From Hollywood to the Wilderness – an Interview with Mike Tomkies
Mike Tomkies was born in 1928, and following a period serving in the Coldstream Guards became a journalist, landing interviews with stars such as Elvis Presley, John Wayne, Ava Gardner and many more. After moving to the wilderness in Canada and later writing of his experiences there he emerged as one of the greatest nature writers of his generation, filming and studying wildlife from his Scottish base as well as time spent in Spain. He is an expert on the Scottish Wildcat and Golden Eagle, although his study species have ranged from large mammals to garden birds. He is currently a Patron of the ‘Wildcat Haven’ conservation project and an Honorary Fellow of the Zoological Society of Scotland. It has been a great experience to be able to interview someone who has greatly influenced and inspired my career, and I can’t recommend his books highly enough for anyone looking to work in conservation.
What drove your desire to switch from show business journalism to live in the Canadian wilderness and become a naturalist?
At the age of thirty eight, I was a successful world-travelling show business columnist in Fleet Street but I was also working on an ambitious novel which I hoped would free me from journalism so I could fulfil my initial ambition to be a writer. As the main action of the novel was centred in London, where I was finding city life most onerous, I thought vaguely of emigrating to Canada so I could better focus on my writing. The beautiful actress Alexandra Bastedo and I fell in love in 1965 but when she landed the much-sought female role in the TV series ‘The Champions’ her contract stated she could not marry for three years. We both decided I should go to Canada, get the novel out of my system, then come back and see how things stood between us.
I flew to Vancouver and far up the Pacific coast of British Columbia, built a log cabin and began work on my novel. But, as I laboured away on the book Bald Eagles began nesting in a nearby fir tree, Grizzly and Black Bears roamed the forests behind me and Killer Whales encircled my rowboat when I was fishing. These and other experiences proved to be my ‘many roads back to Damascus,’ and I fell back in love with wild nature just as I had as a boy when my spare time was spent in the fields, woods and hedgerows of Sussex.
After more than three years I returned to Britain with my novel, Alexandra was busy filming, and a brief new stint at showbiz writing convinced me London life was impossible and that I had become a ‘wilderness’ man forever. I moved to an old croft on a sea island in the Scottish Islands, living mainly off the sea and beginning my studies of the wildlife. I realised my experiences in the Canadian wilds may be unique, and the result, Alone in the Wilderness, was snapped up by Reader’s Digest and their begin commissioning articles. I finally found, at age 42, that I could make a living writing about what most interested me. Alexandra and I remained good friends, meeting often over the years, until her tragic death in January this year.
What important lessons have you learnt from out in areas of wilderness with a strong connection to the natural world?
That the wilderness, wild nature, can inspire and uplift the city-flayed spirit of man. As I wrote in the epilogue of ‘Alone in the Wilderness’: “Every time I enter one of the last wild places of this earth, I feel I am walking into a vast hallowed cathedral. I enter timelessness, mystery, the unknown, where one feels nothing has been spoiled since the world began. In the wilderness lies one of the last and finest sources of spiritual inspiration; for great natural beauty is a powerful
creative force for thought. In solitude, even temporary, there often comes a surging re-awakening of ideals that remain submerged during the distractions of everyday life. In the old still silences, intuition, perception, and all the spiritual qualities that distinguish man, that make him able to see himself and the universe in perspective, are enhanced. So many of us need such spiritual insights, the thrill that seeing animals in the wild gives our souls, and also the exhilarations of pure exercise in remote mountains or forested wilderness….”
Over the years, which species would you say has been your favourite to work with?
There are two: Golden Eagles, not only for their sheer majesty and flight powers – the roller-coasting climbs and ‘golden ball’ dives of the male during the courting season are wonderful to see – but their incredible individual behaviour – most males won’t incubate eggs but a few do and are so persistent the female has to shoulder them off the nest. There are the different ways females feed and treat their chicks, teach young to hunt, ‘tell’ males what kind of twig or branch to bring to the nest and so on. Also Eagles, unlike nearly all other birds, have different faces! Second is the Grizzly Bear, again so individually different. I once watched a big male Grizzly sitting on his haunches on a cliff top just enjoying, imbibing the beauty of a spectacular pacific sunset, turning his great head from side to side, in wonder.
Can you recall your most frightening experience working in the field?
Being chased up a tree by a large male Grizzly! My own advice if attacked was – don’t run, as a Grizzly can go as fast as a racehorse over a hundred yards, but to drop flat into the nearest depression in the ground face, hands protecting the back of the neck. But here the ground was flat and I sobbed in terror as I heard the bear’s ‘oofa oofa’ grunting sounds as it charged. I was sure I’d never get to the tree, the first branch over ten feet high, but somehow I made it to the upper branches – hands torn, fingernails ripped and inner knees bleeding. Fearfully, I watched as the
bear reared up the trunk but big Grizzlies have long shallow claws, and unlike Black Bears, are unable to climb. After five minutes, although it seemed longer, the Bear took a last upward look, gave a great frustrated swipe at the trunk with his right paw and then sauntered off. I took as long as the pain and pins and needles would permit, then slid down and made off in the opposite direction.
