Autumnwatch meets Countryfile as Chris Packham and Ellie Harrison exchange notes

The presenters share their love of nature - and their unusual fan mail

Ellie Harrison and Chris Packham (Andy Earl for Radio times, EH)

What are your earliest memories of being in the countryside?

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Ellie Harrison We lived in the last house at the end of a lane in a big green valley in Gloucestershire. There was a stream at the bottom, which we were allowed to play in, and cows all around, with a donkey in the field at the back. My dad thought he was Tom from The Good Life, so he bred chickens, wore leather sandals and made real yogurt without any sugar in it. I remember being about five and tremendously disappointed by the sight of a black, slimy chick hatching from an egg, instead of the cute yellow ball of fluff I was expecting.

Chris Packham I was born in Southampton and when I was about five, my pet mouse gave birth to an enormous number of youngsters, which I wasn’t allowed to keep. I was mortified. My mother put all the mice into a sock and we set off on a walk with my great-aunt to find a place to release them. It was a wintry afternoon with berries out on the trees. After a mile or so, we reached Cutbush Lane, a long path that ran alongside a hedgerow. My mother – who knew nothing about the habits of rodents – pronounced the hedgerow the perfect place to release the mice. It’s the first time I can remember being somewhere that wasn’t surrounded by houses.

What are your early memories of autumn?

Ellie Oddly, although we lived in a wooded valley that was changing in front of our eyes, we always trudged off to Westonbirt Arboretum. We thought you had to make a special trip, to pay to see autumn! And a later memory… In November 1994 when the National Lottery was beginning, I was about to turn 17. I felt that if I could catch a lot of falling autumn leaves, it would bring me enough luck that I’d win the very first lottery draw and buy myself the car I wanted – a Suzuki Cappuccino. [laughing] Don’t judge me!

Chris Like so many boys, I loved the conkers. In the woods at Deep Dene, we’d throw sticks into the trees to try to dislodge them. It became a sporting event.

Was there a special moment of realisation that your love of nature and the countryside would be of lifelong importance?

Chris By the time of my first day at school I was totally obsessed with nature, and also dinosaurs. Even before then I remember my father sank a baby’s bath into the lawn in our small back garden for my benefit. The bath filled up with a green soup, which I’d probe for rat-tailed maggots and mosquito larvae. My path was set very early.

Ellie Mine was more about heartbreak and caring. I remember seeing a housefly stuck on one of those sticky pieces of flypaper, and I couldn’t bear it. I had to rescue it. I got tweezers and a cupful of water, spending half an hour doing this poor thing absolutely no good whatsoever, and then feeling utterly wretched that it had died at human hands. Also the cows’ field next to us was filled with ragwort, which is poisonous to cows, and my dad and I would spend our entire summers clearing it away.

Autumnwatch presenters (BBC Pictures, EH)
Autumnwatch presenters (BBC Pictures, EH)

Beyond your home environment, where’s your favourite countryside place in autumn?

Chris I love the coast for the vast influx of waders, wildfowl and geese. It doesn’t have to be a wilderness area. Portsmouth Harbour is very industrial, but huge numbers of Brent geese arrive there. When they all take off and fly around, it’s phenomenal. At Brownsea Lagoon in Dorset, autumn brings an enormous aggregation of avocets, which used to be a very rare bird here. Twice when I’ve been there, a peregrine falcon has spooked the avocets and they’ve all taken to the air in huge numbers. They have black and white wings, and en masse in flight they look like a piece of art by Bridget Riley. Dazzling.

Ellie Yes, the coast for me too. It’s the start of the seal-pupping season, and Skomer, an island off the west coast of Wales, is an incredible spectacle. All the seabirds have finally gone, so the noise has ended, along with the need to be super-careful around the burrows where the puffins live. All the leaves are dying off and we’re heading into the worst weather, yet it feels like life is beginning again with the seal pups – there will be about 200 there now.

Why do series like Autumnwatch, Springwatch and Countryfile have such an enduring appeal to viewers?

Chris Much as we like the exotic, home is where the heart is. The creatures we show and the landscapes we explore in these programmes are our backyard. Our reaction to the seasons is part of our culture – we listen for cuckoos in spring, we count swallows in summer, we have bonfires in autumn. It’s part of our cycle. You can love a polar bear, and gorillas are fascinating, but we don’t have that intrinsic connection to them, either personally or culturally. On Autumnwatch and Countryfile, we tell people things they don’t quite know, about the everyday over-the-fence.

