Mention the ‘R’ word in some circles and hackles rise. Visions of out-of-control wolves on a killing spree spring to mind and primeval fears mixed with deep-seated cultural resentment of change, bubble to the surface. Politics too, is inextricably linked to the potential, or otherwise, for rewilding. Continue reading “Rewilding: Is it time?”
Our vegetable garden is very special (just ask Pete). It’s been many years in the making and I’ve got to be honest, my tending it has been a bit hit and miss (just ask Pete).
It all started around 5 years ago when some friends helped us clear a patch to plant veggies. A year or so later I’d planted nothing and the patch was overgrown. I called in a ‘professional’ who did a splendid job putting in raised beds, a gravel path and even some rustic steps leading down to the now-spectacular stage for the planting of all manner of home grown food. He did charge us…quite a lot as it turned out (just ask Pete), but now I was set.
Well you know how it is, busy lives and all that. A year passed and then another and with the garden now overgrown (and still no vegetables) I had to call ‘the professional’ back to clear it once again. And once again he charged us. By this time Pete is calculating that a single potato or beetroot (still not sown) would costs us upwards of £30…each! He wasn’t happy.
This year was the turning point and after another visit from ‘the professional’, I planted my first crop and they’re doing just fine. I still haven’t harvested anything but I’m working on that. They will undoubtedly be the most expensive vegetables ever eaten – but they are organic!
So here’s the best bit. The other night as darkness fell I went outside and was flabbergasted to see not one, but three barn owls perched on my raised bed! I ran back inside and called Pete. We spent the next half hour mesmerised by the young owls cavorting around the vegetable garden. OK, I accept this wasn’t why we invested in it and I accept that it’s not been as productive as I intended but come on, three barn owls? That’s priceless isn’t it? Just ask Pete.
When I first started taking pictures I drew inspiration from lots of other photographers. In fact, I still do and there’s nothing like seeing the images of those you admire and aspire to emulate, projected large on a screen. Especially when the photographer is there to tell you how, and more importantly, why, he/she took the image. What better way then to spend an early autumnal day than at the Scottish Nature Photography Festival?
This event, initiated by Niall Benvie over 20 years ago, is held at Battleby, just north of Perth in a purpose-built, state-of-the-art auditorium. It’s a one-day event and features some of the most active and inspiring photographers at work today. They will show their fantastic images and tell the stories behind them. Marcus McAdam and Mark Hamblin from Scotland; Nick Cobbing from England; Edwin Kats from The Netherlands and Sven Zacek from Estonia – a wealth of talent and experience all under one roof. And this year, we’re featuring a brilliant young photographer – Bertie Gregory, who at 19, has a bright future in front of him.
Alongside the speakers there will be book signings, trade and conservation stands and the chance to network with like-minded enthusiasts – always a great way to pick up on the latest gossip in the nature photography world.
Image: Mark Hamblin.
All in all then, it’s a great day out and I’d go as far to say that if you don’t enjoy it…well, you will, so no need for rash promises that I’ll later regret!
Make a date in your diary – September 14th & 15th (programme repeated on both days). Tickets are £49-50 including lunch and refreshments. Book your tickets here.
Image: Edwin Kats.
Let’s face it there are lots of places to photograph puffins, so why go to what might seem like the ends of the earth to do so? Fair Isle is a remote island just off mainland Shetland and getting to and from it is fraught with logistical uncertainties. Low cloud, rough seas and erratic timetables all conspire to render boats and planes less reliable than we have perhaps come to expect. Don’t go to Fair Isle then if you’re on a tight timetable. It’s not as if there are billions of puffins there either – like elsewhere in their range, they are in decline – so what makes Fair Isle special?
Lighting, background and viewpoint. These are 3 words that I encourage all photo tour guests to repeat to themselves over and over like a mantra. If you understand the importance of lighting, background and viewpoint, you will see the advantages of Fair Isle. Many of the puffin burrows and loafing areas are in areas of dense thrift, or sea pinks, making the setting particularly attractive. Most allow low, intimate perspectives and the vagaries of the weather throw up some fantastic lighting (as long as you’re prepared to wait). The best thing of all though is the fact that you have the puffins pretty much to yourself 24/7, allowing you to take advantage of the best light at either end of the day. All in all then, it’s a long way to go but from a photographic perspective, it’s one of the best places of all. Sorry, but a day trip to the Farnes just doesn’t compare.
