As we enter a period of mass extinction, Ray Mears asks are wildlife programmes working?
Adventurer Ray Mears wonders whether wildlife documentaries are working when it comes to inspiring the next generation of conservationists and how Lyme Disease threatened to end his career ahead of his East Anglian shows.
Scientists recently talked of biological annihilation, with studies showing countless animal populations have been lost in recent decades. It’s one of the frustrations of working and making wildlife documentaries at the moment, says Ray.
“In the back of my mind I’m conscious we’ve been making wildlife programmes for 100 years and people like them, but at the same time we’re entering a period of mass extinction that’s wrought by humans, so are these programmes working? The rate we’re going at, we’re not going to last very long. I worry about disunity in the world. Nature is wonderful and we need to protect it.”
The survivalist, bushcraft expert, author and photographer says the challenge for everybody who works in wildlife documentary film-making is to think about how they actually engage with the audience and motivate them to get involved in putting things right.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years making these films, the most important thing for us at the moment, is bio-diversity. The one thing we’re really good at is destroying it. What’s important at the end of the day isn’t televisual awards or getting your name on the end of a good film. “What’s important is motivating that one human being who comes up with the solution to a problem; actually engaging with viewers and getting them out of their armchairs and doing something. The first step is getting them to go out and see with their own eyes and not do everything vicariously through the television - become involved in wildlife conservation remotely or close to home, that’s where everything should start anyway.”
With the United States withdrawing from the Paris agreement on climate change and Hurricane Harvey having caused unprecedented and catastrophic flooding in southeastern Texas, talk turns to US President Donald Trump and Brexit.
“It’s very important people sign up to the Paris Accord. I’m not going to have a pop at Trump because it’s too easy, but I think there are a couple of things you can say about the political situation at the moment, all of these things are transitory. This big thing he’s got going at the moment is the wall on the southern border and that’s a challenging thing. It’s easy to criticise but there is a massive drug problem and he’s trying to do something about it, whether its the right thing that’s a different debate but at least he’s trying to do something.
“If you think about the walls from history, the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall or the Great Hedge in India you can kind of wonder at these relics but really it’s an administration failing in some way. I mean, Hadrian wasn’t able to subdue or negotiate with the Picts. We all know what happened in Berlin. Walls are a full stop in a dialogue and it’s a temporary thing. At some point it gets torn down and wiser minds prevail.”
Talk turns to Brexit and it’s no surprise Ray, who’s interacted with so many different cultures, is a massive believer in the Commonwealth.
“I’ve come to realise how magical it is. I understand why people seek independence, but I think it’s a massive error. In the Commonwealth, we speak a common tongue, we make fun of each other and we would give each other the shirts off our backs. We genuinely want to do good and not harm others. We are somehow embarrassed about the Commonwealth, but we shouldn’t be. It’s truly the most remarkable force for good in the world and it doesn’t get celebrated enough.”
He wanted to know everything about nature from a young age, becoming very interested in tracking animals and wanting to stay out late doing it. With no equipment, Ray had to learn survival techniques. The North Downs, where he lived, is a spectacular place for plant life so he learnt all about that. He found himself starting down a road where every question teaches you something special.
“We still have a vestigial set of skills from when we were hunting and gathering. We’ve an ability to spot things in nature. When you’re watching it, you exercise those latent abilities. You start to see it as dynamic and buzzing. You can only see that if you choose to, but it’s tremendously rewarding.”
Ray doesn’t see the city as anything different. It’s just a landscape of canyons which have been man-made.
“Nature is there if you just take the time to look for it. The problem is that we close our minds to it. It can enlighten us all. Everyone jumps on the bandwagon and says we’ve lost touch with nature, but certain people are still very much in touch with it.
“In the past few years, I’ve made many documentaries with conservationists and rangers. They have very low incomes but they all have the key to happiness - they are in touch with nature. They have gone beyond the mundane and the everyday. That is a very profound gift.”
Recent television budgets have hampered his pursuit of sharing his passions. He may think we haven’t lost our connection with nature, but he thinks we’re not doing a good job of inspiring the next generation to get closer to it.
“People have become very fearful because all the time people take the tabloid approach to the outdoors, where it’s ‘ooh if you don’t do this you’ll die within minutes’ or ‘that’s deadly’. Then people fear nature and if they fear it they hate it. My world is all about understanding and respecting the things I share wild places with, understanding them.”
TV is a good way of educating people says Ray, who got his start when the BBC programme Tracks asked him to demonstrate what he does.
“It enables us to see things we wouldn’t otherwise see and hear stories we wouldn’t otherwise hear. In recent years, TV executives have been very scared of competition from the internet, but the internet will never provide real competition. TV is a unique medium. I’m a real believer in TV.”
His series are renowned for their authenticity whereas others seem to trade on jeopardy.
“It’s forced jeopardy. I was filming in Australia a few weeks ago and because we were a film crew we arrived late where we needed to be,” laughs Ray.
“We start filming, the tide starts to come in and I’m aware it’s going to come in fast but I think the crew are looking a bit surprised. You see on camera I have to turn and say ‘right, it’s time to get out now otherwise you’re not going to get out because the water’s coming up so fast’. So there can be jeopardy, but it’s something you deal with on a daily basis. It’s the reality of being on the trail, it’s part of the fun; the decision making is part of the magic.
