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).

'...unthinking mankillers...'

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.

'...ecological boredom'