Our Puffin Bootcamp this year focused on primarily just two colonies and we worked them hard with early rises and late finishes. In between the photo sessions we enjoyed fantastic hospitality at the Fair Isle Bird Observatory and we enjoyed lots of great banter – thanks primarily to the invention of the hairdryer and an American propensity for personal trainers (don’t ask but thank to J for being a great sport).
I hope you enjoy these images as much as I enjoyed taking them. Thanks to the folk who joined this tour – hope your legs, necks, backs and feet recover! Next year’s tour is already nearly full so if you’re looking for intensive puffin photography in a fantastic location, join us.
Is it me? Do I look stupid? Are all photographers insincere with motives that are only obvious to the most seasoned photographic spouses? Earlier this year, Pete and I both reached the 50 mark – not something to celebrate in my book but Pete insisted on a few days away on the remote island of Eigg.
Now, here is where our respective definitions of ‘a great time’ go their separate ways. Me, I envisaged long, lazy days by the fireside, leisurely walks, wine and telly. Pete’s ‘great time’ involved in what can only be described as a military operation.
Each morning the alarm would go off at 0430 and our romantic breakfast consisted of a flask of coffee and a packet of stale biscuits on a windswept beach (Pete with camera, me with pneumonia). 15 hours later, our days would end in pretty much the same way. How many pictures can you take from the same beach?
I’m perhaps being unfair – there was one highlight. Our last evening was filled with warm sunshine so I took some nibbles and wine down to my hard-working photographer on the beach. He sat still for all of ten minutes before jumping to his feet prattling on about time-lapse or something. From my pocket, a consolation prize emerged, my secret weapon, my best buddie in the whole wide world. Here we are together during a particularly romantic moment!
Thanks to Chris and Pauline for looking after the dogs and thanks to the inventor of chocolate for looking after me.
Robin, a very likeable tour guest with an ever-so-slightly over-active analytical gene (de-brains just about anything), recently took me to task over a comment I made in a previous blog post. Referring to our Winter Yellowstone tour, I remarked that we returned ‘wolfless’ having had no sighting of the enigmatic predator. According to Robin this suggested a trophy hunting mentality which took no account of the thrill of being in such a wild place in the knowledge that wolves were out there, somewhere. It’s a fair point, my wrists are duly slapped and it perhaps hints at an increasing tendency towards measuring the success of any trip in terms of images made or sightings bagged. A sign of something I’m sure.
Robin was one of the guests on our recent Wild West Coast landscape tour from which we returned sunsetless. Sure we had brooding clouds, aquamarine seas, sun-kissed white sand beaches and pretty much the place to ourselves but for me, the clouds were the wrong clouds, the sea was the wrong shade of sea and the sky was too clear, and then not clear enough. The fact is that the photographic bar marches inexorably towards the heavens taking expectations (including mine) along with it.
These pictures won’t win any prizes but is that the point? No, no and no again. We were based in the delightful family-owned Harris Hotel (thanks guys), enjoyed great food, good craic and the islands of Harris and Lewis as a spectacular backdrop – hardly a disaster. The fickle Hebridean weather deprived us of a decent sunset but it delivered so much more as it always does. Wolfless and Sunsetless are a state of mind, one which Robin’s analysis has helped me recognise. A good philosophical slapping from time to time does the world of good!
Thanks as ever to our group for their company, to Calmac for getting us home (eventually) and to Lewis and Harris for being such splendid places (too many sheep in my view but that’s another story). Thanks also to Paul and Andy from Aspect2i, a fellow pho-tour company who showed none of the petty rivalries that so often dogs this business – check them out, they’re good guys.
