Just before the cameras begin rolling live on Autumnwatch on Monday, Chris Packham will start reeling off facts to his fellow presenters Michaela Strachan and Martin Hughes-Games.
They might be about the battle of the Alamo, or some fascinating details about an obscure creature. His favourite is to list battles of the Second World War. Strangely, they seem to quell the jitters for his co-hosts before they’re beamed live into millions of homes.
Michaela and Martin are used to Chris’s idiosyncrasies, having worked with him for years. But earlier this year, in an astonishingly candid autobiography called Fingers In The Sparkle Jar, Chris ‘came out’ to the wider world as autistic.
Wildlife presenter Chris Packham, 55, talks about Asperger’s Syndrome. He ‘came out’ to the world as autistic in his autobiography this year
He knew he was different from a young age, when he was bullied, and contemplated suicide several times. It was only later in life that he discovered he has high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, and it was only then he could start to see his condition as more of a blessing than a curse.
‘There are problems Asperger’s presents but it’s also afforded me enormous opportunity,’ says Chris, now 55. ‘If you’d asked me when I was aged 17 to 26 if I could change it I would have said yes. But after 26 I decided to learn strategies to deal with it, even though I didn’t know what I was dealing with.
Now I see it as an advantage. I have a retentive memory, which is a huge asset when you have to talk about the biology of animals on shows like Autumnwatch. If I’ve read it, it’s stored.’
While he struggles with humans, animals have always been Chris’s best friends. He first became depressed at 14 when a kestrel he’d hand-reared died. It was the death of another pet, his poodle called Fish in 2004, that plunged him into depression again shortly after he’d split up from a girlfriend.
He only resisted attempting an overdose because he only had 39 pills, and he didn’t think they were enough to do the job. It was then that he sought help.
Today, as we talk in a dark basement at the BBC’s Broadcasting House, Chris struggles to maintain eye contact – a common trait in the autistic, although it’s something he’s worked hard to correct. He doesn’t smile much either and talks in long, convoluted sentences. But as he prepares for this year’s four-day Autumnwatch, he insists he probably wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for his autism.
‘In this field I meet a significant amount of people with Asperger’s, it’s a mode of mind that suits an interest in wildlife and science,’ he says. ‘I think if you can overcome what some people call handicaps – I call them tasks – you can get on and achieve great things.’
A young Chris with his pet kestrel. While he struggles with humans, animals have always been Chris’s best friends. He first became depressed at 14 when a kestrel he’d hand-reared died
Chris is well known for being outspoken and has had his knuckles rapped by the BBC for writing controversial statements about emotive subjects such as badger culling. He’s never been one to keep his mouth shut, but insists he’d never let his views affect his work.
‘I don’t work for the BBC all the time and there are other platforms where I can make my feelings clear,’ he says. ‘I don’t talk about them on Autumnwatch or Springwatch because I want to protect the BBC’s impartiality.’
His impartiality will no doubt come under scrutiny during this year’s Autumnwatch. One report will look at the hugely controversial issue of badgers passing bovine TB to cows, which has resulted in culls.
The show will analyse the results of a fresh study that tracked both badgers and cows and found the two never actually meet. ‘This is brilliant new science and we’re bringing more information to the table so people can be better informed,’ says Chris. ‘We’re not getting involved in the exterior debates; we’re just looking at the science.’
Autumnwatch has moved to a new home for this series, the RSPB Reserve at Arne in Poole Harbour, Dorset. It’s officially the most biodiverse region in the UK. Among the live highlights planned are cameras focused on the herds of sika deer that live in the area and will be in rutting season. The show will be looking at a mysterious seasonal gathering in a disused quarry on the Isle of Purbeck.
Every autumn 15 of Britain’s 17 bat species come together for a few nights there. The motivation for their ‘swarming’ behaviour is unclear – is it to feed, to breed, or to prepare for hibernation? With a bat detector and state-of-the-art thermal imaging, the Autumnwatch team hope to find out.
A golden eagle chick who became the star of Springwatch earlier this year will also return. ‘We’ve got a tag on it and we’ll be following it to find out where it goes,’ says Chris.
‘We’ll also be giving the public the chance to name it. I had the extraordinary opportunity to handle it before we sent it off. I even smelled it.’ Smelled it? ‘Yes, it smelled really nice – a dry, powdery, musty smell. For me it’s always interesting to smell things otherwise it’s a wasted sense.’
There are also plans to film moles live for the first time, with tiny ‘molecams’ in their tunnels. ‘It’s a tough ask,’ says Chris.
‘Moles are sensitive to vibration. Their sense of smell is profound and they’re repulsed by the smell of anything they’re not familiar with. But if you don’t try you’ll never succeed.’
Chief mole watcher will be Martin Hughes-Games – who recently caused a kerfuffle when he tweeted that he’d been fired from the show, although the producers denied this. ‘There may be some evolving but he’ll always be part of our presenting family,’ they responded cryptically, before Martin then tweeted, ‘I’m very happy to say I’ll see you in October on Autumnwatch.’
And what does Chris have to say about this particular controversy? For once, not a squeak.