Chris Packham returned to our screens to kick off a very different Springwatch series last night. Broadcasting live from lockdown in his woodland garden in the New Forest, while co-presenter Iolo Williams was hundreds of miles away in his own patch in mid-Wales, and Gillian Burke at a beaver sanctuary near her gardenless home in Cornwall, he was clearly missing his friend and long-term co-star, Michaela Strachan, who is still stranded at her home in South Africa.
But tonight he will be joined on-screen by another special person in his life – his step-daughter, Megan McCubbin, who has been isolating with him in his remote cottage in Hampshire, since lockdown began.
What makes Megan’s debut as a guest presenter on BBC2 this evening even more poignant, is that they still share such a close bond, despite Chris splitting up with her mother when she was 12 years old. Packham has been with his partner, Charlotte Corney, since 2007, but she lives on the Isle of Wight, where she runs the island’s zoo, so they have had to rely on FaceTime, like many couples separated by the coronavirus crisis.
Megan, now 25, was just two when her mum, Jo, a specialist nurse for the NHS, first introduced her to Chris, and although the couple never married, the family lived together and travelled extensively, introducing her to the wonders of nature and endangered species from an early age. When Chris and Jo sadly split up, 13 years ago, he was determined to remain a permanent fixture in Megan’s life – they have, she says, been inseparable ever since.
No surprise, then, to learn that it is Chris whom Megan, now a fully trained zoologist, credits with her own passion for wildlife: “His fascination in nature is so infectious that you can’t help but be excited by what he is excited by,” she says over Zoom, in her first interview ahead of tonight’s debut. “He introduced me to a porcupine at a zoo when I was little and that was it.”
When lockdown was announced, she decided to move into his cottage so they could work together on wildlife projects, not least the presenter’s daily Self-Isolating Bird Club, which he launched on Facebook in March, and now has more than 35,000 followers. Drawing on wildlife footage caught by enthusiasts on smartphones in their own gardens – Packham has called it “Dad’s Army makes TV” – Megan has been posting daily videos alongside him, which is how the idea for her guest stint on Springwatch evolved.
“I’ve been moving around a bit over the last few years,” she explains. “I was at my mum’s just before lockdown but she works for the NHS and as she was going to be in and out of hospital, I knew I wanted to continue working, so I came to stay with Chris.”
The pair think of each other not as step-dad and daughter, but “best friends,” she adds. “We have such a deep respect for one another. We have not lived together since I was 12, but I have always come backwards and forwards to spend a week or weekends at his house.
“To have this lockdown period of time has been great – spending time doing what we love outdoors. We both love learning about nature together and he has been a fantastic teacher. He is a role model of mine as well, and I’m lucky to have him as a step-dad too.”
Megan paints a happy picture of lockdown life with Chris in the New Forest – “we get along perfectly” – though when asked about the division of domestic duties, she laughs: “I think in the nine weeks, he has cooked three times. We have been pretty strict during lockdown. We live in an isolated place and we go out once a week on a Saturday to get food for Chris’s dad and for my grandparents.”
Like Chris, she is a passionate campaigner on wildlife issues and regularly accompanies him on protest marches. Is the crusading environmentalist a softie at heart too? “He wouldn’t like to say so, but yes he is. He is very witty and very sharp and I am always in awe of his brain.”
After being hooked on the natural world at an early age, Megan studied zoology at Liverpool University before going on to travel the world, working as a behavioural intern in China to rehabilitate bears and researching shark species at Bimini Sharklab in the Bahamas. A keen photographer (she won the under 12’s RSPCA wildlife photographer of the year award in 2007), she also presented a BBC3 documentary on the illegal bear bile market in Vietnam in 2017.
Lockdown has made many of us appreciate the natural beauty closer to home, she notes. “We are really lucky to be living in the New Forest and there is so much wildlife and nature around us. It has been a lifeline for us during lockdown. Nature can have such a joyous effect on our mental health and it is a reminder that life is still going on. Even just spending 10-15 minutes every day outdoors helps tremendously. And when this is over, we definitely need to go back to a new normal where nature is at the forefront of our minds.”
Both have been “completely overwhelmed” by the positive reaction to the Self-Isolating Bird Club. “We didn’t expect the response we got and it has become a community of its own, which is fantastic to see,” she says. “It’s very different to the stuff I’ve done before. My focus has been large predators and not always UK-focused. I had been due to go and help on a university course in Korea for a month and that obviously was cancelled. But I love the nature in my back garden. There is so much we can see and hear.”
Posting Facebook videos are one thing, of course, but broadcasting live on the BBC is quite another. Has Chris given her any presenting tips for tonight? “He is such a natural, he can just turn up and do a great job,” she says. “I like to prepare a bit more. We have spoken about techniques and he always says content is king."
As the country prepares for lockdown restrictions to begin easing, Megan admits the prospect of moving out again will be strange. “I have got a partner and that has been a challenge, so I am looking forward to a bit of normality again,” she says. “But it will be weird not living with Chris. Hopefully we can work together on other projects too. It’s Chris’s enthusiasm that got me into [this] and I’d love to inspire future generations, too.”
Springwatch is on every Tuesday-Friday at 8pm on BBC Two for the next three weeks.