediately if I went to prison. I would also lose part of my mind, if not all of it, because that environment is not suitable for someone like myself. I’ve always been terrified of prisons. So is going to prison the right thing to do? There are people who would argue that that would be a big step, it would send a message, the whole Mandela thing.” He apologises. “I’m not comparing myself to Mandela, but you know what I mean. Symbolically those sorts of things can be very powerful. But is that the best use of Chris Packham, or is it coming up with other imaginative ways of keeping the message in the public domain?” So you don’t think breaking the law is the best thing for you? “Well, I’m not saying it might not happen at some point.” He continues thinking aloud. “I need to be more active. I’m 62 years old, I’m running out of time, I’ve got to try to alleviate some of the grotesque guilt I carry for our generation not having done the work early enough. I can’t help but feel a degree of personal responsibility.” He knows he can’t be both voice of the BBC and militant activist. Something has to give. You sense he’s at a crossroads, unsure which way to turn.

Actually, he says, planning the future is pointless, because he can’t envisage it. Sure, his diary is full for the next few months, but beyond that he finds it impossible to make long-term plans. “Charlotte says I’m like an alien because I don’t generate an imagined future. But expectations are one of the most dangerous things you can have in life. If you have expectations of people, they will fail you. If you have expectations of yourself, you’ll fail yourself. Whenever I’ve been foolish enough to generate any expectation, I’ve always failed myself.”

Give me an example, I say. He looks into the garden at the orange rattlesnake. “Well, that sculpture’s shit.” You seemed to like it a few minutes ago, I say. “I just like the colour. It’s big and lumpy.” Back to expectation. “I invest in my dogs because I know I can trust them. Their love is unconditional, my love for them is unconditional. We give everything to one another. And there is enormous reward in that, and of course it comes with enormous loss when that is taken away.” He sounds misanthropic, but I don’t think he is. This is Packham the optimist, maybe even the romantic optimist – if you don’t have hope, you won’t be disappointed.

I noticed there was no mirror in the toilet. Packham is a handsome, dapper man, and I expected him to be on the vain side. Does he think he’s good-looking? He looks at me, appalled. “No! No!’ I remember my sister shouting at me one day in the 1980s when we were living in a bedsit in London: ‘The biggest problem you’ve got is you’re not aware of your own sexuality.’ I don’t like looking at myself. I don’t watch myself on TV, obviously.” What did she mean? “I think it was all tied in with the self-loathing. I don’t like myself mentally, let alone physically. I can just about look in the mirror to shave, so I’ve never been confident in that way.” I remind him he once said that he never wanted children because you’ve got to like yourself to want them. “Well, haven’t you? You’re going to reproduce yourself.” Does he still feel hostility to himself. “Yeah, quite significantly.” He seems to have no sense of the love many people have for him. But he is fully aware of the antipathy his detractors feel.

We talk about the recent libel case. I ask how important the victory was. “It’s not finished. Part of the case won’t be heard till November. That’s about the accusation that I wrote a death threat letter to myself, posted it to myself, wasted an enormous amount of police time and terrified my family. They’ve made films about it. This is a different group of people called Fieldsports Channel.”

As for the £90,000 he won in damages against Country Squire, he says he’s not seen any of it. “I got nothing. The people involved declared themselves bankrupt the following morning. I’ve had to pay myself for the law to be upheld because I had to take a civil rather than criminal case. But justice has not been served. I’ve still got to pay my lawyer’s fees. That doesn’t strike me as fair.” How much out of pocket is he? “Hundreds of thousands.”

It’s time to leave. Packham rings a number, and says a driver who does some work for him will give me a lift to the station. We’re standing in the front garden, waiting for the car. I’m staring at a horizontal ghostly white tree. What is it? “That’s one of the saddest things that’s happened in my life in recent years. When we came here that was the most beautiful beech tree. Then the big storm the winter before last took it down. I couldn’t look at it. The moment that happened, I started looking for other properties. I said, ‘I can’t live here with that tree down. It’s just heartbreaking.’ If you’d have seen it when it was alive, it was the most beautiful shape. Just gorgeous. You’d go underneath it in springtime and you’d be bathed in this green light. Charlotte said: ‘You can’t move – you’ve just moved here.’”

My urge to give him a hug is growing by the second. But I resist. He’s such a brilliant, sensitive soul, but it must be hard work being Chris Packham. Well, I say, you may not like yourself very much, but I think you’re a lovely man. He could be masking, but he seems genuinely pleased. “Oh, that’s very kind of you.” He almost looks me in the eye. “I wish my mum was here to hear that.”

Chris Packham’sseries Earth is on BBC iPlayer. The accompanying book, by Chris Packham and Andrew Cohen, is published by HarperCollins at £25. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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