If you fancy getting your fill of the Wild Western Isles, join us next spring for our Island Trilogy tour taking in Harris, Skye and Eigg. Can’t promise any wolves or in fact sunsets, but I can promise a photographic adventure – it’s what we do.
Well what a year! It’s easy to say that at the end of every year but 2012 really has been one to remember – not all for the best of reasons. So what have been the good bits? I mean the REALLY good bits? That’s tricky but if pushed, I can think of three very special moments that are etched on my mind for always. They weren’t necessarily planned or indeed expected; the resultant images are nothing more than pleasing, but for different reasons, the experiences remain vivid in my mind.
In 3rd place…
At midnight our work was done and although the Icelandic sun never sets at this time of year, we felt we’d had the best of it and headed back to our hotel. Our group were tired and so was my co-guide, Mark Hamblin, and I. But then the most surreal mist rolled in off the sea and my mind started racing. Mark and I have worked with each other often enough to know pretty much what the other is thinking so by the time we reached base camp, we knew we were heading out again. Along with the hardy few we looked for a subject to bring the scene to life. Given the choice I’d have gone for a red-throated diver and ten minutes later, that’s exactly what we’d found.
At 2.30am I was lying beside this small mist-enshrouded lake in the shadow of an ice-capped mountain, the silence broken only by the mournful call of this most enigmatic of all birds. And the sound of a handful of shutter buttons!
In 2nd place…
In all honesty I should have some of the best osprey shots ever taken. Not only do I live in the bird’s UK stronghold, I have a pair nesting just a stone’s throw from home. I could make excuses about the difficult position of the nest, but that’s just what they’d be – excuses.
This year I took a slightly different approach (more of that in a future blog) and it’s very much a work in progress. Meantime, one afternoon from the comfort (read discomfort) of my hide, I was confronted by a brief and violent downpour, which coincided with the male osprey landing right in front of my hide with a fish. It was a heart-stopping moment as any encounter with this conservation icon always is. A few minutes later however, my heart was pounding for a different reason. The osprey nest sits next to the River Feshie, one of the fastest spate rivers in Europe. My hide sits on a shallow shingle spit in the river bed and I sit on a flimsy stool inside the flimsy hide. It’s all a bit flimsy if truth be told but everything works fine…as long as it doesn’t rain.
And the top 2012 moment…
The polar bear had been feeding on a seal long before we spotted him in the distance. By the time we arrived on the scene, he was satiated and was intent on a long snooze. It was 4 in the morning and most of our small group were asleep in their cabins. Undeterred we decided a low-level shot from the zodiac might be worth pursuing and after several minutes of banging on doors, we had a bleary-eyed group of less-than-eager photographers assembled on deck.
Approaching the slumbering bear at a painfully slow speed we edged up to the ice floe and were initially met with nothing more than a dismissive glance. But bears being bears, this one wanted to check us out. He raised his lumbering head, then his lumbering body and started lumbering – straight towards us. He had that swagger of a top predator and all of a sudden we felt like trespassers, like intruders, like vulnerable intruders.
As he stood eye-level, too big to frame with my 500mm lens, you could power half of London with the electricity in that zodiac. As one of our guests remarked afterwards: “That was a thoroughly pleasing encounter.” (or unpublishable words to that effect)
Here’s wishing everyone more life-affirming experiences in the natural world during 2013. My thanks to friends, colleagues, guests and associates for not only the special moments above, but many more besides.
It started with a 1000-mile round trip to deliver a presentation in Derby, the place I grew up in. The talk was attended by an old school teacher of mine and a smattering of friends and family huddled on the back row (there were others there too you understand!) Weird.
Tuesday brought about a meeting to secure the 2020VISION roadshow in The National Forest – this from discussions that have stretched over the best part of 2 years. Relief.
Wednesday was a relatively normal day in the office although we did buy 5 Highland Cows as conservation grazers. Daunting. I also met with a mate of mine who revealed insider knowledge about a rather exciting reintroduction project about to be unleashed. Intriguing. This was also the day I heard the news about the Manchester police women being shot. Shocking.
