Main content

Chris Packham: Seven things we learned when he spoke to Simon Armitage

In BBC Radio 4’s The Poet Laureate Has Gone To His Shed, Simon Armitage talks to guests about life, language and music. As he translates The Owl and the Nightingale, a long middle English poem in which the two birds debate many things, Simon asks guests to both help him with the poem and to distract him from it.

In this episode, wildlife expert Chris Packham couldn’t join Simon in his shed due to Covid-19, so the pair spoke online, discussing solace in nature and in art, the future of the planet and sniffing owls.

Here are seven things we learned about the naturalist…

1. He used to store dead animals in his parents' freezer

A life’s work in nature has seen Chris make use of his living space in unorthodox ways. Talking about his younger days, Chris reveals: “I took up at least half the freezer space with road casualties. Animals that I recovered were stored, much to my mother’s horror, alongside the frozen peas and fish fingers. There was always something there heading on its way to taxidermy or dissection.” Not much has changed since. Today Chris has a life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex model head in his garage.

2. He thinks tawny owls smell fantastic

“It gives me no end of pleasure to stick my nose into the back of their head and have a good whiff.”
-Chris Packham on smelling owls

Unsurprisingly, Chris knows his owls. Especially, tawny owls whose ‘Twit-Twoo’, he explains, is actually a conversation between the female and male of the species. His knowledge of the tawny even extends to its smell. “One of the most personal ways of engaging with an animal is being able to know its scent, which is essentially quite a private thing or a distant thing, and I love the smell of tawny owls,” says Chris. “It gives me no end of pleasure to stick my nose into the back of their head and have a good whiff. It’s a dry, musty carboard sort of smell which, again, is so reminiscent of my youth when I was sometime keeping these animals or trying to rehabilitate them.”

3. He’s found lockdown to be second nature, on a personal level, but finds video conferencing alien

“I’ve been in training for lockdown for years, to be honest. We naturalists… can be solitary without being lonely because it’s one of the best ways to engage with nature.” Chris also feels that living in a remote location helps him relax and avoids him modifying his behaviour in front of others, something that can be a challenge because of his Asperger’s Syndrome. In terms of work, Chris welcomes the environmental benefit that video conferencing brings, but has reservations about how it feels. “I never look at myself in a meeting, we don’t have mirrors in front of ourselves, [so] that’s a bit odd – and also we are looking at a bank of people, and, I suppose, in a normal meeting situation I wouldn’t be looking directly at them, I’d be listening intently to what they are saying.”

4. His favourite artist is Ivan Hitchens

Lockdown has given Chris the time to start painting and lose himself in art, even leading to him going into the woods at night to gain inspiration. “I’m a great fan of abstract expressionism,” he says. “My taste in art, like most people’s, has radically changed throughout my life, but for the last 10 years I have been a fan of people like De Cooning and [Mark] Rothko, people like that.

My favourite artist is a guy called Ivan Hitchens who spent a lot of his time painting in West Sussex, relatively close to where I live. The landscapes that he painted in an abstract expressionist style were the landscapes that I have grown up in, so I can see through his colours, and the form that he puts into his paintings, the environment that I know and love most.”

5. He was (and still is) fully signed up to the anarchic Punk movement…

“It [punk] came at a critical time for me. I was really struggling as a young teenager. My Asperger’s was unknown and undiagnosed, I was being ostracised by my peers, and I didn’t know why.

"I love the smell of tawny owls" - Chris Packham

I became very angry, frustrated and disappointed and I needed some sort of outlet, and the punk thing allowed me to physically identify myself as being different.” Despite finding the mosh pits a challenge because, by his own admission, he’s “not a very tactile person”, Chris loved the raw power of the music, and names The Clash, Ramones, The Damned and Buzzcocks among his favourites. However, it was the defiant attitude and ‘do it yourself’ mentality that really engaged him. “These are things that I recognised as important then and hold true in my life now.”

6. … but he also loves order

“I have an enormous collection of skulls and feathers and pellets and bones, and all sorts of things. They’re all neatly catalogued in their little boxes and I can tell you where each one of them is, ditto my punk rock collection of flyers and badges and tickets… they are all catalogued and stored, as are my singles, in alphabetical order. So, yes, order is very, very important to me.”

7. He says the human race can’t go back to normal after lockdown

“We’ve all learned a lot about our lives and our planet and our place in it during this tragedy and crisis and surely, surely, as an adaptable, intelligent and resourceful species we’re not going to go back to where we were? We don’t want business as usual, that was bad business, we want very much a ‘new normal’, a ‘new normal’ for the environment too.”

More from Simon Armitage and Chris Packham