When it comes to men who know how to navigate untamed wildernesses, you can’t really go wrong with Ray Mears. The TV bushcraft hero has the ability to survive for weeks out in the wilds of forests, deserts and jungles armed only with an encyclopaedic knowledge of nature, and a sackful of survival skills. So who better to answer the question: could you eat literally nothing but wild plants and survive, or would your civilised principles make you prey, rather than predator?
RISING We were having an argument in the office the other day and you’re the man to solve it – is it possible to survive in the wild, in a temperate climate, as a vegan?
RAY MEARS ‘Overall I think a vegan can survive, but an already tough challenge of bushcraft – and by that I mean the bigger adaption to an environment and learning to live and thrive in the wild, whereas survival is literally about surviving – has been made a whole load more difficult there… but it’s interesting to suppose someone can comfortably get by on a vegetarian or vegan diet for a good length of time. Some of that is down to the fact vegetation isn’t mobile and the only thing stopping someone from finding food is their own creativity and imagination – put another way, they don’t need to outrun or snare their lunch! But you would need an environment that provided a strong mix of fruits, vegetables, seeds certainly, and some climates simply wouldn’t provide for comfortable vegan bushcraft.’
RISING Which wild plants provide protein?
RM ‘Well, nuts are the most obvious source of protein if you can find them. Mainly in the UK you’re talking about sweet chestnuts, hazelnuts and walnuts, and these are all quite distinguishable by their plants. There are other nuts that grow, but generally the nutritional rewards you glean from them are too small to make their excavation worthwhile. In terms of other plants, anything like spinach or asparagus will be good. I’d suggest broccoli and cauliflower as well, but for the fact they can’t really be described as wild. The things to ensure you don’t waste your time on would be mushrooms and fungi – not only don’t they contain as much protein as you would imagine, but selecting the wrong one could spell danger!’
RISING Are there any gaps in wild vegan nutrition (apparently gorillas eat dung for B12)?
RM ‘Well I think the perception is often that vegan living needs to revolve around an avoidance of meat, and an obsession with vegetables and fruit. As an extremely useful alternative, even if it does require fire to be made, there are excellent breads and biscuits that can be made from corn and seeds, which provide good nutrition and will comfortably last for two or three days tucked into a bag, something that’s essential for someone on the move.’
‘I do like burdock, you have to really dig down for it but it’s a solid meal’
RISING What advice can you give for sustainable vegan foraging?
RM ‘Much the same as I would say to someone out hunting for a meal. Ultimately, it comes down to knowledge of your environment, always. When you learn about nature your perspective on it changes. You can take a situation that people might consider threatening and turn it around so that you feel comfortable there. A lot of foraging comes down to the safe identification of what you intend to eat. Don’t pick next to roadsides or dig down if you sense fertilisers may have been used on the soil. Look around to glean clues from other plants, and never take more than you need, always being respectful of other ecosystems.’
RISING What’s the single most useful wild plant?
RM ‘I’m not sure about useful, but certainly in terms of versatility I do like burdock. You have to really dig down for it, but you get a long, tasty root that can be eaten raw, boiled or fried. It’s a solid meal.’
RISING Are we losing contact with our survival instincts?
RM ‘No, I actually think we’re getting them back. Right from when I first started ‘Woodlore’, a school of Wilderness Bush Craft, at the age of 19, it has been a thrill for me seeing others as engaged in the outdoors as me. My approach has always been to ‘pass it on’ and offer classes to others. There’s a huge world out there to be explored, and despite such an incredible wealth of distractions that the modern world provides, I still think there’s an inherent passion in people to enjoy the open air and what’s around them, and that’s fantastic.’
RISING Do you get lonely when you’re on your trips?
‘Not at all. I’ve never minded being alone and, in fact, I prefer it when I’m out in the wild by myself. It’s much easier to concentrate and appreciate what’s around you when you’re on your own. Some people just prefer their own company, and I’m one of them. Not always, of course, but being out in the wild is a special thing for me, and I enjoy the opportunity to reflect. It’s nice to get some peace and quiet away from what is a chaotic world.’
RISING So do you think people who rely on those creature comforts, having everything they need at their fingertips, could survive out in the wild?
RM Yes, absolutely. If I can, so can anyone. As animals ourselves we have those inbuilt survival instincts; some more than others. But when you’re put in a situation that sparks those instincts into life, you’d be amazed what people can manage to do. I believe we can put our minds to anything, and especially when forced into a survival situation.’
‘We can put our minds to anything, especially when forced into a survival situation’
RISING What about the apocalypse ‘preppers’? Do you think we’re heading for any kind of social situation where we might require bushcraft to survive?
RM ‘I don’t like to look too far ahead as I feel we should all just be enjoying life. But no, I can’t see anything that we need to prepare for. Besides, that’s the wrong attitude. We should just be enjoying yourselves and living in the moment.’
THE RISING VERDICT: So, when it comes to surviving as a vegan in the wild, so long as you are fortunate enough to be in a temperate climate with access to sources of vegan protein, such as tubers and nuts, then your principles are safe. In more extreme environments, or in the depths of winter, you might find yourself chowing down on anything remotely edible to survive – even your less hardy companions! Best Buddy Broth, anyone?
WHAT NEXT? Let’s say you were somehow thrust into a survival situation right now – if you didn’t know how to build a fire that wouldn’t a) go out in minutes or b) ignite the entire forest and burn you to a cinder, then you’re not going to live for long enough to even be a vegan. So, watch Ray Mears building one like a boss.