It was time once again for a wander in the wild. Kacper had told us about a kingfisher he’d seen on the River Caldew, so Zahrah and I met him in town and we set off. I’ve had two kingfisher sightings both in Cumbria, one with my camera one without. I managed to get the speedy bird in frame for one of my shots, but I wanted to slightly improve on an indistinct electric blue blur this time.
It was so refreshing seeing the first signs of spring. Little pops of colour speckled the green grass as snowdrops and crocuses stretched out of the cold, hard ground – dainty little warriors taking on the end of winter.
We were met at the river by a smoky grey guardian – a feathered old man that stood hunkered up at the top of a tree. The heron surveyed his river with grumpy indifference. Zahrah is under the impression that these birds are beautiful. While I can’t quite agree on that, they are a spectacular looking species that always draw my attention, whether they’re sat slouched on a branch or flapping through the air with spindly dangling legs.
After leaving the heron behind I spotted the elusive kingfisher, so we followed it along the river bank as best we could. In the meantime, Zahrah had a play with medium format film, and attracted a couple of inquisitive mute swans.
Despite the slow emergence of spring, it still got bitterly cold and before long the light began to fade. We were just about to head for home when another flash of blue shot across the water. Hurrying across the bridge, we staked out the riverbank and managed to spot the kingfisher resting amongst the scrub. It’s still not the best kingfisher photo ever taken, but it’s a vast improvement on my last – you can even see it’s an animal this time!
There’s nothing more fun than looking through past hard drives and finding old photos. Most of the gems I find are too embarrassing to mention, but I was looking through my photography from years ago and stumbled across a photo story I created for a university application. At the time I was fiercely proud of it, and even now I enjoyed seeing the images again.
The brief stated we needed to tell a story in ten images. I chose to visit Ashridge Park in Hertfordshire and told the story of a morning. I hoped to capture the wildlife awakening and the day beginning. At the time it was midway through winter, so the frost gave me ample photographic opportunities, as well as some other sporting volunteers who came out to say hello.
Last Wednesday my boyfriend and I had a free day, so decided to go for a hill walk in the Lakes. As we scooted along the M6, the weather transformed from dry, drizzly to snowy. The experience felt like we were being transported through time. After having some lunch in Windermere, watching Goosanders and an array of swans and geese paddle by the water’s edge, we headed off into the wilderness.
What I find most magical about snow is the tranquillity that accompanies it. An almost eerie silence settles over the landscape, and even breathing sounds deafening. As we pulled on hats and gloves, I couldn’t stop gazing at the formidable rolling hills and dry stone walls dusted in icing sugar. It was bizarre to think that back in Carlisle, we hadn’t had a flake of snow, and here the scenery was thick with it.
We followed the sheep up the hill, who were far more sure-footed than I. Despite my horrendous balance, I only ended up falling on my face twice, which I considered an achievement. Every so often I couldn’t help but stop and drink in the landscape before me, spread out like an unrolled map. The vibrant blue sky against the pearly white hills looked like an illusion, too perfect to be real. For a moment I was ridiculously proud of my country, impressed with the magnificence of little old England. So many people shoot off abroad to enjoy stunning scenery, and don’t appreciate what they have a short drive away.
It really did feel like a different world up there, with only the sheep for company. At one point we stumbled across a set of vertebrae lying in the snow, presumably from an unlucky sheep. It was a bizarre find, but captivating all the same.
The ascent was a challenge, but worth every slip and stumble for the view from the top. Due to a threatening white-out that had already claimed a nearby peak, we refrained from climbing very high, but the sight was still breathtaking at six hundred metres . Even without the beautiful covering of snow, the contrasting textures and rich colours had me snapping away like a photographer possessed. Eventually the time came to make our slow descent back to the road. Although thoroughly puffed out, I was beaming ear to ear after my adventure.
To broaden my understanding of the conservation work that is going on around me, I visited Langholm Moor in Dumfries and Galloway. The moor is a man-made habitat and has been completely deforested. It is home to an ongoing project to resolve the controversy regarding raptors and grouse. Grouse shooting is the main source of income for the site, and raptors such as the Red-listed Hen Harrier are being persecuted for predating on multiple grouse species. I got to meet Simon Lester, one of the site’s gamekeepers until his recent retirement. He showed me round the site and explained some of the problems the moor is experiencing.
The Demonstration Project on the moor aims to restore “grouse moor management… as a way of meeting the conservation objectives of the site” (Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, 2010). There are several elements to the programme:
The habitat will be controlled using measures such as heather burning, heather restoration and control of livestock and feral goats. The heather is burnt down for several reasons. Simon explained that the grouse can only feed on heather when it is cut short. Also, heavy grazing from livestock in past years has severely reduced the quality of the heather that grows on the moor, so it is regularly reseeded and sprayed with fertiliser. I asked Simon how he controls the burning process, as it seems an extreme way to manage heather growth. In response, he said burning is a lot easier than cutting, but occasionally they do lose control of the flames. The process needs to be carefully planned and carried out over time in a mosaic pattern, so as to keep a variety of heather plots of different ages.
There are now no sheep present on the moor, but a small population of feral goats remains. In past years a mass culling of some four hundred individuals was carried out, leaving two hundred goats remaining. While the population size has now undoubtedly increased since then, goats are a lot less damaging to vegetation than sheep who, to quote George Monbiot, leave the habitat “sheep-wrecked” (Monbiot, G., 2013).
