Nature’s finest: Chris Packham meets David Attenborough

The TV naturalists celebrate Attenborough's 60-year career by discussing the future of conservation and mankind, and how to inspire young enthusiasts


Chris Packham: If you had one natural history highlight, what would it be?
David Attenborough: I think watching the Vogelkop Bowerbird, which provides an undeniable truth that birds have an aesthetic sense. Instead of growing pretty feathers, they use inanimate objects to attract a mate. Just seeing the lovely little male coming out, as pleased as Punch, and putting a flower in one particular place on this lawn in front of us and then cocking his head and thinking, “I don’t think so… I think it needs to be another six inches to the left…” That’s an extraordinary sight. A lot of the anthropomorphic things you can explain away, but you can’t explain that away. It’s incontrovertible.


CP: So… Bowerbird globally, what about in the UK?
DA: I wanted to film a dawn chorus. In years gone by, if a bird waggled its beak, you could put a sound on it and that was enough. But as the audience became more demanding they would say, “No! That trill didn’t match the movement of the beak!” So I wanted very much to have the dawn chorus in this country properly done so that you could see all the birds in sync with the warm puff of air coming out of their lungs and condensing into a mist. A great moment [captured in 1998’s The Life of Birds].

CP: Everyone thinks you have been everywhere, but as we know that’s preposterous given one lifetime. Is there anywhere that you haven’t been?
DA: I would have loved to have gone across the Gobi. Of course, you won’t go across the Gobi if you’re making a television film about animals because you only see one animal every 1,500 miles. Because of the emptiness it’s the absolute opposite of what one is accustomed to, and of course there are fabulous fossils there. Amazing!

CP: Fossils have become increasingly fashionable.
DA: Yes. It has phases – currently the Gobi and China are in vogue. That’s the thing about fossils, of course, they are so romantic. I mean, it’s so exciting to just get the clues that allow you, in your mind, suddenly to raise those bones from the slab of rock, and maybe it’s a slab that nobody else has seen before you saw it, and it’s been lying there for 100 million years and you’re the first. So I find that smashing.

CP: What do you think the future holds for life? On a grand, evolutionary scale?
DA: What I suspect is that now there is one species – man – that is so powerful if it sees a competitor it can fix it. One might say that the future lies with the flu virus, but when it rears its ugly head, humanity says, “We’re going to fix you, mate.” So that’s not going to take over the world. The speed with which something would have to evolve into newer forms would be so slow that man would have the opportunity to stamp it out.

CP: I’m of the opinion that it’s life that is important, not human life, ultimately, and no matter what we do to life on this planet, or to the planet itself, the tenacity of life will be sufficiently strong that it will recover, reform and continue. We can’t destroy it, can we?
DA: You are assuming that humanity will disappear, although that is a possibility.

CP: Do you not, then?
DA: I don’t think that humanity is going to disappear within the next couple of million years because it is omnivorous, highly adaptable and very powerful. I think a population explosion will have devastating effects on homo sapiens’ ability to feed itself and that the size of the population will be diminished and the amount of leeway that provides man with his luxuries will also be diminished, so that the species will not be as self-indulgent and wasteful as it is at the moment.

But whether it will disappear altogether… maybe there will be a huge, disastrous epidemic, but most of these epidemics have quite a short timespan. I suspect humanity will stagger on, though not quite as luxuriously.

CP: Do you like homo sapiens? I’m not radically drawn to our species, to be honest. I have always preferred other animals. I see us as a very destructive force.
DA: I agree that if you look at homo sapiens from an Olympian height you might say that it is a horrible thing that has destroyed so much, and I can’t let it continue… Zeus would say that. On the other hand, when you see a six-month-old child, does your heart not warm?

DA: We have done ghastly things, appalling things. Mind you, there are horrible things that animals do to one another and to their prey, and the other side of the coin is that ghastly things happen to them, too.

Now, we have stopped ghastly things happening to ourselves, by and large, and so we have got to stop the other bit, which is doing ghastly things to other things. But nonetheless, man’s potential for redemption – that’s the word I want, though we are moving through difficult areas here – is great, and when I do see a small child, I think that there’s a potential there for something marvellous. And it goes wrong a lot of the time, but if it’s my child I am certainly of that view.

CP: When it comes to children, the one species that is extinct in the British countryside is the young naturalist. I’m out there all the time and I just don’t see the boy that I was and you were. That’s a disaster in waiting, isn’t it?
DA: Yes, and part of the reason for that is easy to identify, and that is because it’s no longer allowed, no longer legal, to be a collector. I openly admit that I collected birds eggs.

