Passed / Failed: An education in the life of the 'Springwatch' presenter and wildlife photographer Chris Packham

'I was a punk with black, spiky hair'
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The Independent Online

Chris Packham, 48, is a wildlife expert and the new 'Springwatch' and 'Autumnwatch presenter. Beginning as a stills photographer, he has presented 500 programmes in series including 'The Really Wild Show' and 'Nature's Calendar'. He is the author of Chris Packham's 'Wild Side of Town'. He is a resident expert on the forthcoming BBC2 quiz 'Know It Alls'.

At Bitterne Park Juniors, Southampton, Mrs Maundrell told me she wanted to see a Dartford Warbler, which was at that time very rare, so I wrote to Blue Peter to ask where the bird could be seen. Blue Peter wrote back to say this was a closely guarded secret.

I never saw a bittern at Bitterne Park secondary school but had I done so I would have been a very happy guy. The grounds included a well-wooded area with a lot of scrub and I still have my maps of where the nests of the different birds were; I'd count the eggs.

The school was one of the poorly made monstrosities of the Sixties and some of our lessons were taught in Portacabins because of the cracks in the concrete. But the energy and optimism of the teachers carried through. In my geography class there were 44 people and boys had to take turns to stand at the back because they had no chairs; but I took the O-level a year early and passed with an "A".

At first, my school reports were pretty poor. I was easily distracted and the things I was interested in, like grass-snakes, weren't in the syllabus. But things changed in my last two years, when I was starting O-levels. My biology teacher had got me into studying birds and encouraged me to go to a couple of conferences and at 14 I decided I wanted to go to university. In my mocks, I got 98 per cent in biology. I did several O-levels early. I did Latin and geology O-level in a year and I think in all I got 12 O-levels.

Then I went to Richard Taunton sixth form college, which until then had been a boys grammar staffed by the grumpiest collection of old men you can imagine. Over the summer I had got into the punk movement: I had dyed black, spiky hair and was going to see The Damned and Clash. I turned up - and shivers ran down spines. For my A-levels I did biology, chemistry, maths and maths with statistics. I failed art. My final painting was in true punk ethos: a scantily clad woman astride the huge, phallic barrel of a tank, in DayGlo colours.

During my time at secondary school, John Buckley, the biology teacher, had got me studying birds – mainly kestrels – and some of my studies were published in British Birds. At sixth form college, I was asked by the Nature Conservancy Council to do a study of badgers in the New Forest. I had two years of good data, which would have been lost if I'd gone away to university, so I went to Southampton University. I was in my element because I was studying badgers and stinging nettles. I really enjoyed the academic side. If I didn't get an "A" for each essay, I was seriously distressed. I went to the students union once in three years; I had no student friends.

I wanted a first. I had three vivas and all went terribly well, so I was horrified that I got a 2.1 – there was only one first in the department that year – and I didn't go to collect my degree. I had worked so, so hard that year. I had been such a swat. I'd given a "brilliant" lecture at Oxford, although I was asked to leave a library beforehand because "your appearance is disturbing some of the members".