Chris Packham: ‘I refuse to dumb down on any level’

Chris Packham talks to TV Times magazine about digging deep to discover why rabbits are underestimated and why badgers shouldn’t be culled in The Burrowers (BBC2, Friday) and meeting his sophisticated TV audience’s expectations…

Your new series sees you looking at the underground lives of rabbits, badgers, voles and moles. How did you go about making the show?

“The plan was to build artificial burrows that would enable us to watch natural behaviours which would otherwise have been impossible to see, because they take place beneath the ground.”

How did you make that possible, then?

“We set about achieving that by paying meticulous attention to the construction of those burrows in the wild. You can’t look it up; there isn’t a manual on how to build a badger set or mole burrow, so we had to go out into the wild and measure them, looking at the lengths of the tunnels and the diameters and shapes of the chambers, and did our very best to replicate that in our constructions.”

What did you discover?

“It was very exciting, because each of the species coped very well with the things that we built. To the extent that they bred, fed and slept in them!”

Some of the animals that feature in the show are called things like Hazel, Thumper and Mr Ratty. Were you instrumental in coming up with them?

“I do struggle with names. I never name my pets. I only name my dogs because when I call them they know their individual names and they come back. But in order to understand these animals’ behaviours underground, we needed to know them as individuals. I grind my teeth a little at the choice of names, and I did have some alternatives which weren’t TV-friendly, but nevertheless I don’t feel in any way embarrassed about naming these animals, because it’s central to the audience recognising which is which. Giving them names is an easy way of doing that.”

Have you always been interested in burrowing animals? And if so, why?

“It’s the Alice in Wonderland thing. You want to go down the hole and see what’s there. I remember crawling down a badger hole very close to my home whilst my father held onto my ankles – I was determined to see what it was like down there. And I remember getting sand all up my shirt and sand in my nose – it was a very sandy set which I don’t think retrospectively was occupied!”

What do you think about plans to cull badgers due to bovine tuberculosis (bTB)?

“Badgers – and all of these animals – play an important part in our ecosystem. Without them, that ecosystem is not as sustainable or as functional. The threat of a cull is hanging over badgers at the moment, and aside from bTB, animal welfare, the morality, ethics and science, there’s also a need to have these animals in our landscape. What I hope people will appreciate is that these animals don’t exist in isolation. They are all interrelated, and that interrelatedness is actually perhaps even more important and more beautiful than them in isolation. And we have to realise that it takes all sorts to make our countryside work.”

Did you come away with some more knowledge and appreciation for these animals?

“I have previously not been very rabbity. I’d only ever analysed their remains in fox scats and other things like that, so I wasn’t terribly familiar with their ecology and behaviour. A lot of people won’t realise that their social hierarchies are quite complex and in fact rabbits are quite vicious animals actually! They’re not the little benign bunnies people think they are.”

Did you learn anything else, too?

“I like to learn new things about familiar species – that keeps me on my toes. There’s always something more to learn. But what I’ve come away with is a lot more knowledge about how they live, and, I have to say, a lot more questions. The trouble with finding things out is that you then find other questions, so we’ve learned a tremendous amount, but we haven’t learned everything.”

Are you always keen to ensure the programmes you front have a high amount of science in them?

“I refuse to dumb down on any level. I’ve just been doing some voiceover and I had to change a few things – some inaccuracies. Insects being called bugs when they’re not actually bugs and things like that. Because I think we have quite a sophisticated audience now who don’t need or expect that. They’ve been watching good quality wildlife TV for a long time now. They’ve learned a lot more about these animals than I did when I was a kid.”

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