Another part of the project involves controlling populations of predators that prey on the grouse. While common species such as foxes, crows and stoats are culled on site, protected species such as the hen harrier are unaffected. Simon showed me a snare used to trap foxes. By law, the snares need to have stops fitted, which lock the snare mechanism and avoid strangling the animal. Simon makes a daily round of some three hundred snares, and shoots any trapped foxes he finds. This is a more humane approach to dealing with the problem, a combination of the stop-fitted snares and a quick death.
Measures to control disease amongst grouse have been put into place on the moor. Simon explained how birds such as grouse digest the fibrous food they eat by swallowing grit found naturally on moorland. To combat the nematode worm Trichostrongylus, which has a devastating effect on grouse numbers, gamekeepers provide the birds with medicated grit, which protects them against infection and prevents crashes in populations. However, as stated on the Raptor Persecution Scotland blog (2015), grouse often deposit faecal matter in the grit boxes, which can result in the spreading of disease. When I visited Langholm Moor, there was faeces present in the box Simon showed us, suggesting perhaps that there are flaws to the plan and in fact disease can still be spread even with the medicated grit.
Another measure to conserve the grouse on the moor is diversionary feeding. This involves providing food for nesting hen harriers to deter them from predating on grouse chicks. For the first two to three months of the breeding period, gamekeepers provide carrion – namely rats and cockerel chicks from nearby farms – for the harriers to lessen grouse predation. This seems effective, but Simon told us the technique doesn’t actually affect grouse numbers, as the population tends to decrease in winter not summer. Therefore, the expense required to feed the harriers seems largely wasteful, if there is no measured improvement in grouse stock.
So where does Simon want the project to go? He wants to see all buzzards killed, as the species is so abundant. The priority on the moor is grouse, and any species that threatens its wellbeing is either culled or, in the case of the protected hen harrier, discouraged from including grouse in their diet.
After visiting Langholm Moor, I am left with mixed feelings. Simon seemed such a passionate naturalist with knowledge of a broad range of species, yet he supports the death of a native British species for sport. The grouse that are shot on the moor are left where they fall, not even eaten. I am not a vegetarian, and believe that we as a race were designed to eat meat, but killing animals for the pleasure alone is a travesty. How different is this to poaching lions? Money changes hands, a bullet is fired. Perhaps I have not yet grasped the full intentions of the Langholm Moor Demonstration Project, but from what I have learnt on the trip and during my research for this post, I have come to the conclusion that sustaining an area of upland moor by shooting a species that lives in it, seems a very sad way to maintain our country’s biodiversity. It just goes to show how little our government cares for wildlife, when grouse shooting is the only source of income for a site of nature.
Although humans damage the natural world, there is evidence of companionship between mankind and the animals we endanger. In a TED talk (2011), photographer Paul Nicklen described how a leopard seal repeatedly attempted to feed him penguins. This inspired me to research other examples of this behaviour.
Gregory Colbert’s film Ashes and Snow (2002) contradicts everything we believe about wild animals. Elephants and cheetahs become tranquil beings that share their world with humans. I wanted to replicate this unique take on wildlife photography.
I photographed Sika deer – “introduced to Britain… 100 years ago” (Ratcliffe, 1987) – and Fallow deer at the Scottish Deer Centre (SDC), a site of “environmental education and research” (Scottish Deer Centre, 2011). Visitors could hand-feed the deer, so my story is based on this mutual trust.
Establishing shot – Large depth of field
This shot introduces the main subject. The large f-stop meant both deer and the background were in focus. I crouched for a low angle shot. This emphasised the stag’s dominance but he was backlit – the bright sky darkened his features. In response, I dimmed the sky and lightened his head in post-production.
Detail shot – Shallow depth of field
A large aperture eliminated distraction from the background and accentuated texture to avoid a dull, two-dimensional shot. With a small f-stop, the shutter speed needed to be slower for correct exposure. A tripod eliminated camera shake, producing a crisp image.
Filler shot – Slow depth of field
This is the beginning of the interaction. I wanted to portray movement using a slow shutter speed, without over-distorting the subjects. I captured a stationary deer in the foreground, forming contrast between clear and blurred individuals. My shutter speed should have been slightly faster – the stationary deer is still hazy.
Closing shot – Fast shutter speed
The feed was the story’s conclusion. I used a fast shutter speed to catch when the deer took the food from the visitor’s hand, and emotion in the subject’s expression. I would choose better composition for this shot – it appears imbalanced with the human subject positioned too far to the left.
Some of my ideas for this project were altered. During winter, the talks I planned to attend at the SDC weren’t running. For the small aperture image, I wanted to photograph visitors watching the tour guide, for intricate detail. However, a close-up of the food seems more fitting to the story, as food was what encouraged the interaction between the deer and the public.
I like the theme I chose, exploring the relationships between animals and humans. I want to find more cases of this interaction being photographed but from a negative viewpoint, such as the damaging relationship African farmers have with leopards killing their livestock. This would develop my research so I can appreciate both sides of the story instead of just the positive argument, which is what I wanted to see.
To capture people interacting with shy animals, it was necessary to use captive individuals, as wild ones wouldn’t usually approach humans. I want to photograph contact with wild animals, to see how the story might unfold differently. After seeing Gregory Colbert’s work I’ve learned that, with trust, a relationship can be formed with any animal.