■ The TV presenter and naturalist, 50, on birdsong, bisons in Norfolk and the death threats sent to Chris Packham
Sounds Of Spring is pumping birdsong through sound systems in shopping centres throughout the UK. What’s the thinking behind that?
Well, as a society we’ve become increasingly urbanised and research has revealed that fewer and fewer people ever hear birdsong. Yet we spend more and more time in shopping centres so we thought ‘OK, we’ll bring nature to you.’ Hopefully, if people hear birdsong in their shopping centre they will reconnect with it and go to their park or woodland and hear it for real.
Does hearing birdsong lift your spirits?
It really does. The campaign has a birdsong clip on Spotify and that was my dawn chorus before I got on to the train to Manchester today. It’s such a wonderful sound. I am fortunate enough that I wake up to the sound of birdsong most mornings. Scientific studies undertaken last year demonstrated that contact with nature — trees, seeing the sky, listening to birds singing — has a hugely beneficial impact on our mental wellbeing. So many people shut out the natural sounds around them by wearing headphones to listen to music or podcasts but they are denying themselves the wonderful effects nature can have on our mental health.
The RSPB’s track, Let Nature Sing, topped the iTunes singles chart. Is that anything to do with your campaign?
No, it’s pure synchronicity. But it does show there’s a growing need for people to feel like they are connecting with nature. We are losing our songbirds at an alarming rate so we really do need to raise awareness around the issue. We have a huge number of green spaces around the country and we need people to get out and use them more or we’ll lose them.
Should governments be doing more to help bird populations?
We really do need a lot more joined-up thinking right across the board — hopefully the Sounds Of Spring campaign will get the information out there. The great thing that’s happening is that more and more people are getting involved. But you have to face up to the fact that we really are at a tipping point — we have to galvanise people to act, and that includes governments and businesses.
Environmental issues can be complex, though — what did you make of the recent row over farmers and restricting the shooting of birds?
You’re right, it’s hugely complex, and with that one there’s no right or wrong side to be on. The last thing I want to do is say something flippant that could be taken out of context. What I would say is that sometimes hard decisions have to be taken in order to help the survival of some species. But sending Chris Packham death threats because of his opinions — that’s appalling and not going to help anyone.
What’s your take on ‘re-wilding’ the British countryside? There’s an estate in Norfolk that wants to bring water buffalo and bison on to its land…
Bison in Norfolk? Did they ever have them there? That sounds a bit strange. I gave a talk at the Royal Geographical Society in London that touched on this: I asked the audience there what they thought of re-wilding and around 90 per cent were pretty pro. Then I asked, ‘How many of you live in the country?’ and, ‘How many of you have any livestock or produce anything from the land?’ and the number was reversed: only about ten per cent. And that’s the crux of it — so many of the people who support re-wilding are people who don’t have to deal with the results of it. And it has a human impact.
Back on topic: how good are you at recognising birdsong?
I’d have to say I’m pretty s***. I think there are people who have a musical ear and there are those who don’t — and I really don’t, to put it mildly. Of course there are some that I recognise — I can tell a robin from a blackbird and I love the description of a chaffinch by writer Simon Barnes that it’s ‘like a fast bowler’. That’s spot on and really helps. I remember walking around a wood with presenter Simon King and he knew all the individual birdsong but I’m not like that. But you don’t need to know the name of something to enjoy it and to feel the benefit of listening to it.
So you hear the orchestra where Simon hears the individual instruments?
Exactly! I love that — I’m going to use it!
If you could be reincarnated as a bird, which one would it be?
As someone who can’t sing a note, my immediate thought would be a skylark. It would be magical to be able to sing like that, it’s one of the great songbirds. But then my desire for world domination kicks in and I’d love to be a harpy eagle. They’re the boss guys!
Sounds Of Spring will be tweeting in Intu’s shopping centres throughout May