“I suppose this is my Kevin Costner moment, isn’t it: ‘If you build it, they will come,’” said Chris Packham, gesturing to the crowd from the stage of the first ever People’s Walk for Wildlife on 22 September. “This field is beyond my wildest dreams – absolutely fantastic.”
Decades of intensive farming and poor habitat protection have left Britain the 28th most denatured country in the world. And now Packham, the 57-year-old presenter of BBC Springwatch, is demanding a halt to the collapse.
His agenda for change is presented in an ambitious new document: A People’s Manifesto for Wildlife. Assembled by a team of experts, including the author Robert Macfarlane and the journalist George Monbiot, the manifesto lists more than 200 potential solutions to the crisis: from twinning schools with farms, to a ban on dredging for scallops, to a pesticide tax.
The result is an eloquent defence of biodiversity that is both radical and practical. “Chris is a lightning conductor for the sense of dissatisfaction among everybody,” says the naturalist Mark Cocker.
Yet like the foxes that he used to smuggle into his childhood bedroom, Packham is also a complex and polarising figure. Is someone who has described himself as the “Pol Pot of conservation” really best placed to unite Britain’s fractured community of nature lovers?
The fast-talking young naturalist achieved renown in the late 1980s through the children’s TV series The Really Wild Show. He was distinguished by his peroxide-blond hair and loud shirts (designed by his sister, Jenny Packham), but few would have guessed that Packham’s punk-rock image was a protection against feelings of alienation and self-doubt. Even today, although the spiky hair has gone, these traits still shape him: “I don’t like myself enough to want to reproduce,” he revealed on Desert Island Discs in 2013.
Packham grew up in the suburban outskirts of Southampton, where he amassed a menagerie of creatures. There were tadpoles, whom he ate, and a kestrel, whom he loved – but his obsession with the natural world also isolated him from his peers. By the time he attended the University of Southampton, to study zoology, he coped by blanking other students completely.
In his forties, the presenter was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and he spoke publicly about these experiences for the first time in 2016 after the publication of his best-selling autobiography, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir. Voted the UK’s favourite piece of nature writing in an online poll in January, the book shimmers with sensory detail and reveals how inseparable Packham’s personality is from his environmentalism.
“I think another one of the traits [of Asperger’s] is that there is no grey, we’re just black and white; there isn’t any middle ground,” he said when asked on the ITV programme Loose Women about his more controversial opinions. “If I believe that something’s wrong when it comes to conservation, the environment, or the treatment of animals, then I have a duty to exercise my voice.”
This scrupulous ethical sensibility has led Packham to champion unpopular causes: he has criticised panda conservation as a waste of resources, and blamed domestic cat owners for the decline in birds. His new manifesto also rebukes dog-walkers who don’t keep their pet on a leash.
Consequently, he has antagonised many groups over the years, most notably the pro-hunting community. “Surprise, surprise @ChrisGPackham’s latest ego trip is the usual prejudice repackaged and wrapped up in some fluffy stuff,” tweeted the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, Tim Bonner, in response to the manifesto. (If Packham were playing Costner’s Robin Hood then Bonner would surely be cast as the Sheriff of Nottingham.)
Yet Packham’s rebellious attitude also feels timely in an era when 15 per cent of all UK species are now threatened with extinction. He is no saintly David Attenborough, but his activism represents something more urgently needed: an Attenborough for the Anthropocene age.
His campaign has inclusivity at its heart. Mya-Rose Craig, a 16-year-old British-Bangladeshi environmentalist, has been enlisted as the manifesto’s minister of diversity, and Packham wants to draw in other contributors.
Perhaps the greatest challenge will be healing tensions with the farming community. But even here, there is potential for consensus. Packham’s call to end the badger cull, for instance, is combined with demands for a mass badger vaccination campaign. “We do not have to agree about all the details – but we must agree on a shared agenda,” he writes in the manifesto’s introduction.
In such ways, the inspiring People’s Manifesto for Wildlife may yet achieve the rare feat of uniting punk rockers, National Trust devotees, and pro-hunting farmers. The only really wild thing to do in the face of epic environmental threats would be nothing at all.
This article appears in the 26 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Brexit crisis