It’s 8pm on a murky, rain-spattered, evening in central London. Chris Packham, just back from a filming trip to Tanzania, is holding court with a small band of dedicated supporters.
The setting is the lyrical home of the nightingale, Berkeley Square, and for one night only its bewitching song will subdue the roar of the nearby traffic.
Sadly, it’s merely a digital refrain.
Spurred by Packham’s evangelical encouragement, phones are juggled with umbrellas and recordings of the nightingale song – likened by Shelley to the writing of poetry – cut through the gloom. This is an act of reverence, not rebellion.
“When we did the Walk for Wildlife [last September] we were playing birdsong down through Piccadilly and it was magical,” says Packham. “We had 10,000 people all playing their birdsong and it was bouncing off buildings and we managed to transform the soundscape of London. It was such a simple idea I thought why not repeat it here in Berkeley Square, because of the popularity of that song.”
Packham cannot rest in his pursuit of causes that many worry are in danger of being lost. Nightingale numbers have plummeted by 90 per cent since the 1960s, and there are now fewer than 5,500 breeding pairs in the UK.
“They are a migrant, so we have to accept that it’s not just due to what’s happening in the UK, but when I travel back here it’s like coming to a vacuum – silent springs have already fallen upon us. We know that the collapse in farmland and woodland bird numbers is severe, dangerous and ongoing. We’ve got to get people to engage with that fact.”
Springwatch (BBC Pictures)
Engagement is a vital part of Packham’s DNA and, while tonight’s event is as benign a gathering as it’s possible to imagine, he appears increasingly prepared to mix it up in ever more high-profile encounters, such as speaking from the top of a bus during the Extinction Rebellion protest.
He also hit the headlines last month after a legal action by the campaign group Wild Justice (of which he is a co-director) ignited fury among sections of the rural community, leading to two dead crows being strung up on the gate to his New Forest home, an online petition being raised to get him sacked from the BBC (over 138,000 people had signed it as we went to press). Oh, and a death threat against him that’s being investigated by his local police force.
The legal challenge means that farmers, gamekeepers and pest controllers can no longer routinely shoot a designated group of 16 birds – including crows, pigeons, jackdaws and magpies – that they say wreak havoc, particularly at this time of year.
A general licence to cull, previously issued unilaterally by Natural England, has been revoked and replaced by individual licences that have to be applied for. Farmers say the expected delays in issuing the licences will lead to crops being damaged and, they point out angrily, the nests of the very small birds Packham is trying to protect being raided by predators like crows and magpies. This is not town versus country, but science versus experience. And Packham is convinced the science is on his side.
Chris Packham with signs during a protest though central London (Getty Images)
“All the scientific studies show there is no relationship between an abundance of magpies and sparrowhawks, for instance, with a decline in songbirds. The decline in small birds is due to the way that we manage our landscape. The immense division that’s been generated by a tiny hostile faction of the shooting fraternity over this general licence thing has been entirely counter-productive. There are many farmers out there who I work very closely with and we support each other’s ideals. Now we have to go through a process of healing so we can keep going.”
There’s no doubt talking to Packham tonight that he’ll keep going, but does the 57-year-old think his activism is actually increasing? He says not, but then goes on to say: “I am getting older, so my time is running out. I’m increasingly concerned that I have less time to achieve what I’m trying to do, so maybe on that count I am [campaigning more actively]. I’m certainly becoming more determined to make a difference, but I’ll only ever do that from a firm foundation of science, with rational arguments, hoping to generate change through dialogue.”
He’s also keen to point out that he isn’t opposed to all culling – nightingales would be better protected, he admits, by some selective shooting. “Evidence that I was reviewing this morning from the British Trust for Ornithology says overgrazing by deer is driving the decline in nightingales. Since we have no large predators – no lynx, no wolf, no bear – we have no choice in the UK but to manage our deer population otherwise we’ll lose nightingales.
“Scientifically informed culling is unfortunately an artefact of our lives. If we want to preserve a rich mosaic of species and habitats, we have to accept that. I have never been opposed to culling, and I’ve never been opposed to shooting. The shooting that I am opposed to is the illegal persecution of birds of prey and the unsustainable shooting of endangered species such as woodcock and snipe which are declining rapidly.
“What we are facing is an entrenched intransigence in a population of people who are not used to being asked to change, but the world is a changed place and we’re all going to have to change whether we like it or not. That’s clear.”
Chris Packham poses with his CBE at Buckingham Palace on May 16, 2019 in London, England. (Getty Images)
What’s also clear, although perhaps a little fuzzy around the edges, is the careful line Packham has to tread in creating separation between the political nature of much of his campaigning and the impartiality he has to bring to his BBC work. Critics say it doesn’t matter if he’s unbiased on screen, the fact he’s on TV at all creates a profile that gives his off-screen words greater clout.
It’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for Packham. In every way he is a force of nature, and a skilled communicator. He’s got plenty to say – if he does have a mute button it’s little used – but he’s aware of the potential conflict of interest. “As you know, I am a great champion of the BBC and its impartiality and I am in constant dialogue with them about how to make sure I maintain that impartiality.
“I am not a BBC employee, I am a freelancer who’s recruited to talk about wildlife on TV because it’s a field of – and I use inverted commas here – expertise. BBC viewers expect to see people talking about their subject with authority, whether it’s history, music, cooking, gardening or natural history. And that’s what I continue to do. But you don’t hear me talking about any of this other stuff on Springwatch…”
Ah, Springwatch, a three-week space in the TV calendar that he’s made his own, and which returns this week from the new location in the Cairngorms, first unveiled in January’s Winterwatch. Packham, with co-presenters Michaela Strachan and Gillian Burke, will once again be applying his knowledge of British flora and fauna to the storytelling, with an emphasis this year on how those of us with gardens can help experts better understand the role they play in supporting wildlife.
It must be a welcome refuge from the storm that’s raging outside. But Packham remains sanguine. “All this antipathy just strengthens my resolve. For me it’s the result that counts and if the result of this hoo-hah is that we have gained better protection for British wildlife then all of that will have been worthwhile.”
Springwatch begins Monday 27th May at 8.00pm on BBC2