WHEN Chris Packham dies, he wants his ashes mixed with those of his beloved poodles and scattered in the New Forest to mingle with the plants and wildlife that first fired his fascination with the natural world.
Dogs and the Forest are huge parts of Chris’s life. He lives in a cottage near Ashurst with his surviving pet Scratchy, brother of Itchy whose death in 2016 was a moment of near-suicidal crisis for the 57-year-old TV naturalist.
The media career that made him a household name started by being thrown in at the deep end in 1985 on BBC kids’ nature programme The Really Wild Show. He went on to lead the Springwatch and Autumnwatch series, present the World’s Weirdest Events show, among others, and in 2016 publish his autobiography, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar.
More recently, he told his story on TV in Asperger’s and Me in which he continued his public explanation of the condition he was diagnosed with in 2005 and that affects about 700,000 people in the UK.
Chris uses the two phrases interchangeably but Asperger’s syndrome is at the moderate end of the autism spectrum, on which people can struggle socially interpreting expressions, empathising, and coping with high-stimulus environments, among others.
It’s partly why the death of Itchy hit Chris so hard – he’s previously recounted pouring out an overdose of tablets.
“My life has always been a rollercoaster of peaks and troughs of security and insecurity. That’s how it’s always been. People with Asperger’s are prone to depression – we tend not to go to other people because we can’t relate very easily,” he says unselfconsciously.
“Sympathy is not much use to me. I do not see the point. If I need paracetamol and medical help, someone saying they are sorry for me is not much help.
“I hope successive spates of depression have taught me to deal with it better when it next comes.”
But the Asperger’s associated characteristic of highly-focussed, “task-orientated” behaviour has also been a positive driving force behind the naturalism at the centre of Chris’s high-profile career.
“We’re also critical observers, we see great detail. That’s what makes us good naturalists. We see things that other people miss. Honesty is part and parcel of what we are – it’s what gets us into trouble sometimes too.”
Just days before, Chris’s 42-year-old partner Charlotte Corney, who runs the Isle of Wight Zoo, has given an interview to the Radio Times in which she describes the challenges of their relationship which has endured despite – or perhaps because – their work means they live on opposite sides of the Solent.
For example, Chris has not been on holiday since a weekend trip to Amsterdam nine years ago, he says. He survives on between 4.5 and 5.5 hours of sleep a night. The night before our interview, he was working until after 1am.
“I have to have a purpose. I never want to sit on a beach. I have to have a task – I’m very task-orientated,” he says.
“Self-management is an issue – what I think and what I say and how to behave. There are certain environments which are challenging. It’s not easy to be comfortable. If I am working in those environments it can be trying.
“For example, large numbers of people, small spaces, noisy environments, complex visual environments.”
As the wind distractingly flutters the pages of my notepad, Chris’s nearest hand covers his face as he talks, only lowering after they’re still.
“Most of the time it’s about control. If I can control my space, I can function.”
Chris is talking – with Scratchy obediently at his feet – at Pylewell Park, near Lymington where he’s been shooting photos and videos for Dogstival. It’s a celebration of man’s best friend planned there for 18th-19th May next year by Richard and Domine Nowell, the couple who run Lighthouse Marketing and the Lymington Seafood Festival.
The A&T has been trying for more than a year to pin down Chris for an interview but his diary is always packed with TV production, writing and campaigning. Why has he made time now for Dogstival?
“I have a passion for conservation,” he explains. “The New Forest is an area which draws dog owners, and dogs have an impact. I am very keen to educate dog owners to change and expand their behaviour so we’re all more compatible with the New Forest.”
As evidence, Chris points to a survey showing a combined 10,000 daily dog-walking hours locally, plus the reported spike in bird numbers after the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 when owners were told to keep dogs on leads.
A bird fanatic, Chris wants to educate to better protect ground-nesting species, such as the Dartford warbler, for example, and confront the dangers of tics flourishing in a warmer climate.
It implies tighter controls on dogs and he knows some of what he says will not be popular with owners.
“Times change and we need to change our habits and just because we used to do it does not mean you can continue to do it today. We have to move with the times. We do not want to discourage people.” But he adds: “The dog walking fraternity are a lovely group.”
He’s the biggest of dog-lovers himself and essentially credits Scratchy with saving his life. “We’re umbilically linked – we share food and he shares my bed. He’s the centre of my universe.”