CP: So did I.
DA: And I knew, I bet like you did, when the right moment was when you could take one, and the bird would lay another, so you didn’t damage the population, and I learnt a lot. Now, I think it’s in the ledger of law, if you wanted to be pedantic, if you were to pick up a feather and put it in your pocket it would probably not be legal. And not to be allowed to collect fossils

CP: One of my greatest agonies was being in northern Canada and happening across a polar bear carcass with a complete skull and of course I wasn’t allowed to take it. I’ve still got this haunting vision in my mind of me hanging back, looking down, because all of the naturalist in me said, “I must collect that skull”. And what we did when we collected our skulls was we looked at them with such passion and love and we learned our trade.
DA: Absolutely. And we also learned something about aesthetics, too.

CP: Exactly. [Pause] You’ve got a polar bear skull, haven’t you?
DA: I’m not going to tell you!

CP: It is very sad. I can’t believe that future generations will learn their trade on television, on the internet and in libraries, because the passion has to come from the heart. You’ve got to want to set your alarm clock to go out and sit in a hide. Young people in particular are so disconnected from the natural world. It’s a shame to think that there aren’t kids out there, isn’t it?
DA: Yes, but at the same time, would you actually repeal the act?

CP: Would I repeal the egg-collecting act? Ha ha! That’s a brilliant question! I wouldn’t reprimand a young boy that I found climbing to a nest these days. I think I’d give him a bunk up into the tree.
DA: Well, I’ll see you in Pentonville!

CP: What about the state of the British countryside? At the moment we are embroiled in a heated debate about the proposed badger cull. What are your thoughts on that?
DA: There is huge emotion on both sides, so I think you have to be as cold-bloodedly, objectively scientific as you can possibly be. You appoint a very, very distinguished scientist with an expert panel, to work with decent money, and experiment, and really sort out what things are. So far, so good. They have done that. And that committee, headed by Lord Krebs, says killing badgers will not make the situation better, except in the very short term, and will almost certainly make it much worse. So I’m with that.

CP: In our lifetimes, we have seen staggering changes, mostly negative, in the UK. We win a few battles – we’ve got kites back, some of our birds of prey populations are nesting well, we’ve got 19 peregrine pairs this year in London, we’ve got goshawks – but the overall picture is bad.
DA: It is bound to be bad if, as is the case, there are three times as many people living in the world today as there were when I made my first television programme.

CP: You blame overcrowding?
DA: I mean overcrowding and the arrogant claim that the land is ours. Anybody who thinks there can be limitless growth in a static, limited environment, is either mad or an economist.

CP: Economic growth spells disaster for the environment?
DA: Absolutely. But the point is, it cannot continue indefinitely. We have a choice. We could limit it ourselves at a level that we believe is tolerable, or the natural world will limit it for us, including ourselves.

CP: Wouldn’t that sadden you? Like you, I think that the single greatest threat to the planet as a whole in terms of its biodiversity is the over-population of humans. We’re both patrons of Population Matters – would it not sadden you if we weren’t able to regulate, obviously passively, human population? If it has to come to a catastrophe, what a sad indictment of our own evolution.
DA: As you know, there is one solitary ray of hope. And that is, in those circumstances where women have control of their own bodies, where they are educated, where they have proper medical facilities, and they have the vote, and they can do what they wish and not be instructed by men, the birth rate falls.

CP: As it has in Western Europe.
DA: And other places too, where those circumstances apply. The solution, using that model, is that we should make sure that those conditions apply in circumstances where the population is growing savagely but the trouble is, I can’t see any signs of that happening.

CP: Nor can I. But you think the solution is not scientific but sociological?
DA: Yes.

DA: Yes, I share the frustration, in that disasters continue to happen. I come from a different generation, and I remember the founding of World Wildlife Fund. That was founded firmly on charismatic species, and what shifted people towards it was saying, “Look! The giant panda is disappearing!”

CP: Don’t get me onto the pandas! [In 2009, Packham told RT: “I think we should let them go, with a degree of dignity”]. That was me, aggravating, agitating, to provoke a debate about what we are doing in terms of conservation.
DA: What I was going to say was that world conservation saw the fallacy in that quite a long time ago, really. They actually saw that it was a very valuable way of harnessing interest and catching the interest of the population, but in the end, the point is not really whether the panda survives, but whether that ecosystem, that bamboo forest, survives.

The conservation movement has moved from species to ecosystems, and the way they thought of doing that was to get control of land, and that still is valid in some parts of the world. It works, particularly, if you can engage local people and say, “Look, we have got some money and it’s yours if you’d like to take that land and manage it under certain circumstances.” So that’s fine. We’re now moving into, as it were, your generation, and the conservation movement is beginning to say, “Even that is not enough. We have to see that the work can permeate our own environment, and we have to cultivate that.” And that seems to me where the future lies, it will happen beyond my time, but there are signs of optimism.

