‘Squirrel’s quite nice ... fox tastes awful’ – Learning to survive in the wild

You must slow down to nature’s pace, be able to make fire, and be prepared to eat anything


Eight people are walking through the trees in the National Heritage Park in Wexford to take a survival skills workshop run by Shayne Phelan of Eagle Ridge Survival. He is a likable bearded man with a bandana on his head, an army surplus jacket with “Instructor” lettered on the breast, and a lot of tattoos including the words “dead” and “lift” across his knuckles.

As we walk, Shayne stops sporadically to point out plants of note – garlic, ginger, a mushroom that will kill, a mushroom that may cause stomach ache and hallucinations, plantain which is a panacea for many health problems, some plants which are edible, and Water-dropwort Hemlock, which is not edible at all. “It’s the most poisonous plant in Ireland,” he says.

“If we need to murder someone we can come back,” chuckles Brenda Forrest, an acupuncturist and homeopath who already knows how to spin yarn, grows vegetables and owns a flint (for fire-making purposes).

“Careful,” says Shayne. “There’s a journalist here.”

Brenda is not the only person who has some prior experience. Sarah Smith, here with her daughter Lindsey Murphy, recently did a course on seaweed foraging.

“Regardless of what your reason to be here today is,” says Shayne, “I will teach you with the same integrity that your life could depend on. Hopefully everyone will leave here today with a good understanding of what it actually requires to stay alive. And they’ll also have a good understanding of how delicate as a biological structure we actually are and how we can actually end up in a lot of trouble very, very quickly.”

We reach a clearing in the trees where we sit in a circle on chopped logs as Shayne tells us about his own credentials. He’s been hunting, fishing and falconing since childhood. “I was a feral kid at school,” he says. “My teacher [once] heard something from my bag and when he put his hand in to investigate he was bitten by a ferret. I had jackdaws who used to follow me to school. I was just that sort of weird kid. You’d never guess, right?”

In 1986, he read two books that changed his life: The SAS Survival Handbook by Lofty Wiseman, and Bushcraft by Mors Kochanski. Kochanski, who died recently, is his idol.

Solar flare

Survivalism, as Shayne describes it, is slow, methodical and about being prepared for the worst. While Phelan doesn’t rule out the possibility of a solar flare knocking out all our electronics or World War III destroying our supply chains, he thinks it’s far more likely that his students will need these skills if they sprain an ankle when alone on a mountain walk.

“Survival [scenarios] almost always happen when the day starts out like any other day,” he says. “Survival is 90 per cent psychological.”

Shayne fasts for 72 hours once a month in order to prepare himself for hunger. He does a dry fast for 24 hours every other month to inure himself to thirst. “There’s a rule of threes,” he says. “We can survive for three minutes without oxygen. We can survive for three hours without shelter.” Shelter in this context includes appropriate clothing. “We can survive three days without water... and we can survive three weeks without food.”

He starts by talking about the importance of shelter. Even on a warm day in Ireland, he says, if you were wet and injured you could become hypothermic. He is currently dressed in cotton, he tells us, and because cotton cools you down, he’s “dressed for death”.

For an Irish climate he swears by wool clothing. “Four hundred million sheep can’t be wrong. Wool maintains 80 per cent of its insulator properties when totally submerged in water. All those fisherman off the west coast – they know something.”

“That’s my only survival skill,” says Brenda. “I’m a spinner.”

“When we’re making fishing nets you’ll be flying,” says Shayne.

He carries several items with him everywhere he goes – a good knife, a small torch, a military poncho, a whistle (three blasts is an international distress signal) an,d because fire is so important, a military-grade lighter, a second plastic lighter, a ferrocenium rod and a second smaller ferrocenium rod. “[The survivalist] Corey Lundin says, ‘If you don’t carry sh*t in your pockets, you end up with sh*t in your pants.’”

Every day Shayne  practises making a fire with a primitive bow drill. He demonstrates this for us now and generates an ember in minutes. Once we have fire, he says, we can get warm and make water drinkable by straining it through some cloth then boiling it. He also carries a bottle of 2 per cent iodine and says that five drops of this into water strained through cloth will make it drinkable in the absence of a heat source. In Ireland, he says, there is nearly always some fresh water to be taken from a stream, dug from the ground or transpired from plants.

Urine-drinking ways

“What about urine?” asks Caroline, an alternative medicine practitioner from Limerick.

Shayne sighs. “I knew Bear Grylls would come up,” he says. He has no time for Bear Grylls and his showboating, urine-drinking ways. “He’s not a survivalist... How do you die within the first 20 minutes? Do what Bear Grylls does. We never drink our own urine. I mean, whatever you’re into in your own time, but it’s waste products – poison our body has decided to get rid of.”

It turns out Caroline (not her real name) actually has drunk urine, while doing a course on “urine therapy”. “I felt great afterwards,” she tells me later. She’s here because she believes that society may collapse at some point soon and wishes to be ready.

She believes the Irish Government is corrupt and lying to the people about the nature of the pandemic and that things are going to get ugly sooner than we think. “I’ve been following this whole thing very closely,” she says. “We should all be stocking up... Just put a bit aside every month.”