The poodle is his “autism assistance dog”, he says, and laughs about sometimes sharing the animal’s bed too – it’s hard to tell if he’s entirely joking.
“We’re best friends and companions. I am not looking forward to a day without Scratchy. It’s been bad enough without Itchy.
“I was very depressed and I had to put my energy into making sure Scratchy was okay. I still miss Itchy a lot, I miss him every day. Scratchy misses him too and goes looking for him sometimes. That’s part and parcel of my life.
“There would be no way to measure the amount of joy these dogs have brought and over the years they have kept me alive in the darkest moments. In the moments that are too dark, they are able to lift my spirits and provide a dose of natural therapy of unconditional love. It’s incomparable.”
Chris can often be seen walking Scratchy on the New Forest where he has lived for more than 15 years. Growing up in Southampton, he spent much of his childhood here exploring, raising a hawk, collecting specimens and studying badgers.
But now the national park is in “crisis”, he says. After encountering a dearth of butterflies in his garden, in July he launched a 10-day nationwide campaign, Bioblitz, visiting 50 wildlife sites around the UK with a team of expert surveyors, including at Yateley Common in Hampshire.
“[The New Forest] means a lot to me. I see myself as one of a large number of people who are responsible for the present and future management of the Forest. There’s a lot of interest groups and they do not have a shared vision to make adequate progress. I find that very frustrating.
“We should work far more cooperatively and less egotistically to shape that future. The Forest is in crisis. There’s no doubt about that. Visitor pressure grows, there’s not enough housing. Grazing is totally out of control.
“There’s a plethora of things we need to look at to solve the problems. The solutions are there but we are not putting them in place. That’s a growing concern to me. We’re close to the edge.”
He doesn’t rule out getting more involved in the local scene. “I am an independent spokesperson and my job is to agitate from a basis of firm science. I just look to ask for the implementation of these solutions which make sense.
“In the foreseeable future there are issues that we are yet to bring to the table of public opinion. I am very interested in democratic change – people getting together to solutions.”
An example of how that could work is at Dibden Bay, for which he was among the residents who persuaded the government in 2004 to reject plans by Southampton port operator ABP to build a container terminal on the land, which it owns.
ABP is now developing new plans, and although Chris promises to “listen carefully”, he says: “The idea that we will have to go through all that again is intensely disappointing. We should be about to manifest our energy into more positive things.”
He’s unconvinced by ABP’s economic arguments for jobs, trade and investment, calling instead for a more balanced approach that recognises the value of nature.
“What about the future economy? What about when there’s no functional landscape and habitats? We need to grow a generation of ecological economists who understand the value of natural systems.
“We’re dependent on land, sea and wetland. If we mess up those ecosystems then we have nothing. It’s all short term thinking. Jobs today – nothing tomorrow.”
But with the growing profile of environmentalism, such as through Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series, he has optimism for Dibden Bay: “Hopefully it will be better and a more reasonable offer. It would be fantastic to reach a compromise where work can progress.”
Asked what makes him proudest in his career and it’s conservation he returns to – but the optimism vanishes. He replies: “Nothing at all. My principle concern is wildlife and conservation, and on my watch we have endured catastrophic decline.”
He’s pleased with his media work but it’s protecting the planet that kept him up late last night: “I think our failure has occurred due to the fact that the conservation measures we have been using in my lifetime have not worked. Most of our species and habitats are in decline. We have got measures available, but we have to implement them.”
His campaigning doesn’t stop with the environment. He wants to make a difference to other people with autism too and he points to figures from the National Autistic Society showing that only 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time paid employment.
Spurred by his own difficulties at university – “it was one of the worst times of all” – Chris is now working with the University of Lincoln on creating better environments for autistic people.
“People struggle in the workplace. What we want is for employers and educators to start thinking about reshaping those environments so autistic people can maximise their functions there. When they do, they can do brilliant things.”
He adds: “Mental health is still considered a stigma and this leads to problems. It’s high time people spoke out about the reality of these conditions.
“One of the ways we do that is to gain a better understanding – by talking about Asperger’s to give people an insight into my world and how to manage to shape it.
“I would like to think that all of those kids in their bedrooms having a really bad time have a better chance of shaping a future than they have today. We should be helping them.”
For Chris, the New Forest with its animals and plants will always be his haven. “I am lucky to have found a quiet place to get on and be myself.”