I live in Richmond, in west London, and nearby we have a small plot of waterland, ponds, marshes and wetland [the WWT London Wetland centre], where birds from northern Siberia voluntarily come and say, “Great! We’re going to spend the winter in one of the biggest reservations in Western Europe.” It’s one of the most thrilling things, and seems to me a symbol of the sort of thing that we ought to be aiming for.

CP: I’ve called that project the greatest conservation triumph of the 21st century . It fuses exactly what you said and it’s within reach of everyone so that they can engage with it. It’s brilliant, isn’t it?
DA: Absolutely. During the millennium, when the BBC asked lots of people what they would see as optimistic for the new millennium, I actually chose the wetlands, which were then still gravel pits and vegetation and plants. I said, “That is a symbol of what the new millennium ought to be thinking about.”

CP: You know what happens now, though? If we want to see art, we go to a gallery. If we want to see old stuff we go to a museum. If we want to see nature, we go to a nature reserve and I think those are terrible precedents. Art should be all around us, and certainly nature should be all around us. We naturalists have got it into our minds that we will drive through an agricultural desert to get to a little patch of something we think is more perfect – and that’s a bad strategy.
DA: I agree with you in the broad sense, but if that means to say we shouldn’t have nature reserves, I’m not…

CP: No, I’m not saying that.
DA: You’re saying we’ve got to have them but they’re not enough.

CP: Yes.
DA: I’ll accept that.

CP: Do you think I am right to agitate from within the conservation movement or is that destructive?
DA: You’re an agent provocateur, that’s what you are, I believe.

CP: Is that what I’ve been characterised as behind closed doors?
DA: [Laughs] There have got to be blokes like you, of course there have. And the conservation movement has got lots of different voices in it and they get roused and they get very angry. There are records of destructive rows… but the other extreme is just as bad, to be totally self-satisfied that everything is going fine. So it’s a mid-way.

DA: I’ve had a hell of a good time. [Pauses] A hell of a good time. Part of it, of course, is quite childish. It’s undeniable that there’s a great thrill in doing something that hasn’t been done before, and putting on film creatures that haven’t been filmed before. It’s damned difficult to do that now! And so, what people are doing now, of course, is that they are doing it much better. And that reached its climax in Planet Earth, Frozen Planet and Blue Planet, of which I was just a narrator, but I nevertheless had my own little part to play in it – and it was hugely satisfying.

I’m not sure how much more of that is going to go on. You can see that there is a movement these days to produce films that are much cheaper to make. They’re great in their own class, but it’s much easier to film people trundling around the forest saying, “I wonder if this is a new species or not?” than it is to wait around for three years for that species to do something that nobody has ever seen before.

CP: But we are both fortunate to be working for the BBC, which is public broadcasting. As controller of BBC2, is it true that you commissioned The Old Grey Whistle Test?
DA: Yes.

CP: Did you ever watch it? Whisper it.
DA: [Speaking normally] No.

CP: I did, so thank you very much for that. And what about Monty Python?
DA: Yes, I was around then. But then the job of a network controller, at least in the way I interpreted it, was that you had to cover the widest span of human interest as possible and the more joined-up it was the better, the less gaps there were. And so, there will be things in there that are of no particular interest to you, but that’s not the point, that’s not what your job is about. And it was just as important for me that The Old Grey Whistle Test was in there as it was to listen to an opera. That’s what public service is about.

CP: Is there anything that remains undone?

DA: There are two big things I am looking forward to. In 2010 I did a programme, First Life, about fossils and the origins of life and that was about invertebrates but left the vertebrates un-done, as it were. So I am going to do a pair of programmes about vertebrate evolution, going from the earliest fish right through amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals, and that’s going to be told using fossils in China, which I hope to be going to look at.

And there’s a 3D thing that I think is absolutely going to blow my mind that is in preparation now, which will be entirely about small invertebrates. Where 3D really pays off is in relatively close-up things. We’re going to do stuff with praying mantises ripping flies apart…

CP: Finally, what should I do? I want to educate through engagement, but it can be difficult.
DA: I think that what you do, admirably, really admirably, because it’s your passion, is tell very good stories about disentangling evidence and coming to conclusions. Whether it’s education or not is not the point. It’s fascinating and riveting, but also it’s important. You are keeping alive a didactic element, which has disappeared over most of the television world, so good luck to you.

Don’t miss Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild – tonight at 9:00pm on BBC2 (begins Saturday 17 November in Wales)


Listen to an audio extract of Chris and David’s interview below: