The TV presenter and naturalist reflects on his new memoir and talks about the need to protect Britain’s wildlife and evolving attitudes to conservation.
Interview by Susan Gray
What inspired you to write a memoir in your fifties? And where does the title, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, come from?
I wanted to write something of literary merit, and the most intense moments of my life occurred when I was a kid. ‘Fingers in the sparkle jar’ is a metaphor for my childhood discovery of the extraordinary richness of wildlife and the natural world. As a child, my bedroom was full of jam jars that teemed with radiant life, from harvest mice to stems of cow and thistle parsley.
How have attitudes to conservation changed since your 1970s childhood?
The 1970s were naive. We had Save the Whale and Save the Tiger, and conservation meant sending white people to other parts of the world to do things until the money ran out. Now we have perfected conservation. There’s no longer a single-species focus: we try to save the rainforest in its entirety. But that’s not to completely discount earlier conservation efforts – Save the Whale led to the International Whaling Commission’s embargo on hunting whales.
So what do we need to do now in terms of conservation?
Get on with it! We have a great range of techniques to instigate change, but it isn’t happening. Look at climate change: why have we taken money out of wind and solar energy, but put money into fracking, which increases carbon dioxide emissions?
Why are parents more reluctant now to let their kids play outside?
The countryside is now seen as a dark and dangerous place for kids, instead of a vast repository of riches. You are not allowed to fall out of a tree and hurt yourself – it has to be someone’s fault. And this preoccupation with germs: manically squirting hand gel because somebody touched some fox poo!
You’re labelled ‘outspoken’ – are you?
I’m not outspoken, I speak out! And it’s not just an emotionally voiced opinion: it’s well grounded in data and science. For example, there’s no ambiguity about the harassment of hen harriers: they’re found dead on grouse moors full of shot, so I just want the law protecting them to be implemented. I’m willing to toss a firework into the debate, and I’m willing to get burned by the sparks that fly.
You’ve said that you prefer birds to mammals ...
Aesthetically, I prefer feathers to fur, and eggs to messy placental birth! And I’m envious of things that fly.
What do you think is delaying tougher legislation on animal cruelty?
Animal welfare does not have a high enough political value, and by extension economic value. People are not educated to know that animal welfare is intrinsic to our survival. Decision-makers are obsessed with economic growth, but the planet is the same size as it was 4.8 billion years ago. For me, economic growth is the emperor’s new clothes.
Tell us more about rewilding...
Rewilding in the UK would mean having the greatest complement of species possible in an area. Eliminating species artificially destabilises an ecosystem. So rewilding involves identifying different habitats and being reasonable about the fauna they could support, based on what they supported in the past. In the UK, we no longer have lynx, wolves or bears, but we have lots of deer because they have no natural predators.
Is restricting access for walkers a necessity for conservation?
A difficult question because of the legacy of not having access to certain types of land in the UK: rivers in particular are often inaccessible because of fishing concessions. We need to think about tenure of the land rather than ownership. Keeping people out of the landscape is counterproductive because they need awareness of the environment to care about it. I do have strong views about dogs off leads in certain areas, as they damage the bird population. But any of the more draconian measures have to be accompanied with a careful nod to the principle of the right to access.
Tell us more about nature’s fragility and interdependence...
For me, individual species can be beautiful, but the greater beauty is the connectivity. The cockroach is as important to the planet’s biodiversity as the kittens that we find cute. The environment should be synergistic. I like to see animals prospering, which means they are killing other animals and eating them.
Do you prefer being in front of the camera to behind it as a producer?
I much prefer taking photographs to being photographed. Although it’s far easier to talk to the camera lens – it’s just a piece of glass – than it is to another human.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE…
> COUNTRY WALK?
Circular routes in the New Forest, where I live, with my two dogs.
> CITY WALK?
A stroll through central Rome, walking from one archaeological wonder to another.
The Kalahari Desert at sunset.
Wellies – I own six pairs.
Nothing. I hate carrying bags.
> POST-WALK TIPPLE?
Soundman Gary’s hot chocolate – it’s the best!
Itchy and Scratchy, my poodles.
Any good wildlife field guide – although I’m now more likely to have the app.
WIN one of five copies of Chris’ new book, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar (£20, Ebury).