Ellie It’s significant that nature makes us well. We know it in our hearts. There’s plenty of research about how it changes our brains, and GPs are even prescribing looking at a tree for five minutes for people with chronic depression. Any time in green space is good for us. It feels that we haven’t evolved fast enough for the life that we live now, which is why we have chronic stress and anxiety. Being in nature ameliorates that, and people feel that appreciation also when they see it on screen.

So you both feel that these programmes have a comforting quality amid the madness of modern life?

Chris Yes, especially because on Autumnwatch we hardly ever go anywhere that doesn’t have public access. We choose the locations on the basis that viewers can enjoy them in person. Countryfile covers a greater geographical area than we do, and is saying “Here’s your backyard. Use it, it’s yours. Be me. Come and stand exactly where I am now.”

Ellie Of course there are people who don’t get the chance to do that. They might not be able to get out of town often, or they might not have the transport to reach difficult locations. So the programmes scratch that itch for them. They get to see what’s out there in our rural landscape.

Ellie Harrison Countryfile

What kind of mail do you get from viewers?

Ellie “Where do you get your boots from?” That’s all I ever seem to get. And people always seem to comment on how a woman looks.

Chris No, just to reassure you, I get that too. I refuse to answer those because I consider them trite. I also get sent an enormous number of photographs of creatures, with the question “What is this?” They’re usually poor-quality photos taken at great distance, of something occupying three pixels. The answer is always either cockchafer – a species of beetle emerging in May, which confounds everyone – or a solitary wasp, or a hairy caterpillar, of which there’s an enormous diversity in the UK. Generally, the caterpillars turn out to be alder moth or elephant hawk moth. I’m also sent a lot of pictures of animal poo, asking which animal it belongs to. I don’t mind. I do seem to talk a lot about poo.

Ellie I was pleased to get correspondence applauding me for pronouncing a lot of Welsh place names correctly. The Llyn Peninsula… Aberdaron… I was quite pleased with that.

Which aspect of having a high-profile job are you least comfortable with?

Chris Flattery makes me quite uncomfortable.

Ellie I’m totally with you on that.

Chris Flattery is no use to me. I’d rather receive constructive criticism. If I do a talk, I’d rather not hear it was all marvellous. I’d rather know which bit wasn’t good so that I can improve.

Ellie I’m the same – stick is far more reassuring than carrot. I find compliments difficult. But then again, I don’t engage with Twitter conversations because I’m frightened it will ruin my day. I prefer not to look at all. Stick my fingers in my ears and go la-la-la.

And the best part of having a high profile?

Chris Without doubt, meeting experts who know more about a subject than I do. They tell me what they know, in order to help make the programmes. It’s a money-can’t-buy experience, which happens several times a week. They say the most fascinating things.

Ellie Yes, the access to places where the door says “Staff Only” or there’s a big red No Entry sign. One of the wonderful things about Countryfile is that people trust it, and us. That allows us into extraordinarily interesting places and conversations every single week.

How would you advise parents to encourage a love of nature in their kids?

Chris Just let your kids out. Parents restrict their kids’ experience of nature – “Don’t climb the tree. Don’t get your feet wet. Mind the stinging nettles. Don’t go in the mud.” It stops the engagement process. Let them explore the natural word for themselves. One place it can and does happen is in school. Everyone goes to school, regardless of how much money you have or what colour you are or which religion you follow. It’s really heartening when I go to small schools with limited resources, and see the staff doing everything they can to connect kids with nature.

Ellie As parents, we’re now exposed to inordinate amounts of terrifying news, which wasn’t the case in the past, even though the same amount of bad stuff went on. So I send mine out with trepidation. But parents also often worry that they don’t have enough knowledge, when actually it doesn’t matter if their children know more than them. If you can’t identify anything more than a daffodil, it’s completely fine. You can still engage with nature. Children will do what you, the parent, do. So rather than saying, “I will sit here and drink coffee while you explore,” if you can show them what it is to have fun yourself – whether that’s kayaking, or birdwatching, or just walking – if they see you having a laugh, then they know what it is to have fun. Finally, Ellie, what’s coming up on Countryfile this autumn?

Ellie We’re in the middle of filming the autumn special, our traditional annual programme dedicated to the season. I’m doing one story about badgers and another about seals. And then there’s the Children in Need Ramble – Anita Rani’s in Scotland and I’m going to be in the Brecon Beacons.

Interview by Kate Battersby

Autumnwatch returns on Monday 23rd October at 8pm on BBC2

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Countryfile is on Sundays at 6:15pm on BBC1