Shayne doesn’t have that much time for prepping. “Prepping is just a buzzword for storage,” he tells me. “And the one thing these [preppers] aren’t prepping is their skills. No matter how much you store, sooner or later it will need to be replenished. You could even make yourself a target for having so much stuff. Ultimately, if you want to go down the route of prepping, become a farmer.”

He thinks there’s a lot of posing done by so-called survivalists who enjoy running through the woods “like Rambo”. The only reason to run in a survival situation in Ireland, he says, is if you hear rescuers or your fire is going out. “In survival everything slows down, and we move with the pulse of nature. Apart from everything else, [slowness] makes sense because we burn less calories.”

For now, we’re making fire. Beyond its warming, cooking and water-purifying properties, says Shayne, “it’s caveman TV. You never have to change the channel and you always know what’s on...When you manage to make fire and hear that cracking, it’s like winning the lottery.”

He distributes knives and shows us how to make feather sticks – sticks feathered with tiny curls of wood at one end to help kindle a fire. He spends time on knife safety, telling a story about a survivalist he knows who accidentally embedded his knife in his knee. And the last thing you want in a survival situation, he says, “is to be bleeding from a major artery”.

Coconut oil

He shows us how to make a fire with a pile of these feather sticks, a spark from a ferrocenium rod and an “ember extender” like char paper or, even better, cotton wool soaked in coconut oil. He carries six of the latter in an old camera roll – he was once a photojournalist – and they double up as anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal agents. He has a thrifty love for things with more than one function.

Neil O’Grady, a firefighter, has been watching a lot of YouTube videos on how to make fire. “I have an eight-year-old, and I was trying to transfer a few things and then I realised that I didn’t know half of this myself.” Neil says he thinks that modern man misses being out in nature and “has a need to feel like prehistoric man.”

Is that why he’s here? He laughs. “Yeah.”

Engineer Eoin Murphy, on the other hand, is the most modern of modern men and got the course as a Father’s Day present. “The last thing you need in a survival situation is someone who can work a computer,” he says.

Does he think his family is trying to toughen him up? “Maybe. I think it says a lot that my wife told me that I needed to bring a packed lunch to a survival course.”

At this point I have to go fetch the photographer from the entrance to the heritage park and get lost for 20 minutes. When I return the photographer is already there and everyone is amused by my inability to survive even the short trek to the visitors’ centre.

Next Shayne shows us how to efficiently cut branches and how to make rudimentary deadfall traps with which to catch rats and squirrels. We move on to “cordage” – how to make usable twine/rope by entwining strands of cordyline or nettles – and later he shows us how to whittle a fishing “gorge hook”.

It’s a pleasant, pragmatic and information-filled course. It’s very enjoyable. But Shayne also teaches a course in which he takes people into the Wicklow hills for 72 hours with just a poncho, water bottle, knife and ferrocenium rod each. “No tent. No food.”

“Netflix?” asks Eoin.

Once when he was in his 20s, Shayne went into the Wicklow hills and survived there for 28 days with just his knife, water bottle and ferro rod. He lost three stone, and the culinary high point was eating a magpie. Some wannabe survivalists, he says, imagine themselves in such scenarios, hunting deer and eating like kings. In reality, on the 72-hour course, people count themselves lucky to eat crow, squirrel, rat, mouse, fox and worms.

“I’d tape a load of Mars bars to my legs,” says Eoin.

Are any of those animals tasty? “Squirrel’s quite nice,” says Shayne. “It’s nutty... Hoppers [young crows] are quite tasty... Rat does not taste well but you can eat it. Fox tastes awful.”

Snakes and crocodiles

Caroline notes that where she previously lived in the US, there were dangerous animals like “snakes and crocodiles”.

Shayne laughs. “I consider that an extended menu.”

“My wife’s vegetarian,” says Eoin. “How do you catch wild tofu?”

There are plenty of edible plants out there, says Shayne, but in a survival scenario you have to be willing to eat anything you can get. He shows us how to make fishing nets and tells us that these nets can also be used to trap birds like wood pigeon. “We get loads of wood pigeons in our garden,” says Lindsey.

“Not for much longer,” says Eoin.

A lot more women have been doing Shayne’s courses in recent years. He thinks women often have a better attitude. “Some young men get this idea, ‘Yeah, I’m going to beat the sh*t out of nature’.” He sighs. “You will not beat the sh*t out of nature.”

He wants us to respect nature and its dangers. He thinks if we really care about the environment, we should immerse young people in it from a young age. “Because nobody wants to destroy what they love.”

Anyway, I’m now pretty sure that I’d be dead within hours of a survival event. If not for my fellow survivalists I would have got lost a second time on the way back from lunch (smoked salmon on brown bread in the heritage park’s restaurant, not magpie or rat caught in a deadfall trap).

The course reinforces all the things I take for granted: readily available food and water, string, fire, good shoes. For Shayne Phelan, this is partly the point. He’s not, he says, one of those “apocaloptimists, hoping for an apocalypse”. He truly hopes none of us ever need the skills he teaches. But he would like if it gave us a respect for nature and an understanding of how dependent we are on each other and wider society.

“Covid really showed the fragility of society and the weakness of modern man and woman,” he says. “If you think about what past generations had to do to secure their existence. We were asked to stay at home on the couch and watch telly and people still had difficulty six weeks in.”

Shayne Phelan can be contacted via his website eagleridgesurvival.com

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