On the 8th of September 2014 ITV screened the first in the series of Ray Mears’ Wilderness Walks which was filmed on Dartmoor. His journey began on the ‘Roof of Devon’ better known as High Willhays from where he then moved over to the old target railway on the Okehampton Range. Fortunately he was allowed access to the target shed in which the resides the Second World War range engine named ‘Captain’ and is something one would normally never get to see. The purpose of this engine was to tow a trailer upon which was mounted a target in the form of a tank. The soldiers would then fire at this with a varying armoury of weapons thus gaining vital combat training.
From the military aspect there was a quick mention of Dartmoor prison showing the iconic view that many see from the roadside but few see from within. From the prison there was a quick drive down to Whiteworks for a spot of ‘pony peeking’ with a local farmer – Neil Cole. Not saying anything was staged but by coincidence there was a convenient cute and cuddly twelve hour old foal. The small herd were sensibly grazing on the edge of Fox Tor Mire which did look rather dry on this occasion. As the mire was so prominent in the background it was strange there was no mention of Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles?
From Whiteworks it was a quick trip over to Wistman’s Wood where he found a spot of lunch in the shape of Wood Sorrell, apparently tasting of apple peel. Then came some medicinal lichens and ferns; Usnea from which Usnic acid is obtained and can be used as an antibiotic, anti fungal treatment and a sterile gauze for cuts and wounds. The fern he came across was polypody which apparently when the roots are boiled with milk can relieve sore throats.
So after leaving nature’s equivalent of Boots the Chemist the programme moved to night-time at an undisclosed location somewhere ‘downstream’ of Wistman’s Wood. Unfortunately it was pitch black and hard to determine whereabouts but from a quick shot of a bridge and signpost looked like somewhere around Newbridge? Here John Walters took him in search of Britain’s largest ground beetle – the Blue Ground Beetle, a rare insect found in oak woodlands. Dartmoor’s claim to fame being that a huge percentage of the Blue Ground Beetle population lives on Dartmoor. These creatures spend the daylight hours hiding at the base of mossy trees and then emerge at night in search of their prey, this being tree slugs. So off they went in search of tree slugs which would hopefully then lead them to their predator – the Blue Ground Beetle
The first slug they found was a ‘disco dancing’ Arion or Black Slug. The reason it could be described as a ‘disco dancer’ being that if one strokes its back the slug will sway form side to side. After a bit more searching they then came across a large Ash Back slug which can grow up to 30cm long and would have certainly made a tasty snack for the two women that lived in the ‘Snailey House‘. Eventually the elusive Blue Ground Beetle made an entrance, this beetle was first seen in Britain in 1811. at of all places it the Virtuous Lady mine near Tavistock where it made its debut. It then went walkabouts for many years and was thought to have been extinct. At this time such was the concern as to the beetle’s demise that a handsome reward of £5 was offered to anybody finding one. It was not until 1856 that the next one was found on the edge of Dartmoor but this was not in the best of health and only £3.10 shillings was paid to the finder due to it being badly damaged. If you would like to learn more about the Blue Ground Beetle then visit John Walters’ web page – HERE.
The next day Mr. Mears went in search of the prehistoric and took to the air beginning with some nice aerial shots of Stalldon stone row, the Grey Wethers Circles before landing at Grimspound. In order to show the magnitude of the pound he highlighted the massive entrance stone, shame there was no mention of the incised cross but then I suppose it is not very prehistoric. Then he invited himself into one of the hut circles and partook of a spot of ‘phenomenology‘, trying to imagine what the place was like some 4,000 years ago.
The next port of call was Yarner Woods which was Britain’s first National Nature Reserve, here, along with Malcolm Burgess they went on a search for Wood Warblers. This tiny bird is a migrant from West Africa and is one that is in serious decline. Since the 1990s the population of Wood Warblers has declined by about 63% for some unknown reason. In order to try to understand why, a bird ringing and recording project is in place. It did not take long to find a unrecorded Wood Warbler which thanks to a recording of their song was lured into a mist net. The creature was duly untangled, ringed, weighed and recorded, its weight being a mere 8.2 grams. This revelation prompted one of ray’s typical observations where he compared a jumbo jet flying to West Africa to a small bird weighing 8.2 grams achieving the same fete which when you think about the size of a Jumbo Jet and its fuel consumption proved how utterly amazing nature is.
The programme ended with a summing up on what looked like Combestone Tor which is conveniently placed beside a road. All in all a really excellent programme with superb photography and commentary nicely presented in a down to earth way. It was not overdramatic or sensationalised, well researched and enthusiastically presented by Ray Mears who clearly has a soft spot for Dartmoor. It also admirably portrayed the many diverse aspects that make Dartmoor such captivating and alluring place. The programme is available on the ITV Player up to the 9th of October 2014.
To me Ray Mears is the most iconic of all the outdoors presenters, unlike some he does not partake in death defying stunts and always presents in an informative and enthusiastic way. I can remember a few months ago he partook in Jeremy Vine’s radio programme where he was asked his ideas of what makes us human. In previous weeks numerous eminent artists, academics and thinkers had given their ideas which ranged from the plausible to the ridiculous. In a nutshell, Ray Mears’ basic idea was that ‘fire’ makes us human and separates our species from all other living things. Which as he explained once the fire-making ability had been learnt humans could cook food which meant the dietary range grew and diversified. This in turn may well have increased the size of our brains. Fire also increased the length of the working day providing light during night hours. Fire also enhance the ability to make and improve tools and weapons and later to forge metals. This in turn continued to expand down through the millennia when technology advanced to the stage we are at now. If you would like to hear the whole programme it can be found – HERE.