“It’s vital people understand the TV I do is real. I think some people are mistrustful of TV at the moment. Luckily compliance is in place now and everything is a lot more transparent. I used to have arguments with producers where words were used such as ‘we do it for real or we don’t do it at all’, I don’t have those arguments anymore.”
Ray’s had his fair share of scrapes, from a helicopter crash while filming his first series to encountering a lot of crocodiles while in Australia recently.
“They’re big and will eat you if they get the chance. So I spent my whole time there not giving them that chance! At one point, we had to wander through crocodile-infested waters. My aboriginal guide said if we were attacked, she would throw herself into the crocodile’s mouth to save me. That was very moving.”
He recalls three members of his crew’s very close encounter with one crocodile while making a previous series.
“We were on a billabong that was drying up quickly. There were a lot of very big crocodiles around. Suddenly, the crew members in another boat spotted a buffalo which they wanted to film. So without checking properly, they rushed out onto the bank.
“They ran to one side of a tree and didn’t see that on the other side of it a three-and-a-half metre crocodile was lurking. If they had gone to the wrong side of the tree, they would have been bitten. As you can imagine, my local guide and I went white.”
Ray’s spent two decades trekking through mountains and deserts, rainforests and oceans; meeting the weird and wonderful animals that have adapted to survive and thrive.
Fascinated by those wild areas of the planet that are as yet undisturbed by civilized human activity, he’s known for series like Tracks, World of Survival, Trips, Money Can’t Buy with Ewan McGregor and The Real Heroes of Telemark. His new seven-part ITV series Australian Wilderness with Ray Mears airs in the autumn.
New tour Born To Go Wild is a unique insight into his wilderness travels and survival techniques. He’ll talk about the new series and extensively about fire, what it means to humanity and the essential role it plays in our survival as he passes on some bushcraft skills.
“Fire lighting is absolutely fundamental to the human condition and the human travelling in wild places. Remember the monkeys in The Jungle Book singing about wanting to learn how to make man’s red fire? We’re the only creatures who can create it. I’m going to demonstrate some of the methods that are up to date and I want to demonstrate the methods we used in Britain in the past so there’s a little bit of time travel and I want, if we can, to involve some of the audience in that.”
Ray, who pioneered the popularity of bushcraft in this country, says teenagers obsessed with their phones and computers could benefit from learning it.
“I don’t do social media. It’s a distraction I don’t need in my life. It’s a waste of my time. Nature is important. If we can get young people to put their equipment down, leave it behind and experience nature, that can be very powerful.”
When he started teaching there was no bushcraft in Britain. Like so many things it’s been picked up on the internet and people have put their own little twist on things. What’s unique about him is that everything he does, he’s lived and tested in really wild places.
“That’s really important, if it doesn’t work in a wild place then you know it doesn’t work. You can’t be fanciful, it’s got to be real. When you’re on YouTube you can do what you like,” adds Ray, who uses technology from the stone age to the cutting edge technology of today when on an expedition.
Bushcraft is all in the details. There’s no shortcut with the long road the best road to knowledge.
“The journey is interesting in its own right. We live in a world where everyone takes the escalator rather than the stairs. The stairs are tiring, but they make you stronger. Bushcraft is the wheel and the hub is the love of nature. The spokes can be anything from the use of plants to watching wildlife. What unifies it is the ability to take care of yourself.”
Born To Go Wild visits The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, on November 6 and King’s Lynn Corn Exchange on November 10.
“It’s really nice to look the audience directly in the eye and listen to what they have to say as well. I get some great questions. A 16-year-old once asked me ‘what is nature?’ That was pretty difficult.
“I love communicating my ideas. I have been teaching for 35 years, so I do know my subject. You get a very immediate connection with a live audience. That’s my favourite aspect of it.”
Ray promises this how will be more upbeat than the last.
“The last tour I did, Tales of Endurance, were real stories... many people left in tears. I wanted to tell real stories because telly’s very good at telling a PC version of something rather than the truth.
“Although I got lots of amazing letters from people who said they gained great strength from it, it was quite downbeat. This show is not like that. We are determined to make this more light-hearted. It’s going to be a really fun show.”
Now 53, Ray says he’s fitter today than he’s been in years having overcome Lyme Disease.
“It didn’t stop me, it just made it difficult. I was just told I had a bad back. I was walking up jungle paths to do pieces to camera or whatever and I was in pain but I just got on with it.”
Visiting jungles a lot, the drug he took to prevent Malaria was the same used to treat Lyme Disease. It was only when he was home he realised something was wrong. He was eventually diagnosed by a friend who was a former navy doctor.
“It’s a dangerous disease, it can kill you. It was treated and I got my life back. I mean literally, it was astonishing. It was a few years ago but it takes a while to recover. You have to build your strength up because you haven’t been able to exercise properly for so long. Filming isn’t good for that because you spend a lot of time standing around and you eat late which doesn’t suit me. I’m used to being out on the trail where I don’t eat very much.
“The first expedition [after] was amazing, well the most amazing thing was going to the gym. I had a trainer I was working with and literally a month-and-a half after starting treatment I went to see him and he said ‘what’s happened... you’re doing things you couldn’t do a month ago. I wouldn’t have stopped [going on expeditions], I’m not one to give in,” he laughs.