SURVIVAL expert and naturalist Ray Mears admits he has always been a loner, he is happy on his own in the great outdoors.
“I remember walking across the common where people were playing cricket and somebody shouted out, ‘There’s the local Aborigine’, and I was quite proud. I thought it was cool. I don’t get lonely,” says the man who has fascinated millions with his bushcraft techniques on TV and who brings his new show An Evening With Ray Mears - The Outdoor Life, to the Festival Theatre on 29 September.
“Looking back, I think I strolled into the woods one day and nature saw me and said, ‘Walk this way’,” he continues.
It’s now 30 years since he founded Woodlore, The School of Wilderness Bushcraft, where he teaches his unique skills. He can carve a canoe or a spoon, start a fire without matches, make a shelter of snow and track a wolf... or a man.
“The jungle feels like the nettle patch at the end of the garden and the desert feels like the rockery. A week ago, I was in the desert looking for rattle snakes and scorpions, but that’s normal for me now.”
Even as a young boy, Mears had a quiet confidence. When he took up judo he learned about the meeting of mind and body, and being in control of them.
“It teaches you to have spirit and determination, to not give in. Judo teaches humility and a range of traits that are incredibly valuable in life.”
Over the years Mears’ ability to survive has been tested to the limits, from living among tribes in Africa to encountering snakes and other venomous creatures in the Honduran rainforest, and narrowly escaping death in a helicopter crash while filming in the US. All of which are charted in his autobiography My Outdoor Life.
The son of a printer, Mears spent his first two years of life in Lagos, Nigeria, where his father’s work had been, before the family moved to Kenley, on the Surrey borders.
It was there that his love of nature came into its own. On leaving school he went on expeditions with Operation Raleigh, before joining World magazine as a photographer, later founding his company, Woodlore.
However, when his bushcraft talent was honed for television, he discovered his new-found fame led to a loss of privacy.
“That’s the price you pay,” he reflects. “People come into bushcraft now because they want to make money, or because it’s going to be a neat experience. What they don’t understand is the massive cost, in that you lose your anonymity. But for me, it was worth paying that price because I believe in what I do, and want to bring it to a wider audience.
“I hadn’t realised how widely it would take off and that the programmes would be shown worldwide.”
The hardest job he’s ever had though, was helping police track Northumbrian murderer Raoul Moat, who had gone on the run following a killing spree in 2010.
“I hope it never happens again,” Mears says, shuddering as he admits he was more scared of messing up than of attack from Moat.
But his work in the dense woods - identifying upturned stones, twigs, compressed leaves and other signs of where the killer had been - helped track him down before Moat eventually shot himself.
In the more comfortable world of TV, Mears has just finished filming a series in America on the Wild West for BBC Four, which will go out next year, but says he doesn’t watch other survival shows, such as those presented by Bear Grylls.
“I’m a great believer in television as a medium for communication. I think what Bear Grylls does is entertaining and I have no issue with that, but there are lots of documentaries coming up which create a false sense of jeopardy within the programmes for entertainment’s sake.
“I try to bring people and nature closer together. In the digital age, it’s more important now than ever before,” he adds.
“It’s easy to sit in a concrete building behind a computer screen and not realise that you’re still dependent on nature, that you are an animal, a part of nature, and that your actions on a daily basis influence the natural world that surrounds you.”
• My Outdoor Life, by Ray Mears, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20.
• An Evening With Ray Mears - The Outdoor Life, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 29 September, 7.30pm, £23-£25.50, 0131-529 6000.