Britain's Absent Predators...
‘You’ll need this’, I was told as I was handed a bright red canister. I tried to work out what it was without looking like that’s what I was trying to do. ‘It’s bear spray’, she said, clearly not fooled.
I was in the Rocky Mountains at the head of a trail. I’d flown over to Canada to meet my now wife’s parents for the first time and we were about to start a hike up a trail near to Lake Louise.
I looked again at the canister. ‘Oh, so I spray it on me?’, I asked. It seemed a reasonable assumption at the time. After all, until that point in my life the only creature I’d ever conspired to deter were mosquitos. The raucous laughter that my question was met with told me that I had indeed made the wrong assumption. Brilliant.
I soon learnt that the canister contained what is essentially pepper spray and that, in the event that we were charged by an angry grizzly, I was to spray it at the bear’s eyes. Of course, this would necessitate waiting for the bear to get close enough for that to be possible. Brilliant.
As we set off up the trail, bear spray holstered coolly on my belt, I felt something that I’d never felt before when starting a hike: trepidation. Out there, somewhere, was an animal that could, if it so pleased, kill me.
This is no exaggeration either. Just a few years before my visit, in the town nearby, a woman had been attacked and killed by a bear on her morning run (think of that the next time you’re running through Richmond Park).
Now, that is not to say that the bears are vicious, unthinking mankillers, mauling hikers and runners for the sheer fun of it - there are many reasons why a bear might feel the need to attack a human and I certainly don’t seek to vilify bears here. Usually it’s after being startled or in protection of their cubs. Generally though – in fact 78% of the time according to a recent study of brown bears – a disturbed bear will either run away or be indifferent to the human in front of it. But nevertheless, the threat is a real one. An eight-foot tall, jogger-killing, real one.
Walking through a landscape in which you might at any moment come across a creature that could kill you should be an unpleasant experience, right? One to be avoided at all costs you might think. Oddly though, as we continued on our hike through the coniferous forests of the lower slopes, more alert to every snap of a branch or rustle in the undergrowth than I ever had been before, I felt no desperate desire to turn back and head for the safety of the car park. The opposite was true, I wanted to press on. I was excited, almost energised by it.
As a Brit alive in the 21st century, I have grown very use to being at the top of the food chain. Our wildernesses no longer harbour any wild, large carnivores. Lynx, wolves and bears – all of which once roamed this island – are long extinct and these days you are far more likely to be licked by a friendly Labrador than you are to be stalked by a hungry cave lion. I think we British take this for granted. In fact, I’d wager that it’s not something very many of us have ever given a first, let alone a second, thought to. We can walk in any forest or through any mountain valley free in the knowledge that, save for perhaps an over-zealous herd of cows or a cider-thirsty wasp, we are highly unlikely to be harmed by a non-human animal. We have come to view this as the natural order of things.
'...dodging imaginary bears...'
After my experience dodging imaginary bears in the Rockies, however, I’m sold on the fact that the wholesale absence of large predators here in the UK is not a good thing, despite what it may mean for our ability to return unharmed and unscathed from our hikes. It is something that once experienced will always be missed.
Aside from the well-documented ecological and environmental benefits bestowed on an ecosystem by so-called keystone predators (for a general gist of these benefits see the much-lauded video on what happened when they reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park), the presence – perceived or otherwise - of large predators in the landscape through which you are walking is immensely fulfilling.
Seeing a bear would be eye-wateringly exciting but there is also an indescribable fulfilment in simply in knowing that you could see one. This theory was borne out on a wild camping trip to the Pyrenees last year. The chances of seeing a brown bear there is, frankly, miniscule (there are about 40 scattered over a landscape that stretches over 430km!) but my enjoyment of our time there was enhanced immeasurably from just knowing that they were out there…somewhere.
I struggled when writing this blog post to find an adjective that accurately describes the feeling of being in a predator-present-landscape (to coin a crude phrase!). ‘Exciting’ or ‘enjoyable’ just don’t really cut it. It is much more than that. Walking through these types of landscapes is to unlock a fourth dimension; to awaken a long dormant part of the genome. The cobwebs on that sixth sense, finely tuned over millions of years of evolution to distinguish a shadow from a sabre-toothed tiger, are blown off. The jigsaw that is our experience of the landscape has found its missing piece. This is the natural order of things.
Environmental journalist and writer George Monbiot talks in great detail about this in his book, Feral: Rewilding Britain (a book I’d urge anyone with even a passing interest in the environment to read). He explains that there are deep, primal instincts within us all that, for want of a better term, crave exposure to environmental dangers; be it the threat of large predators or the daily need to forage or hunt food – all things that, until very recently, were a major part of the Homo Sapiens experience. Monbiot asserts that modern society has developed a kind of ecological boredom and that, in our subconscious quest to relieve it, we willingly take part in evolutionarily counter-intuitive activities such as contact sport, sky-diving or even mountain climbing!
I have found that the mountains indeed have the ability to satiate that primeval desire for ecological excitement. And, whilst there is no threat of large predators in the mountain landscapes of the UK, there is another beast that requires just the same level of hyper-alertness and which stimulates that same dormant survival gene: the weather.
For the city dwelling amongst us (myself included), weather plays a minor role in our day-to-day-lives. It might determine what kind of jacket we wear or whether we drink our pint in or outside of the pub, but that’s about it. When you are in the mountains though, the weather jumps to the foremost part of our ape minds.
Walking along Crib Goch you become finely tuned to every single gust of wind. Is it getting stronger or weaker? Is it constant or is it gusting? Is it blowing us off or onto the ridge? Our inner anemometers (Google it!) awaken and suddenly we can estimate every kilometre-per-hour of wind that whips across our faces. Anyone who has walked across the Cairngorm plateau in the winter will be all too aware of how the weather can fill the void of those missing large predators. And much like the effect of large predators in a landscape, the weather in the mountains does not have to be raging for it to be of concern to us or for us to “enjoy” it. It is the threat, the potential of what the weather might do that unlocks that fourth, fulfilling dimension.
But, of course, much like the threat of bears, there are things we can do to protect ourselves against the gravest effects of the weather whilst we are in the mountains. We can put on a different jacket, we can take a different route - stay low perhaps, or maybe we might choose to summit a different mountain entirely. All things I'd opt for over having to use bear spray!
So, the next time you’re out in the mountains (quite when any of us will be back there who knows?) have a think about what it would be like if there were something bigger, stronger and with much sharper teeth out there. Have a think about the weather and how it affects your psyche as you head up to that summit clagged in opaque mist.
After all, the mountain stories that we retell again and again are the ones where the wind was howling and the frost was biting. I wonder why that is?