diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 14, 2018

I've been out for a couple of long walks in the countryside this week. One through the Surrey Hills and the other across Richmond Park (which, although not not technically countryside, in some spots definitely feels like it). On one walk I heard beastly sounds approaching through the trees, which thankfully turned out to be cyclists, and on the other was startled when a deer suddenly rose up from a patch of ferns and ran away. And it struck me how perfectly happy I am to go walking alone, some considerable distance from potential human assistance, because we live in a country where the natural environment doesn't generally kill you.

There are trails in America where hikers have to be alert for a mauling from brown bears. There are forests in Europe where wolves still prowl. There's undergrowth in Africa which might contain a venomous snake or spider, or worse. But the British countryside is generally benign, which is good news if you're walking through it by yourself along remote tracks in areas of dodgy mobile coverage. That's more deepest Surrey than Richmond Park, for the avoidance of doubt.

Here in Britain we tend to be top of the food chain when we're out and about. Foxes aren't generally interested, deer may be large but run away, and the ubiquitous squirrels couldn't be less of a threat if they tried. Rodents aren't of a size to be disturbing, birds don't eat us, and even the UK's only poisonous snake hasn't killed anyone since 1975. Only about 100 adder bites are reported in Britain each year, generally to the feet or ankles, with the most serious injuries confined to people who decided to pick one up. So that's pretty much avoidable.

Farm animals are of more concern, though again not much. Cows are the biggest killers, relatively speaking (and generally cows with calves rather than bulls). An HSE survey confirms a total of 74 fatalities between 2000 and 2015, of which three-quarters involved farm workers rather than walkers. Of the 18 members of the public killed on rights of way, all but one were accompanied by a dog (which is why the official advice is always to let go of the lead in such situations), and 13 of the 18 were over the age of 60. As a fit and healthy dog-free rambler my risk of being trampled or gored to death is exceptionally low.

My bĂȘte noire is dogs - the one land mammal which can persuade me to turn back along a footpath and go another way. Generally it's lively off-leash dogs which give me the willies, especially the "but she's only being friendly" type, and I can still point out the precise four locations within the boundaries of Greater London where a dog has leapt up at me while its owner was elsewhere, or didn't care. In fact the number of deaths from dangerous dogs in the UK only averages about three a year, the majority of these in the home, so I should really calm down and stride on.

More dangerous, it turns out, are bees and wasps. They're responsible for an average of five deaths a year by causing anaphylactic shock, but only to those specifically allergic. The other insects you really want to watch out for in the countryside are ticks, whose bite can pass on Lyme disease, and apparently do so an average of eight times a day. The disease doesn't generally kill but can cause lifetime paralysis and a host of other unpleasantnesses, hence it pays to be careful walking through undergrowth in shorts and socks. According to the signs in Richmond Park, "when you have been out in the park, be sure to check your armpits...", but please don't let that worry you unduly.

I can avoid killing myself in the countryside by not eating strange things, because I am not my grandmother and don't know which berries and fungi are poisonous. I always step carefully when out walking in the middle of nowhere on my own, because a trip or fall could mean curtains, or at least a long wait for someone to notice my seriously injured body. And I don't know if it's just me, but occasionally the thought flashes through my head that "this would be a really bad place to have a heart attack", even if that meant the last thing I ever saw was adorably bucolic.

But the most dangerous mammal to meet in the countryside is obviously other homo sapiens. It's not adders, cows and bees I should be watching out for, but fellow human beings, some of whom are out to cause harm, and some of whom are evil conniving murderers. There again, statistics suggest towns and cities are far more dangerous places to meet one's end courtesy of blade or bullet, so that's no reason to avoid a good walk in the countryside either. Given how safe it is, I'll see you out there again very soon.

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