The following interview covers Ray’s latest series, Survival with Ray Mears.
How did you feel about taking on the Survival brand?
“It was a real privilege because I grew with the Survival brand as a boy. There were some incredible documentaries and remarkable programming. It was a real privilege but also a bit daunting because you’re following in the wake of such incredible programming of the past.
“But we needed to find a new way of doing it as well and I like that sort of challenge. To have the opportunity to talk about natural history was fantastic because that’s what took me outdoors in the first instance.
“Tracking is my passion and to be asked to track leopards, bears and wolves – who wouldn’t jump at the chance?”
Before you began your three journeys what were you hoping for?
“I wanted to find the animals but I also wanted the opportunity to show the skill of tracking as an art. There are a lot of people who talk it but very few who can do it and that was a concern.
“Filming the process of tracking is very difficult and was a learning curve for all of us. I’m not just looking at foot prints; I’m also looking at tiny little marks on the ground that the camera often finds difficult to pick up. So learning how to bring that to the screen has been a really interesting learning curve and a wonderful opportunity.
“The locations we went to all presented their own challenges for tracking. When we were in Idaho for Wolves it was for the change of seasons from winter to summer. The snows were melting and the tracking conditions were literally changing throughout the day, so that was particularly difficult. I was looking at tiny grains of mud transferred into the snow by a wolf. The snow was melting and all you had was a very faint blush of dirt.
“In British Columbia for the bears it was tidal. As soon as the tracks were made the tide came in and washed them away.
“In Namibia for the leopards, I was confident we were going to get clear tracks because I’ve trekked leopards in another area a little further east. However, where we filmed, the grains of sand were incredibly coarse like broken sea shells, so they didn’t hold much definition.”
Which was your favourite animal to track?
“That’s really difficult as each of the animals is special in its own regard. However, I have a very strong liking for wolves; I think that the wolf is a remarkable animal. The sad thing is, human beings fear and loathe them with an irrational zeal and I find that very upsetting.
“The wolf is a social animal; it’s very similar to us in that regard. It’s a wonderful hunter, it’s very clever and it has a lot to teach us. So I really like wolves for all of those qualities.
“Having said that, the leopard is stealthy, fast, powerful and it isn’t afraid. It’s not the most powerful cat in the African bush, that’s the lion without a doubt. But sometimes you can scare a lion away and you can’t scare a leopard. If you have a problem with a leopard then you’ve really got a problem. That’s what I like about the leopard.”
Can you tell us about the moment when the bear suddenly appeared 20 feet away from you and the crew?
“Well if you stand still there’s no problem. I was looking at the bear and he seemed fine. He could see we were there and he wasn’t bothered. Then all of a sudden I noticed he wasn’t so comfortable. I turned round and someone behind me was moving. I had to say to the crew “You’re standing behind me, stand absolutely still. Things change and an animal can change its mood very quickly.”
It was amazing to see the emotional reaction you had when a wolf died who you were tracking.
“Well, yes I think the wolf is a really noble animal and it was an emotional experience. I don’t particularly have any issues with the State of Idaho wanting to control the numbers and I think that’s necessary. But I do think that if you are going to control the numbers of an apex predator like the wolf, there should be much tighter control and management of that situation. To let people go and hunt them without guidance is just very disrespectful.”
What’s the most surprising thing you found out whilst making the programme?
“I was surprised at the speed at which the wolves have re-established themselves in the wild. In 1995 there were 35 wolves released and now there are over 800. That’s really magnificent and I didn’t think it would be possible.
“It just shows you what hope there is for the future and how we may be able to improve things. We live in a time when more creatures are becoming extinct at a faster rate than since the dinosaurs disappeared. We must look to see how we can put things right.”
When did your interest in wildlife and animal tracking first begin?
“At a very young age. I would have been six, maybe younger. My real interest began when I was given a guide to animal tracks and signs for Christmas. That winter we had snow, much like this year. So I started following tracks in the snow. The great thing when you first start out is that everything you find is a treasure. I’ve never stopped since.”
Your skills are quite rare, how have you got them to such a high level?
“Through perseverance mostly. But also I’ve had the amazing opportunities of tracking with Aborigines, Kalahari bush men and people in the rain forests. I’ve worked with last elders of the indigenous groups around the planet who use these skills on a daily basis.
“When you work with them you see what’s possible. So when you come back home you start doing things you didn’t think were possible before.”
What is your top tip for tracking wildlife in this country?
“Go and watch it as often as possible. You can’t follow an animal if you haven’t watched it. You need to watch them as much as you can. If you just look at tracks all you will see are the tracks and not the animal that made them. The more you watch the animal, the more you understand about it. And the better your tracking skills will be.”
Why should people watch the programme? What will they get if they tune in?
“We got incredibly close to the animals, the bears in particular. We were so close to them as they were feeding. So you get this up close and personal view of nature, which you don’t get when everything is shot on a long lens.
“We relied on a high degree of field craft to film these things and I think it shows. Of course I was supported by two fantastic wildlife cameramen – they were amazing. I’m not sure they truly believed in the tracking to start out but they do now.
“Each episode was shot in around 10 days, so it shows you what’s possible. If we can find what we shot in such a short space of time then maybe we can give the viewer some inspiration to go out and make discoveries locally.”