Another most frightening experience came when I was trekking with my Alsatian tracker dog Moobli and began looking over the edge of a cliff into a new Golden Eagle eyrie. Suddenly, my right foot slipped, but I managed to make a fast, desperate left turn and grab the heathery tussocks at the top of the cliff. But I knew if I hauled hard enough on them to lift myself over they would give way, and I’d be plunging to my death. Moobli was staring down at me so I gasped “Moobli, come here! Pull!” He knew what pull meant and he could tell from my voice this was no game. I managed to raise my elbow, and Moobli grabbed the sleeve of my jacket with his teeth, dug his feet and claws into the heathery turf and heaved. He was so strong I hardly needed my own strength and he hauled me to safety. At home that night he got the best rump steak I’d been saving for myself while I ate tinned rubbish.
During your time studying, breeding and filming many rare species, what do you regard as your greatest achievements and discoveries?
It would take me a month of Sundays to research through all my writings and list my discoveries and achievements, minor though the latter may be. But I’m proud I raised and bred rare Scottish Wildcats and released eight individuals back into the wild. I am also pleased that my detailed research of more than three hundred items of prey brought into eyries, plus my observations in the wild, showed that Golden Eagles alleged predation on live lambs is indeed very rare. Eagles kill a lot of young Foxes which do far more damage to Sheep and farm stock.
As a world renowned expert on the Scottish Wildcat who holds a position as Patron of the ‘Wildcat Haven’ conservation project, what are your hopes for the future of this iconic species?
The biggest problem for Wildcats is hybridisation with feral domestic cats, plus loss of suitable habitat. Unless all cat owners in the Highlands have their cats spayed or neutered, or kept in at night, both unlikely, I don’t see much hope for the pure breed to survive. What we have to do, as I wrote in my book ‘Wildcat Haven’ and practised some thirty five years ago, is breed pure wildcats in captivity in large natural enclosures, and release them into suitably researched wild habitats. Also, enlightened landowners must be encouraged, even paid, to set apart areas of forest and moorland where wildcats now exist, as well as areas where the young from captive breeding could exist. These must be thoroughly protected, even fenced off, against tourists or visitors who do not understand this rare animal’s needs. All this would cost a great deal of money, the Wildcat is shy, secretive and hard to see at the best of times, so who is going to pay?
Which current conservation issue most concerns you?
The over-proliferation of the human race – plundering rainforests, overcrowding once pristine areas, reducing areas for wildlife, polluting the oceans and so on. I referred to the dangers of overpopulation forty five years ago in my book ‘Alone in the Wilderness’. No-one took any notice. Now look at the mess we’re in!
Can you single out your best ever wildlife sighting?
There are so many. I recall a marvellous incident with Golden Eagles when I had taken the well-known naturalist, author and travel writer Brian Jackman on some hard treks for an article he was writing for the Sunday Times. We were taking down one of my hides, when Juno, the female of the pair I’d been filming, came soaring over with a headless Ptarmigan in her talons. She circled, and then landed on a flat rock near the skyline. She appeared to tear at the Ptarmigan for a while, as if opening it up, and then she launched into the air and disappeared. A few minutes later Juno flew back over us, high up, then headed away fast to the east. I said she might have gone to fetch her mate, and shortly she headed back followed by the smaller male. Juno hovered over the Ptarmigan briefly as if showing it to him, and he landed beside it. Then she angled her wings back, went into what I call a ‘jet glide’, and began to move like a meteor across the sky, vanishing over the highest peak seven miles to the north, going over the territory of two other Golden Eagle pairs.
When we looked back we saw another Eagle soaring over the skyline almost directly over the Ptarmigan. It had white wing patches, undoubtedly the Eaglet. Then we were treated to one of the finest sites I’d ever witnessed in wild mountain nature. The male rose effortlessly into the air until he was beside the Eaglet, then both hung in the air like a pair of giant bats. He seemed to be trying to teach the youngster a certain manoeuvre. After bending his wings back he spread out the front alula feathers, designed to smooth air flow over the wings, spread his tail feathers like a fan and then descended slowly onto the Ptarmigan. The Eaglet copied every movement, before landing beside him. It appeared the male was teaching the youngster to hunt, and the Eaglet watched him in the air, descending and hitting the Ptarmigan with great force. The Eaglet understood what was required, hitting the Ptarmigan and feeding on the next attempt. The male watched and flew off in the same direction as Juno had gone. As we lowered our binoculars and congratulated each other, Brian told me I ought to buy a movie camera. A few weeks later – I did.
In your latest book, Running Wild, you cover the years since you returned from Spain. Do you have any further writing and filming plans?
No. After twenty one books and twelve wildlife films, none of which were started before my early forties, I believe, now I’m in my eighty seventh year, that I’m entitled to a rest. I am therefore retired, but I am fiddling with a South Downs Wildlife film which may, or may not, get finished.
What is your best piece of advice for budding naturalists and wildlife writers of the future?
Get out into the fields, woods and hills all you can. Try to find out early what you really want to do. Follow your dream, in spite of early failure and what it costs you. Always pay great attention to detail and keep a diary, all my books were quarried from my diaries, and trust your instincts, no matter what ‘seniors’ may tell you.
Many thanks go to Whittles Publishing, for their help in arranging the interview and to Mike Tomkies, for providing a real insight into his work in the interview.
Watch a video interview with Mike Tomkies for the film ‘Last of the Scottish Wildcats’ is available through YouTube:
About the author
James Walker holds a degree in Wildlife and Practical Conservation from the University of Salford, and since then has worked in forestry, completed an internship with the RSPB and conducted bird surveys for Manx BirdLife. He is currently a countryside ranger for the Greensand Trust. His future ambitions are to develop the skills required to manage important conservation projects and continue to build a profile as a wildlife writer.