Ray Mears likes to practise what he preaches. So much so that it takes a few days to track him down to talk about his new series, Wild France, because he’s already back in France, binoculars at the ready.
“I’m sitting in the Païolive forest, talking to you under the evergreen oaks,” he chuckles when he answers his mobile. “I’ve come back for a short holiday to some of the places I filmed in.”
Following his series about Australia, Wild France zooms in on the flora and fauna of the Alps, the Ardèche Valley, Brittany and the Camargue river delta in Provence, and gets up close to some spectacular wildlife – including a bone-eating bearded vulture.
In episode one, Mears spies a rare ibex in the Vanoise National Park in the shadow of the French Alps
“I’ve tried to get ITV to make a series in France for four years,” he explains. “France is a stunning country and very wild. The land area is twice Britain’s with the same population, but if you take into account the folds in the country, it’s nearer three times the land surface area. They have many things in abundance that we would consider rarities because they have so much wonderful habitat.”
Mears has been exploring France’s untamed corners since his early 20s, when he used to go climbing in the Alps. “I fell in love with the Alpine meadows. Gosh, Alpine meadows! You have to see one to realise just how rich and lovely they are. A couple of days ago, my wife, Ruth, and I were watching a roe deer across this sea of bistorts and lady’s mantle. We also saw a majestic golden eagle being mobbed by a kestrel. The kestrel had obviously just lost one of its chicks or maybe even its mate. It was fantastic to watch.”
His idea of a good holiday is exactly what you’d expect. Every morning, he and Ruth pack a picnic and head into the hills. “I love to sit and watch. It’s sunny, it’s relaxed and it’s nice to see things. There’s so much to learn. One lifetime isn’t enough when you’re interested in nature.
“I’ve got a stove in the back of the car so I can make a hot drink, and camping gear. I’m not camping on this trip, but if I have to I can. Lunch will be some tomatoes in some very good French olive oil. Leave them in the sun, add some wild thyme picked from the roadside and you’ve got a salad. It’s so easy.”
By the time I caught up with him in the evergreen forest, he’d moved on from the Alps to his favourite place in France: the Ardèche valley in the south-west corner of the Rhône-Alpes region, which is home to the river of the same name, beavers and dramatic limestone gorges.
Mears canoes down the canyons of Gorges de l’Ardèche in episode two
“I love the Ardèche river – imagine the Grand Canyon with a wonderful river running through the middle of it. I think it’s my favourite place in the world to canoe. When I brought the crew here, they were a little dubious. Then we spent a day on the river filming and they couldn’t believe it. They felt like they’d been to the Lost Kingdom.
“You’ve also got the cliffs, which are nesting sites for raptors and swifts and so on, and then on the top you’ve got the primeval Païolive forest. So it’s a fantastic environment full of nooks and crannies for creatures to live and raise their young. All of that plus a Mediterranean climate and limestone soil, so the plant life and tree life are wonderful as well.
“And it’s not just about the wildlife. There are lots of authentic medieval villages here, like Balazuc and Vogüé, which are just stunning. I don’t think anyone comes to the Ardèche and isn’t deeply moved by it.”
So what’s the perfect end to a day in the wilderness – a glass of wine from one of the excellent local vineyards?
“No, it’s nice still to be watching, because evenings are when things come out. We haven’t yet been looking for a wild boar. I’m sure we’ll do that at some point.”
In Ray’s backpack…
You will find… a spotting scope as well as binoculars. “Looking up at cliffs from some distance away, you spot things, then identify them with binoculars. But with a spotting scope [a portable telescope], instead of eight times magnification, you have 50 to 60.
You won’t find… a camera. “To photograph wildlife, you need to get very close. We do that when filming, very carefully, but generally approaching too closely disturbs the wildlife. That’s what our memories are for.”
Wild France with Ray Mears begins on Monday 11th July at 8pm on ITV
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