PUBLISHED: 10:52 28 April 2015 | UPDATED: 10:52 28 April 2015
TV’s favourite wildlife programme, Springwatch, returns to RSPB Minsmere on the Suffolk coast. John Grant talked to its charismatic presenter, Chris Packham, about why he can’t keep away from the county and the work being done to protect its natural environment
Chris Packham has returned to his beloved Suffolk – the county he calls his “home from home”.
In his typically eloquent, straight-talking fashion, he makes no bones about it. He absolutely loves Suffolk, and has done for many years. In fact, it was love at first sight – since the day he discovered the delights of RSPB Minsmere after persuading his father to drive him all the way from their Hampshire home to the famous nature reserve to see marsh harriers.
In those bygone 1970s days marsh harriers were an extremely rare raptor in the UK, having suffered a disastrous decline as a result of persecution.
They have bounced back now thanks to greater enlightenment and conservation measures, and represent one of nature conservation’s greatest success stories. >>
>> But the thrill of seeing one of Britain’s tiny handful of pairs back in his formative days – as well as all the other new wildlife wonders that Suffolk offered a young lad from the south coast – left an indelible impression on the young Packham. For him, Suffolk was, and very much remains, very close to his heart.
“It is a real magnet for me,” he said. “Since that first visit in the mid-1970s when I pestered my dad to drive me up it has become like a home from home for me. I have been up and down the A12 for what seems like all of my life because there is so much to see and enjoy there.
“Suffolk is incredibly rich - it has a fabulous network of great nature reserves, it is close to the continent so it receives a lot of species from there, and there is this tremendous diversity of habitats.”
Amid all Suffolk’s natural attractions, Minsmere is clearly a great favourite for Packham, and not simply because it is playing host to the BBC’s Springwatch natural history programmes of which he is a presenter. “It’s absolutely fabulous,” he said with near-childlike enthusiasm. “Minsmere has got everything. It’s got wonderful wildlife, a tremendous array of species, but it’s also got something for everyone with new hides and a really great visitor centre. It’s like a Disneyland of nature and it really is very special indeed.”
Packham fondly recalled the days in his famous punk-rocker years when – complete with bleached blond hair in a rather fetching punk style – he visited Suffolk under his own steam. Poignantly, he also recalled one of the key figures in his early years, Derek Moore, who remained a great friend and mentor until his death last year at the age of 71.
“I remember the day I met Derek very well,” said Packham. “I was volunteering, guarding the UK’s last red-backed shrike’s nest as it was then, in the Suffolk Brecks. Derek came along and he obviously thought I looked a bit suspect and asked what I was doing. He was marvellous after that – he even guarded the nest for me while I had a quick snooze – and he helped me a great deal in those early days.”
Moore went on to become a leading figure in British nature conservation, heading first the Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation, as it was then called, and then transforming it to the impressive Suffolk Wildlife Trust it is today, with greatly increased membership, many more nature reserves and open access to all of them.
He also took a key role in The Wildlife Trusts, the umbrella organisation that unites the UK’s 47 county trusts, two of which he combined and headed in a shake-up of Welsh nature conservation.
Packham also paid tribute to veteran Brecks naturalist Rob Hoblyn, who still carries out conservation work for the area’s many rare bird species.
“Derek and Ron were an amazing help to me and they have left, and are leaving, an amazing legacy of knowledge and good practical nature conservation that is an absolute inspiration,” he said.
As well as Springwatch, Packham recently took to the stage at Snape Maltings to deliver the main address at this year’s Suffolk Creating the Greenest County environmental awards.
Packham has become ever-more forthright in his defence of the natural world, from his campaigning against bird of prey persecution in Britain to his now famous and highly acclaimed self-funded video diaries in which he catalogued the slaughter of migrant birds through Malta last year.
Packham’s efforts have helped to step up pressure on the Maltese government to put the issue of trapping and shooting of migrant birds to a referendum.
He mounted a spirited call for Suffolk’s natural environment to be safeguarded and appreciated for the immense services it delivers to society when he launched the ambitious Suffolk’s Nature Strategy at Minsmere last spring.
“The Suffolk Nature Strategy document is really important and it should be engaged with at all levels. Suffolk’s natural environment is really special – it has wonderful Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty for example – and its environment is so important for the local economy, the people who are lucky enough to live there and the many, many visitors it attracts.
“Suffolk also has its problems. We need to change farming practices, for example. We have to support farmers, but we need to see changes in the way we treat our landscapes. We need a sustainable economic future for the farming fraternity and to encourage good management for wildlife. It can be done and we have to be ambitious.”
Suffolk’s environmental awards are also very important, says Packham.
“There are a lot of people who work very hard in the wildlife and environment sector, often for very little and many for nothing at all – the many, many volunteers. The awards give these people the recognition they deserve and they highlight their work beyond our own sector.
“That is important as I think the awards are all about spreading the message that, in modern times, Suffolk’s local politicians and businesses, as well as its environmental organisations and many individuals, have stepped up to the plate because they know how important the natural environment is.
“That is a message we need to get across to absolutely everybody,” he says, before breaking off to think.
“Although we can be celebratory and complimentary, we must never allow that to develop into complacency.”