Thursday took me to a photographer friend’s for an update on various matters and contrary to the usual frivolous nature of our discussions, today was more sombre as a member of his family is very unwell. On returning home I was greeted with the news that our old Highland pony (he’s not ours actually but he lives with us) was lame and would need to be put to sleep. Sad and Sobering.
An early call yesterday created a meeting with a local landowner about a potential commission documenting a massively ambitious restoration scheme in the Highlands. Inspiring.
As I sit here writing, Amanda is busying around getting stuff together for our holiday to Yellowstone. Bizarre.
So what’s all this got to do with a photographic blog? Well if truth be told, I’m feeling a bit emotional; high emotion has been the common denominator throughout this last week. The more I think about the state of the natural world and what can be done to right some of the wrongs, the more I become convinced that we don’t use our unique capacity for emotion creatively enough. I read a while ago that generally speaking, people’s relationship with nature isn’t rational or scientific; it’s emotional. And it’s true. You can peddle all the ecological science, all the socio-economic data, all the conservation buzzwords you like, but for most people, nature is something they ‘feel’. Great photography is something that makes people ‘feel’.
As a nation we’ve done a pretty good job this summer ‘feeling’ the Olympics and Paralympics and what high emotion reigned for those few weeks. But spectacular as they undoubtedly were, these are transient events, moments in time. If only we, as a society, could harness that Olympic energy, that high-octane emotion and mobilise it for nature. That would be something worth getting up on Monday morning for. And Tuesday. And Wednesday.
Just a quick post to let you know that Fearna, one of the female osprey chicks from our local nest (many readers will know of or have seen this nest) has been fitted with a satellite tracker and her movements can be followed here. As I write this, she’s found her way safely as far as Devon!
Thanks to Roy Dennis of the Highland Foundation for Wildlife for providing the tracker and the platform to watch Fearna’s maiden migration to Africa.
Good luck girl!
I’m not a red squirrel biologist but as I understand it, this is pretty much the situation as it stands with the species’ conservation: Red squirrels in the UK occupy only fragments of their former range with their remaining stronghold being the pine forests of northern Scotland. The primary reason for their decline is believed to be the introduction of the non-native grey squirrel which has spread and out-competes the red as well as passing on a potentially fatal disease. Where embattled and cornered red squirrels are threatened by the ongoing invasion of greys, conservation action is being taken primarily in the form of grey squirrel ‘management’ (aka culling). Is that it in a nutshell? No doubt someone will tell me if not.
Assuming my simple analysis is correct, here’s my question: Is it feasible, or desirable even, to defend red squirrel strongholds in the long term by fending off greys? How long can we keep this up for – 5 years, 50 years? 500 years? My understanding is that we’ll need to keep this up forever if we’re to retain red squirrels as a viable UK species.
Here’s my next question then: Is this a good use of time, effort and funding? Nobody wants to see red squirrels disappear (nobody I know at any rate) but surely we face a stark choice if we accept that the present regime is untenable:
1. We succumb to the relentless march of the grey and accept the extinction of UK reds.
2. We invest our energies in completely eliminating grey squirrels from the UK.
Option 2 has many barriers. It’s expensive, time consuming and some would argue impossible to completely eradicate grey squirrels such is their stranglehold (I would personally suggest it’s difficult but not impossible). Then there’s the question of societal sensitivities – for many people, grey squirrels provide their only contact with nature and never having seen a red squirrel, form part of their cultural backdrop. Finally there is a moral argument that challenges the need to kill any healthy animal regardless of origin.
So with all doors presently closed, we have no choice but to carry on as we are. But didn’t we already establish that wasn’t feasible?
I don’t know the answer to this dilemma by the way, but I do know that trying to marry political and cultural sensitivities with ecological integrity is at best, damned tricky and as a consequence we tend to tread the ground that upsets fewest (human) agendas – the sticking plaster approach. In my humble opinion with the consequences of indecision now well documented, the sticking plaster is no longer good enough: we’re talking major surgical procedure here.
What would you do if you held the keys to the piggy bank (or to the gun cupboard)?