Interview: Ray Mears on his survival skills

Ray Mears. Picture: Phil Coles
Ray Mears. Picture: Phil Coles
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Ray Mears reveals how he used bushcraft skills to find killer Raoul Moat when modern technology failed, and how his ability to survive was tested by grief

Ray Mears is eating cold pizza when we chat. I’m a bit underwhelmed. No witchetty grubs, lizards or human beings on the menu then? After all, this is a man who has said he’d happily turn cannibal if he had to, to survive.

“I’m just eating what there is,” he says. “And today it’s cold pizza.”

Big, bluff and down to earth, the 49-year-old survivalist is out of his discomfort zone today, promoting his autobiography and Scottish speaking tour, and if his foraging only turns up a doughy crust, he’s not one to whinge and demand the removal of all of the brown M&Ms from a dressing room. Which is what you’d expect from a man who spends his life teaching bushcraft skills and making TV programmes to highlight the plight of endangered species.

For the past 30 years Mears has been running courses all over the globe with Woodlore, his School of Wilderness Bushcraft, based in Sussex, where he also lives when not globetrotting with a camera crew in tow for World of Survival, Ray Mears Goes Walkabout and the recent Close Encounters where he got up very close and personal with crocodiles in Darwin and devils in Tasmania.

Watching Mears in his khaki shorts and Tilley hat tramping around the planet’s most breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, wringing water out of the barren Australian dust, rustling up bush tucker from things that rustle, you really want to pack up your kitbag with the Mears essentials – “a knife, water bottle, and a mug is nice, but most importantly a sense of humour,” and follow in his big-booted footsteps.

But I can’t help wondering whether for first world viewers, these skills are relevant any more? Fire-lighting, plant lore, shelter construction, tracking? After all if we’re hungry we can go to the nearest supermarket, if we’re cold we can whack up the thermostat or put on another jumper and if we feel under threat, dial 999. So why bother?

“Judging by the rewards I see in people’s faces and hearts when they learn those skills, they’re more valid today than ever before,” he says. “They give you freedom. I hope people leave keen to get out and about. They’re also life skills that change your perceptions of the world, whatever environment you live in. Because I don’t see the city as any different to the countryside. They’re just buildings that are not in the country. There’s wildlife in there too. These skills give you a depth of knowledge and a broadening of the mind and spirit.”

They can also come in handy when it comes to catching a killer. Mears was the go-to guy when the police launched the biggest manhunt in recent history after Raoul Moat shot three people in Tyneside in July 2010 and went on the run in the wilds of Northumbria. Involving 160 armed police officers, the manhunt lasted almost seven days and used sniper teams, helicopters, dogs, armoured anti-terrorist police vehicles and an RAF jet for reconnaissance. But it was ancient tracking skills employed by Mears that led to his location. After nearly six hours of negotiation, Moat shot himself early the next morning.

“Modern technological means of locating him weren’t succeeding, which was unusual, and it was a more old-fashioned way of helping. When the police asked me, I wanted to do it because this man was in the countryside making it miserable for others and that must not be allowed. He had to be stopped,” he says.

Was he instrumental in catching him?

“That’s for the police to comment on. We got very close and he came out of hiding because of our presence. I found signs of him and he knew we were very close. He was moving very quickly and we must have surprised him, and he came out of hiding.” Despite the dangers involved in tracking a desperate man who has already killed, Mears was unconcerned for his own safety.

“There wasn’t time to be frightened and I was very heavily protected by 16 police officers and six dogs. The biggest thing on my mind was not messing up. I was the spearhead of an incredibly large effort that was costing a fortune and I didn’t want to make any mistakes,” he says. Like Mears, who learnt as a child how to track foxes on the South Downs from an I-Spy nature book, then honed his skills to such a level that he was able to track with Aboriginals on Ray Mears Goes Walkabout, Moat also had bushcraft skills, but there the common ground between the hunter and the hunted ends.

“I had no sympathy with him. But it was a trauma for him as well as for everyone else. It was a tragedy unfolding for everyone, and we should be investigating the causes that make someone go off the rails like that.”

Mears is at pains to point out this was an unusual situation, and most of his time is spent dealing with killers of the non-human variety. He tells with relish a tale of a narrow run-in with a croc in Australia’s Northern Territories where he almost became bush tucker himself.

“I was camping on a beach and a croc came past to eat some food that had been left on a campfire. It was only three feet away and I froze. If the food hadn’t been there and easy, it would have eaten me. Nobody has survived being bitten by a four-metre crocodile. It was the food that had attracted it in the first place, because they have a very keen sense of smell. There’s a side to their nature that hasn’t been explained and we need to know these things. They’re awesome. Two hundred million years of evolution and they never become infected with anything. Modern medicine couldn’t come up with that. They’re fascinating and terrifying.”

