John Buckley and Alec Faulkner by Chris Packham

21st November 2014 at 00:00
Suffering at the hands of bullies and coasting in class, the eager young naturalist found two teachers who offered an outlet for his enthusiasm and a reason to knuckle down

W hen I arrived at Bitterne Park comprehensive school in Southampton, I was ferociously keen on anything that crawled, slithered, slimed or stung. I was not, however, academically focused. I liked learning but I was very choosy about what I liked to learn.

John Buckley was my biology teacher. He was young and enthusiastic and a tremendous naturalist. He told me that if I wanted to make a career out of studying animals, I'd have to up my grades because I would need a degree. From that moment on, I stopped coasting and became a swot.

I was a solitary child who had nothing in common with the rest of the kids. I had no friends and I was bullied. I was always the last to leave the classroom as that meant I didn't get punched on the way out.

One day I was hanging back in John's lesson and I told him that I had been collecting birds' eggs. It's illegal, of course, and an abhorrent habit but I was obsessed with cataloguing things.

He said: "Wouldn't it be more interesting if you let those eggs hatch and counted how many young there were?" He said he could then come and ring them, as he was a bird ringer - a person who identifies birds to help monitor populations.

It struck a chord immediately. Of course it would be more interesting, as then I could find out more about the birds. And what John did progressively over the next couple of years - outside the remit of teaching in the classroom - was instil in me an early and profoundly important interest in collecting data and analysing it.

One Saturday a month we would cycle out to a barn owls' nest on the edge of Southampton and collect all the pellets of the owls' undigested food. We'd go back to my mum's, break them open and analyse the remains of the skulls, so we could work out which animals the owls had been eating over the course of the past month. This went on for two or three years.

By 14, I was obsessed with kestrels. When I started my kestrel study, I'd find every nest over 70 square kilometres. John would ring the birds and I'd count the eggs and the young and that became my first ever science study, for which I won the Prince Philip Award for zoology.

By the time I was 17, I was publishing bits and pieces - that was down to John and his guidance.

Punk rock broke during the summer of my O-levels and I embraced it. When I arrived at Richard Taunton College with my blue hair and motorcycle jacket, the reaction from the teachers was one of utter hostility. The vast majority didn't want me there. But my biology teacher Alec Faulkner managed to fend off most of them.

By then I was academically driven so Alec didn't have to motivate me in that aspect of my learning. What he did was to develop it and keep me in college and on the route to university. He kept me focused on what I needed to do to get on in that place and on to the next. He kept the road open.

I'm immensely grateful to those two people. I still see John but I've lost touch with Alec. They both gave me excellent guidance and good advice at a very difficult time in my life. I hold them in great regard and am greatly indebted to them. I don't know what it was that made them bother but thank goodness they did.

Chris Packham was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He supports Sound Seekers, a campaign to help people in the developing world with hearing loss. For more information, visit

Nature nurture

Chris Packham

Born 4 May 1961, Southampton

Education Bitterne Park School; Richard Taunton College; Southampton University

Career Wildlife expert, presenter of television programmes including The Really Wild Show and Springwatch, photographer and author


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