Chris Packham on filming BBC Winterwatch in the Cairngorms

There’s only one thing Chris Packham misses about home when he’s away filming – spending time with his dog, Scratchy.

Chris Packham. Picture: BBC/PA
Chris Packham. Picture: BBC/PA

But fortunately, when the Southampton-born presenter heads up to Cairngorms National Park for this year’s Winterwatch, he will be taking his 15-year-old pooch with him.

“It’s good for my mental health, if I’m honest with you,” says the 57-year-old, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was in his 40s, and was devastated when Scratchy’s twin, Itchy, died in 2016.

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“I feel best when I’m with Scratchy. I do worry about him, I do genuinely miss him. And he’s the same with me. So when we’re together, we’re undoubtedly better.”

This series of Winterwatch – an annual nature extravaganza, which goes out live on BBC2 – will be broadcast from the Dell of Abernethy, a lodge built in 1780 on the edge of the Abernethy pine forest.

Across four consecutive nights, we will learn how the local wildlife survives the tough environment, despite facing freezing temperatures.

Unlike previous runs, the team will return to the same spot – arguably the wildest landscape in the UK – for the upcoming Springwatch and Autumnwatch, too.

It’s something Packham, who fronts all three shows alongside Michaela Strachan and Gillian Burke, has championed from the outset.

“It gives us a chance to see how the seasons impact on that area, and also to know some of the individuals and see how they cope and deal with the changes,” notes the conservationist, whose long-term girlfriend is Isle of Wight Zoo director, Charlotte Corney.

“I’m very excited. I love Scotland, and that particular part of Scotland is very picturesque.”

When it comes to the hardy wildlife the show will follow, Packham – also known for The Really Wild Show – is “pretty confident” we will see a few of those “pin up species; red squirrel, pine marten, maybe a golden eagle”.

But as it’s filmed live, there is, of course, no guarantee what the cameras will capture.

Does he find the unpredictability of the show challenging?

“That’s part of the joy of it, really,” he insists. “Some people don’t like live, they worry about it, they fret, they get nervous. I’ve never experienced that. It’s not me.

“I just think, ‘I’m about to have an hour-long conversation with people who I have a shared interest with’.”

As ever, pre-recorded films, which investigate issues facing the environment across the UK, will also feature in the programmes.

Plus, the show shines a light on individuals and groups working to protect the area’s mountains, forests, rivers and vast lochs – such as Cairngorms Connect, a conservation partnership between local landowners.

For Packham, the message about the importance of conservation is at the core of everything he does.

And he’s frustrated that looking after our environment is “not high enough on the agenda” on a wider scale.

“We are dependent on that environment for our food, our timber, the seas for our fish, the air that we breathe,” he argues.

“So, if we neglect it and leave it too far down the agenda, then we are nothing. We’re just inviting trouble for ourselves, really.”

Of his work on the Watches, he elaborates: “We are keen to, as ever, champion the progress we are making, but it’s important for us to maintain honesty, and therefore be clear enough when we are not making rapid enough progress.”

I mention the protest he organised in London in September, to demand the government invest in wildlife friendly policies.

He responds: “I’m someone who asks, rather than demands, but I think it’s proven that people ask more regularly and forthrightly at this moment in time, because that is our duty.

“I, for one, hope to leave – although it’s going to a real struggle – at least some parts of this world in a better state than they were when I arrived.”

It’s hard to imagine passionate Packham doing anything other than fronting nature shows.

But he reveals he sometimes “fantasises” about what else he could do for work.

“I’m very keen on art, I’ve always been painting and taking photos, and I spend a lot of spare time in art galleries, if I get any spare time.

“I do find that, if I don’t have a personal project where I’m being individually creative, I tend to get a bit arsey; I’ve got to have a release for that.

“So, I take photographs. I take it very seriously, I dive right into it, and I find that is a pretty useful therapy. It’s quite cleansing.”

Packham is a busy man; he recently travelled to Nigeria, where he was filming a documentary about human population growth, to be transmitted later in the year (the programme also saw them travel to South America).

But one thing we probably won’t ever see him doing? Starring in a reality show, especially not Strictly Come Dancing, which he says he’s been asked to do in the past.

“I can’t dance,” he confides, when asked why he turned it down.

“I’m not a very good cook, so that rules me out of another lot [of reality shows]. And I’m not terribly good in a cramped social situation, so that rules me out of those.

“I am someone who is driven by a sense of purpose,” he continues. “I can’t sit on the beach and read a crap novel. I’ve got to be achieving things. I’ve got to have a mission.

“If there was a reality thing that I considered a serious mission, then that’s what might tempt me. If they’re just there for entertainment, that’s not me.”

Winterwatch 2019 runs on BBC 2 from 8pm tonight until Friday, 1 February.