Just because Mears knows what animals are capable of doesn’t mean he hasn’t on occasion taken risks himself and he understands why people’s desire to interact with nature lays them open to attack.

“Yes, I’ve swum in rivers where there are crocodiles. I’ve done stupid things and later thought, ‘Oh my goodness!’ But we all need to learn the lesson and smarten up around these creatures. That’s why I wanted to make a programme about crocs and tell the truth about them.”

Mears has spent 20 years making TV programmes and while he isn’t into what he calls “tinsel town” he cares very much about doing it well.

“I don’t really watch much TV – apart from Luther, I watched that. I get irritated at some of the documentaries that I see coming out of the US where they interview everybody every five minutes about what they’re thinking, and false reality shows that are scripted annoy me.

“I don’t watch myself either. I once made a series with a producer who kept writing lines for me that I just wouldn’t say. Things like, ‘If you don’t do this you will die in minutes’. When I look back I didn’t really fight enough. Now I don’t do scripts. I throw them away. Give me the concept and I just turn it into real speech. I like it to be real. The veracity of the show is something I feel strongly about.

“There are a lot of people who want us to believe that the outdoors on your own is a dangerous thing. That’s their own fears. For me it’s the most amazing experience. And anyone who has ever done it will know that. Bushcraft teaches you to be close to nature and that’s important. I want more people to experience that. It gives you a new experience of life all around you, trees and plants that have meaning and value.”

Mears is at pains to point out that there’s nothing new about the craft he teaches, more that it’s something we all used to know, especially in Scotland. “We run courses in Perthshire and there are sticks and rocks there, on Loch Tay for example, that people brought there for a purpose. They had knowledge of all their properties and values and how to use them. Look around and there’s a world full of potential friends and allies, things with value – they could be a medicine, made into string. Crofters dyed wool with plants, Highlanders used spagnum moss to wash their feet in to prevent fungus.

“Across the world in Canada the indigenous people used spagnum moss too, for nappies. People had a cultural knowledge of the properties of plants. That’s why the Scots did so well when they went to Australia and Canada. They knew how to survive.”

Part of the reason Mears is so keen for us to get out there and experience life in the raw is because it’s a way of making people face up to their impact on other species. In 2003 the Royal Geographical Society awarded him the Ness Award for the popularisation of geography.

“Extinction is very close to my heart. It’s a natural process here on Planet Earth yet we live at a time when we seem to be causing an unnatural number of extinctions. But I’ve always felt that nature responds to actions. If a tree falls, those around it grow faster to fill in the gap. How deeply nature responds to things we don’t know. How will nature react to us as a species?” he asks.

Survival is something Mears knows about, but when it comes to his personal life there are some things that even the big bushman can’t beat. One of them was the breast cancer that claimed the life of his first wife Rachel in 2006, aged 50. The pair had met when she enrolled in one of his five-day survival courses and they settled down in East Sussex with her two adult children.

“I felt powerless. This wasn’t something I could put right and it was massively frustrating. These things have a dramatic impact on families and it broke everything apart. It was a very confused time and after her death we had to pick up the pieces and carry on. Something like that is a very prolonged trauma and it’s difficult,” he says.

“But you have to start a new chapter in your life. That was a brilliant chapter. But it was over.”

A new chapter was begun when Mears met his current wife Ruth, “at a lecture a long while ago. She’s become very skillful in the Arctic from coming on the courses,” he says proudly.

That’s got to be handy when your partner spends half of his life tramping the far-flung reaches of the globe.

“I do take my family with me, but not when I’m filming, as there’s nothing more boring than watching people film. Wouldn’t do that to them,” he says. “But I miss them when I’m away. I can make myself at home anywhere, but home is where the heart is, which is with family.” ‘Family’ is Ruth, stepson Kristian and a black lab from Perthshire.

He and Ruth do spend their holidays together travelling, however, favouring “culture and activity breaks because I don’t handle boredom well,” he says. “I’ve not been all the places I want to go yet. I’d like to go to Japan for instance.”

Yes, we didn’t have him down as sun lounger and blockbuster, swim-up bar kind of guy. Next stop is a lot closer to home for Mears with a UK tour of his An Evening With … show, where he shares stories of his life and many years surviving the wilderness and its colourful wildlife, and recounts his latest adventures in America and Australia.

“It’s a real family event for children of all ages,” he says. “It will also be slightly interactive …”

Should we be worried?

He laughs.

“I can’t tell you any more than that because it will give it away, but it’s a show all of its own.”

• Ray Mears: My Outdoor Life, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out on Thursday, hardback £20, paperback £13.99. An Evening With Ray Mears – The Outdoor Life, 27 September, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow; 28 September, Caird Hall, Dundee; 29 September, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh; 30 September, Music Hall, Aberdeen; tickets from £25.