Management. That word really gets me going. Land managers of all creeds are obsessed with it. Managing nature – that is selectively controlling which bits we want and which bits we don’t – has become an industry; careers and reputations are built on it. ‘Management’ is of course, a polite euphemism for ‘control’ and there are endless organisations that have at their heart, a constitutional objective to control; to exercise their dominion over nature.
I read with great interest Laurie Campbell’s recent piece in Outdoor Photography magazine. In it Laurie describes the familiar dilemma of revealing to other photographers often hard-won sites of what can be, sensitive subjects. And Laurie is right, to share or not to share, is a dilemma.
For photographers and birders alike there are few species higher on the ‘must-do’ list than capercaillie, the world’s largest grouse and denizen of Scotland’s fragmented pine forests. Sure they are big charismatic birds, but they are also rare and under normal circumstances are unlikely to be seen without a not inconsiderable amount of effort and local knowledge. All of this conspires to make the caper a sought-after subject.
It’s no secret anymore that there is a so-called ‘rogue’ capercaillie in a pine forest near Kingussie – he’s even been on Autumnwatch. Anyone who had a mind to keep his presence a secret (me included) might have got away with it even five years ago, but the speed of information exchange today, ensures that this bird will attract increasing attention for the rest of his life. The big question is whether that attention is detrimental to this particular individual or whether being up close to such an icon of the pinewood, nurtures a greater empathy with the plight of the species as a whole. I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that however regrettable it might be to those who want this bird to themselves, it ain’t going to happen. So should we be thinking about this differently?
There is no doubt that a group of people – photographers, birders or otherwise – surrounding this bird, conjures up the perception of harassment; it looks ugly. But is it detrimental to the caper? I’m no scientist but I’m not sure it is and moreover, does it really matter?
Conservation is a luxury of an affluent society and despite the doom-mongering, we still live in a very affluent society. Shouldn’t we then be exploiting that affluence? How about charging to see the caper? Or at least asking for a donation to a forest conservation charity? Now of course this is a legal, political and cultural minefield but my point is that rather than pretend we can keep such a wildlife spectacle under the hat, perhaps we should be shouting it from the rooftops, inviting in the TV crews and exploiting the opportunity for community engagement, even profit? We’ve all seen RSPB do it successfully with urban peregrines, why not rogue capercaillie?
Ok my cheek is bulging a little from my tongue but it’s the conservatism within conservation that sticks in my craw. The conservation movement cannot on the one hand whip us all into a frenzy about the visual spectacle that is the natural world, and then on the other, deprive us of access to the very best bits – or at least frown upon those who are seen to buck the system. Nobody owns the birds, least of all any single conservation body.
Before my mailbox fills with a deluge of accusations, I’m not advocating recklessness or law-breaking here, I’m not even talking specifically about capercaillie, I’m just suggesting a shift in our mindset to be less precious, less sensitive, less worthy and dare I say, less arrogant about showing people the really sexy stuff that Scotland (or anywhere else) has to offer. If we want their money to put nature back in order, it’s the very least they can expect in return.
The capercaillie is without doubt a fine looking bird. One of the finest. And they’re in trouble. Nobody really knows why but their numbers are perilous; moreover, they are entirely dependent upon a pine forest which itself is fragmented across the Scottish Highlands. Inevitably with such an icon, conservation action is urgent, focused…and expensive. So is this denizen of the wildwood worth all the effort?
Well as with most things that depends on who you’re asking, but the plight of the beleaguered caper has become entwined with the needs of people living in the Cairngorms National Park. This is certainly not a new phenomenon but one that has crystallised recently with a requirement for affordable housing in a local village. The problem? The housing is destined to be built in what many consider to be prime caper forest.
So which species has the greater claim? Personally speaking, I can see both sides and I genuinely don’t know the answer. But let’s put aside the legislative requirement for capercaillie protection on the one hand, and the social needs of the local community on the other. Ecologically speaking, us humans are adaptable creatures and can find shelter in a wide variety of habitats. Unfortunately the same can’t be said about capercaillie. But is it really the end of the world if a few birds get pushed out of their home? No. They will be missed but within the wider scheme of things, it will make little difference. Or will it?
We can nick a bit of forest here, a flower-filled meadow there, a bit of a bog, a piece of moorland – none of it makes much difference here and now, but where do we draw the line? I’d be the first to agree that short-term, our lives will not be significantly affected by the presence or otherwise, of Scotland’s capercaillie. But then we said that about the bear, the lynx, the wolf, the sea eagle, the red kite, the osprey, the beaver and doubtless millions of micro-organisms that have slipped through our fingers. Surely we’ve learned some lessons? If I needed a house in a local village, I might not care about these things, but the irony of this is the desire on the part of everyone living in this village, to secure a future for the next generation. Nothing wrong with that of course, but that future will undoubtedly be impoverished in the absence of a (irretrievable) healthy environment, along with all the component pieces of the jigsaw. So for me, this is not a question of capercaillie or people; it boils down to whether we prioritise our short-term or long-term needs. 100 years from now, a few extra houses won’t excuse us in the eyes of a future generation for allowing a species to slip away.
Expectations that is. I’ve been around long enough to remember when a crested tit momentarily alighting on a branch was enough to justify a week-long investment in one of our photo-tours. In what seems like just a few short years, such a fleeting opportunity is no longer enough. In fact, it’s nowhere near enough. We live in an age where expectations have changed beyond recognition, and I hear lots of photographers and workshop providers – and I guess I include myself here – bemoaning the demands placed upon them to deliver fulfilling experiences to their paying guests. But you know, we only have ourselves to blame.
We flaunt our best images across the internet like designer labels and of course in these days of instant communication they get seen. And once seen the race is on to replicate. Any shot of a sea eagle ten years ago would have been a major scoop, but now most – in spite of their technical brilliance – are met with apathy. So those photographers who have paraded their stunning images of sea eagles, red kites and grey seals – they’re to blame for cranking up expectations. And I’m one of them.
But something else has changed, something a tad more worrying in my book. Unrealistic expectations can easily be fuelled by shortcomings in subject knowledge. I’ve been asked more than once by tour guests about photographing ospreys in February (they spend the winter in West Africa), and many other occasions where a lack of understanding of the difficulties in photographing wildlife in northern Europe has lead to disappointment as expectations inevitably go unfulfilled. So perhaps in addition to putting people in front of wildlife subjects as best we can; in addition to talking them through the technical and aesthetic approach to wildlife photography, we should be working harder to provide a broader knowledge base which will create a new generation of not only top-notch photographers but of top-notch nature advocates. To me the two things are inseparable but I may well be in the minority.
The results of this year’s British Wildlife Photographer of the Year have now been announced and attractive though the portfolio of images is, there is something more telling about the winning selection. Generally the images fall into two categories:
1. Those shot at well-visited, easily accessible locations (including workshop sites).
2. Those shot close to the photographers home.
The former images rely on technical competence, creative interpretation but little fieldwork and preparation. The latter rely on subject knowledge and a decent amount of groundwork in advance.
So does one approach hold more merit than the other? Not necessarily unless your criteria is originality. The winning image by Steve Young features a herring gull – not a species that would encourage many photographers to travel in search of. It’s not my personal favourite but it is original, and as such surprises the viewer. In an age where it takes something special to pull off that surprise, should we all be looking for herring gulls on our local patch?
The images of mine featured in the competition portfolio were all shot within 1km of my home. That’s certainly telling me something.