If you go down to – or tune into – the woods this week, you’re sure of a big surprise. Yes, the Often-Spotted Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Gillian Burke are there, in their trusty log cabin, presenting the annual Autumnwatch wildlife spectacular.
But 13 years since we first tuned into Autumnwatch to get our fix of rural Britain, and after two years based in Sherborne Park in Gloucestershire, the team has upped sticks and headed over the pond – to Squam Lake in New Hampshire, which was the setting for the Oscar-winning 1981 film, On Golden Pond.
“It was great to be at Sherborne for four series because we achieved our mission to follow one place through all four seasons,” says Packham. “This is a big one-off adventure.”
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Autumnwatch New England will give the trio, and viewers, a glimpse of one of the planet’s greatest seasonal spectaculars: the explosion of autumn leaf colour as the region’s forests glow with reds, oranges and golds.
When they’re not gazing upwards in wonder, Packham, Strachan and Burke will, as usual, be digging into the local flora and fauna: moose, skunk, porcupines, rattlesnakes, what Burke describes as a “glorious juvenile newt called a red eft”, and what Strachan equally delightedly describes as “a tornado of tree swallows”. Do black bears defecate in the woods? Of course they do, and Team Autumnwatch will be having a poke about to study the mammals’ diets.
For Packham, it’s an opportunity “to look at parallels between what’s happening in New England at this time of year as opposed to Britain. And some contrasts as well. Obviously the themes will be the same, like migration. But migration in that part of the world is down through a continent. Whereas in Europe, what we see, being a set of islands off a continent, is animals moving here because it’s warmer.”
Then there’s species comparison. “We’ve got grey squirrels, which we shouldn’t have. They’ve got grey squirrels, which they should have… But it does cut both ways – we gave them starlings and house sparrows! We tend to forget this – we’ve got invasive species here, but they’ve got invasive species that we exported there.”
The threesome are talking at BBC HQ in central London just before packing their “leafpeeper” selfie sticks and tick repellent and heading out for the pre-filmed segments. Packham has sorted out his travel essentials: a box set to watch in the scant downtime from filming (Killing Eve, recommended by yours truly), and dogsitters for Scratchy, who’ll be staying behind at Packham’s woodland cottage in the New Forest. The presenter lost his beloved black poodle’s brother Itchy almost two years ago. Has he considered getting a new puppy?
“No,” he replies firmly but softly. “If you’d seen Scratchy last night, it was like this,” he says, miming a hug. “It’s just us. And after we lost his brother, it’s just got tighter and tighter. And he’s got a bit grouchy as he’s got older… he doesn’t like being surprised by other dogs. And he’s so bonded with me now, it just wouldn’t be fair. So, no, unfortunately not. It would be a good idea, selfishly, but not for him. I want to celebrate every last bit of his life. I want to devote myself entirely to him; I don’t want to spread it.”
Before flying out to America, Packham also made time to get involved with last month’s People’s Walk for Wildlife in London – a gathering of interested parties, families and kids to highlight the huge decline in certain species’ numbers. In the past 50 years we’ve lost 44 million birds and half our hedgehogs.
“It was designed to get RSPB, National Trust and Wildlife Trust members but also hunt saboteurs, wildlife gardeners, farmers, all of them, standing shoulder to shoulder, and saying to each other: we don’t agree with everything you do or employ the same methods. But we’ve got the same direct purpose.”
True to form, Packham has already engaged with the social and political issues surrounding Autumnwatch New England. He’s no fan of killing things for fun, but he understands the “frontier spirit” that means hunting remains hugely popular in the US.
“Our hunting and shooting is among the least regulated in the world. Whereas over there, everything is very strictly regulated. You can’t just go out and shoot a moose or bear. Everything is monitored. You have to apply for licences, and the number of those is restricted. I’ve just got back from Cyprus – anything that flies, boom,” he adds, shaking his head in disgust. “So Europe, I would argue, probably has a lot more problems than the United States.”
And on the subject of controls he’s concerned what will happen to flora and fauna post Brexit. “European legislation has been enormously valuable to us in terms of things like the Birds Directive and Habitats Directive [that] protect habitat and species in the UK. Secondly, we talk about the missing millions in terms of birds in our countryside – we’re about to entertain the missing millions in terms of funding. NGOs like the RSPB are going to be millions of pounds short of funding they would have got from Europe. So from the conservationist and environmentalist point of view, Brexit is a headache, whether you’re pro-leaving or pro-staying.”
The situation is no less dire in Trump’s America, even though the country’s National Park system is the envy of the environmentalist world: huge tracts of land, ringfenced since the 1800s. “In terms of protecting habitats and species, they had a head start,” says Packham. “But in the last couple of years, the legislation to protect them has been undermined and disassembled. When you go to America now, there’s an enormous worry within the conservation fraternity. And it’s really depressing.”
Hence the “soft-power” eco-politicking that the admirably agitating Packham will be seeding throughout both the BBC broadcast and a companion show being aired in the US on PBS.
“The message we’re going to give out is developing an affinity for this amazing ecosystem that we’re visiting – which we’re basically in a position to not only protect but enhance. And the American people must resist anything that’s going to undermine that being achieved.”
Lest any BBC/PBS mandarins choke on their flat whites, Packham reassures that “we won’t be that direct”. But the tactics will be the same as on Springwatch: presenting the “value” of wildlife, “so that people go: ‘Yeah, you know what? Trees are important. Robins are important. Badgers, foxes, otters, they’re important.’ And they care. And if they care enough, they’ll help us look after them. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the vocational mission we always have in the background of our programmes.”
Just don’t call it Fallwatch.
Autumnwatch New England begins on Monday 15th October at 8pm on BBC2