In the late 1970s, when the rest of the teenage world was out meeting girlfriends in pubs and clubs, wildlife presenter Chris Packham was bent over a microscope looking at badger faeces.
He carried out this ritual every Thursday night for five years in an attempt to uncover some unknown aspects of the species ecology.
It’s testament to his love of the natural world which seems to have manifested itself even before he could talk.
It comes as a surprise, therefore, that his latest book: ‘100 Things That Caught My Eye,’ contains very few wildlife photos.
“I wanted to appeal to all photographers,” he tells Seven Days.
“Wildlife as a subject is quite niche. I wanted to do a book of photography rather than a book of wildlife.”
The images in the collection were taken in more than 30 countries and span more than 25 years of travelling. Chris’s subjects are many and varied depending on what caught his eye. Readers are offered a glimpse into his imagination at the moment he captures each picture.
He explains: “It’s about the way people think when taking images. The premise of the book is that photography is an intellectual process. It’s a hundred photos, yes, but really it’s 100 self-critiques of my work.”
And these critiques are not so much self-effacing as utterly savage.
“There is a harsh honesty, yes,” he admits.
“But then I am a harshly honest person. I can’t stand people lying to me. If they do, that’s the last I see of them. I’m ruthlessly critical of photography – not so much other people’s but my own.”
Chris says his aim is not to take the perfect picture but to constantly improve on what he does. “For me it’s a work in progress. If someone says they have taken the perfect photo, I say, show me, because I will find something wrong with it. Then I’ll say, well you may as well fill the bath up and chuck all your equipment in there because what will you do tomorrow?”
Many of Chris’s photos are of old shacks, bones and decay. To another person this may present a darker edge to the 53-year-old, but not so when you consider Chris’s profession.
“As a naturalist I’ve been putting bones in boxes under my bed all my life. I have a cabinet of curiosities overflowing with ragged and rotted remains and a skull collection second to none.
“It’s not weird. It’s how we learn to uncover function from form and classify all life’s diversity into the groups where they belong.”
Chris studied at the Zoology department of Southampton University, after which he began taking photographs and trained as a wildlife film cameraman. The camerawork eventually gave way to presenting. Chris started with the award-winning Really Wild Show in 1986 and has been working ever since. Credits include Wildshots, Go Wild, Inside the Animal Mind and Springwatch.
Chris’s parents say that as a baby he liked to crawl around their garden looking for ladybirds and fishing for tadpoles and mosquito larvae. Soon jam jars were filled with hot sweaty caterpillars and all the bugs that didn’t bite too hard.
Growing up, the New Forest was his playground. He still lives there today.
“I absolutely love it,” he says.
“Because I feel like a part of it. I feel comfortable, I can relate to it.
“No-one will ever be able to extract my enthusiasm for my environment.
“I spent a lot of time exploring there as a kid and it’s a privilege to live there.
“I took the dogs out this morning. I got a bit wet but it doesn’t matter. I love the smell and the taste of the place. Home is where the heart is, and nowhere else describes this more perfectly for me.”
He is full of praise for Dorset, too.
“Dorset is the second best county in the UK and I only say that because I live in Hampshire.
“I just love it. It’s intrinsically rich with wildlife. You have the Jurassic Coast, the sandy beaches, the rocky cliffs.
“Inland you have the farmland and grasslands, and for me the jewels in the crown are the sandy lowland heaths which have lots of sexy species such as sand lizards, warblers, and varieties of wasp. Dorset is a fabulous county for wildlife.”
Chris is currently encouraging children to explore their environment though a new series called Wildlife Jack and his Animal Adventures on Disney Junior, which he narrates.
He rues: “In my lifetime I’ve sadly presided over a lot of decline, such as beetles, skylarks, hedgehogs etc. One extinction is the child out in the countryside exploring on his or her own.
“Wildlife Jack is for younger kids, getting them interested in UK wildlife.” And for older wildlife enthusiasts, look out for the BBC 4 series called The Wonder of Animals which he is ‘very excited’ about.
“For me the wonder of animals is the everyday. It’s the pondskaters and the wasps and the dandelions.... We can be blinded by familiarity. I encourage people not to look at the obvious.
“It’s not all about the big and the glamorous. It’s the everyday things we tread over or walk past.
“Capturing those things well on camera. Now that’s a much greater challenge.”
- 100 Things That Caught My Eye by Chris Packham published by Blink, £20