Chris Packham: Hero or Extremist?

On 14th July Chris Packham will travel the length and breadth of the UK for ten days recording the nature that he finds there, from birds to beetles, mice to moths. He urges everyone to join in and record their findings over the ten day period, to get a picture of what remains, because, he says (and we know), the British Isles are becoming increasingly bereft of wildlife, and we must record what is left, to see what struggles and what flourishes, to see what must be done, what must be saved first.

After raising his head above the parapet in the rewilding debate and coming out in support of rewilding, Chris Packham has become a locus around which both extremes of the argument polarise. Recently he was vocal in opposing both the mountain hare cull and the raven cull proposed by Scottish National Heritage. SNH chief, Mike Cantlay received a death threat from one of the more extreme ends of the debate. You may notice that Chris Packham's criticism of the proposal and the death threat were reported in the same sentence in the National newspapers, as in 'SNH chief receives death threat after Chris Packham criticises...etc'.  In an open letter Packham said the SNH's reputation lay in 'bloodied tatters.'  Packham is not a man to mince words and he condemns death threats of all kinds, from hare to human. Naturally he publicly condemned Mike Cantlay's death threat as well.

Chris Packham is a popular figure. Facebook have at least four Chris Packham support groups and appreciation societies, and a fan club. Chris’s own page has 91 thousand followers, and there is even a Facebook group called The GENIUS that is Chris Packham getting in the Smiths songs to Springwatch, celebrating the fact that Chris Packham, while presenting BBC’s Springwatch, endeavours to sneakily get the titles and lyrics of songs by The Smiths (his favourite band) into his sentences.

On the other hand the Countryside Alliance hate him. They don't mince words either. They consider him an extremist and are campaigning to get him fired from the BBC for his controversial views and for using his media following (a following generated, they argue, by his BBC career) to drum up support for conservation issues, or rather what they call his own extreme views on conservation. Chris Packham’s controversial views include his stance against driven grouse shooting, because it involves the illegal killing of many endangered raptors on private shooting estates, for which there is seldom a prosecution. He also thinks the millions of pounds spent on conserving the Giant Panda in captivity would be better employed elsewhere in nature. He says the Giant Panda has ‘gone down an evolutionary cul-de-sac and could not now survive in the wild. Might be deemed a bit harsh on the poor pandas, but a considered point even if you disagree. David Bellamy does agree with him. David Attenborough doesn’t. But it’s an opinion guaranteed in our modern cute-panda-loving world to provoke an outcry. To wit a Facebook group called 'Pandas against Chris Packham' (8 members).

He was accused of calling all lovers of blood sports (hunting-shooting-fishing) ‘psychopaths.’ Packham was actually quoted as saying ‘it has a psychopathic element, taking pleasure from killing.’  This is not quite the same thing as calling all hunters ‘psychopaths.’ Psychologists say the same thing about surgeons: they have to be in some small way psychopathic in order to cut people open. Surgeons would probably agree with this analysis. Lovers of blood sports might too, if they thought about it reasonably. But Lewis Carroll's Queen of Hearts reaction is in season. Although intelligent conservationists see that change must come in the way we interact with the natural world, a way of life is being threatened and those who defend it will not go quietly. 

The Guardian calls it ‘textbook modern politics’. A progressive intellectual says something not in itself extreme; the reactionary response is laced with hysterical exaggeration of the original quote. Both sides are muddied, but a result of sorts is achieved, i.e. the progressive individual is labelled, therefore seen by the casual observer as an extremist, and the population are afraid to engage because to do so might label one an extremist too. The other side don’t care how extreme they look: they still own the grouse-rich moors, the fishing streams, the hunting lodges. I would argue there is nothing modern about this kind of politics. Suffragettes were once labelled extremists too.

The reactionary element also have friends in high places. Witness the recent Belvoir Hunt Attack judgement just in: hunt workers, George Grant and his son Thomas, were given suspended sentences for breaking an ex-policeman's neck in three places while he was quietly doing his job as a hunt monitor. Apparently this action, to employ the assistance of four masked men and arrange the unprovoked attack was, according to Lady Sarah McCorquodale (character witness for the defence), entirely out of character. The four masked men have never been identified, and therefore not prosecuted. Who were they? Does Lady Sarah know?  Here is Ranulph Fiennes reaction to the judgement.

Image courtesy of Graham Racher London UK

Image courtesy of Graham Racher London UK

So, what do you think, is Chris Packham a hero for our times or an irresponsible provoker of extremism? One thing we can all agree on: Chris Packham is a zoologist.  This is what he will be doing next, and he hopes we will all join him: