I’m not a botanist but……. (part one)

s

………….. I do love a good wild flower.

As mentioned in a previous post I spent a week touring southern England last month. The main attractions were the great bustards of Salisbury Plain but my first stop was actually a little north of there, at Cricklade, near Swindon. Here, at North Meadow, on the floodplain of the Upper Thames, is an ancient hay meadow. Unlike many other similar sites it has not been ploughed or dug up for gravel extraction. It has retained its ancient system of management and is now a National Nature Reserve. It is alive with wild flowers, including 80% of the UK’s snakeshead fritillaries. Its crop of hay is taken off in late summer after the wild flowers have set seed. 

A small proportion of the flowers are white.

I arrived at North Meadow at dawn on a cold May day to find a wisp of freezing fog in the air and countless thousands of fritillaries in bloom. Good timing? Possibly …….. but the sheer number of flowers was overwhelming. My first reaction was to try to photograph them en masse before the fog and frost dispersed. I was like a headless chicken! However the long telephoto lens needed to do a mass of flowers justice has a very narrow depth of field and most individual blooms were out of focus. I eventually settled down to photographing small groups of flowers or individuals, and even then a long focal length was required to reach photogenic specimens from the safety of the footpath. My first intention was to show flowers complete with ice crystals but they soon melted into tiny water droplets which proved to be more attractive. I moved on later that day to Salisbury Plain.

I have always found orchids fascinating. With only roughly fifty species in the UK it is a plant family which the non-botanist can get to grips relatively easily. My parents were great wild orchid lovers, and there’s no doubt there’s something special about orchids, something exotic, and exciting. The extreme rarity of some species only adds to their appeal. I had long harboured the desire to see the lady’s slipper orchid in the wild in the UK. This species with its extraordinary flowers was found in and around woodland on limestone in various parts of northern England. Its looks were its downfall, though; it was picked and collected to extinction by 1917. Then, in 1930, one single plant was found somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales. It has remained there ever since, its location only known to a select few. It is legally protected, fenced off and under close surveillance 24/7 to deter thieves and photographers.

Over a period of decades, however, a programme to reintroduce the lady’s slipper orchid to its former haunts has been under way. With great difficulty plants have been grown from seed at Kew Gardens and replanted in suitable locations across northern England. At one National Nature Reserve in Lancashire, Gait Barrows, the plants in the limestone pavement are made available for public viewing every year, and it was in this area that I made some inquiries. When would they be flowering this year after such a cold spring?

Part Two follows……..

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the Follow button

On manoeuvres: great bustards on Salisbury Plain.

A male great bustard in all his finery

Some wildlife photographers have attempted to boost their income in recent years by setting up a hide in a likely position, getting birds and mammals acclimatised to being fed there, and then renting it out to other photographers. Species involved include red squirrels and ospreys. Some of latter have learned that easy prey can be found at certain fish farms. To offset their losses the owners of these facilities have built a hide nearby, and who can blame them! But for me the satisfaction (and frustration) of wildlife photography begins with researching where a species might be found. It continues through the location of individuals  – “the thrill of the hunt”  – to the press of the shutter button. It is said that well-off but “time-poor” photographers were more likely to take advantage of hide set-ups such as this. I have always said that I would never do it.

Last year my plans to visit Mallorca in the spring were frustrated by Covid travel restrictions and then Plan B suffered the same fate. Part of Plan B was to visit the Great Bustard Group reintroduction site on Salisbury Plain, where volunteers take visitors out in a Land Rover to see the birds. Earlier this spring I discovered that while the Land Rover trips were not yet in operation, the GBG had set up a hide specifically for photographers and were renting it out. The cost was substantial but I had just sold the last remnant of my Canon system – a x1.4 converter which I found lurking at the back of a cupboard – for the same sum. Whatever the outcome, I felt that it was a donation to a cause that I was happy to support. So I clicked OK.

Male human in observation mode

I worried about the weather, of course, and checked the forecast at regular intervals. On the appointed day the first depression for weeks was due to cross the country, with heavy rain and gales. It felt like Sod’s Law was in operation here.  A meeting was arranged in a layby on one of the main roads crossing the Plain – at 5.30 in the morning. It was all a bit hush-hush. I was led to some farm buildings a couple of miles away where I met the guide, Nigel Cope, and was fitted up with my Great Bustard suit for the walk to the hide The weather was actually quite pleasant; light cloud overall but little wind. Conditions were actually very good for bird photography but as for the bustards – well, I could see several quite clearly but the nearest were at least a quarter of a mile away.

Great bustards are huge and extraordinary-looking birds, especially the males. They are more than three feet in height (females much smaller), and stride purposefully across the landscape. Their plumage is a mixture of white, black and shades of chestnut, with a grey head and dark blue bare patches on either side of the neck. On closer examination the blue patches are scattered with white spots, reminding me of a starlit night sky. In display, the males seem to turn themselves inside-out and became largely white.

A “semi-display” pose

Nigel left me in the hide. I knew good sightings of the bustards were not guaranteed but this was disappointing. I went outside, photographed myself in the bustard suit, and went back in. Then, two and half hours after arriving, I opened the rear flaps of the hide: I couldn’t believe my eyes! Three male bustards were right out in the open, perhaps fifty yards away! Now I had to keep calm.

They weren’t exactly difficult to photograph. One began displaying but at first – and frustratingly – he was behind some tall, straggly stems of dead vegetation. He then moved a short distance into a field of lucerne and went through the whole sequence in full view in the open. I probably giggled and danced a little jig myself. The male bustard seems to pick a spot, inflate his neck pouch and turn himself inside out, rotate, rinse and repeat. They are said to gather together and display at “leks” rather like black grouse do, but that didn’t seem to be the case here. They were more mobile than that; I saw one male in the distance furiously displaying at a single female.

On manoeuvres.

It is believed that at one time great bustards bred in about a dozen counties in the UK, but became extinct due to persecution and agricultural change. They last nested in 1832. Led by David Waters, the re-introduction project on Salisbury Plain began in 2004. Chicks were brought first from Russia and later from Spain. Breeding began in 2009 and there is now a self-sustaining population of about a hundred birds on Salisbury Plain. Strangely the project hasn’t received the support from mainstream conservation organisations that one might expect.

While a much unimproved grassland still exists on the Plain thanks to the extensive military ranges there, the bustards seem quite happy on the farmland around the perimeter. By mid-morning bustard activity had died down, and the promised inclement weather had begun to make itself felt. As I left the site a large group of GBG volunteers were beginning to comb the lucerne field, shortly to be mown for silage, for clutches of eggs which would be incubated artificially. Personally I was glad to retire to a warm hotel room that afternoon to catch up on some sleep.

For more information on the project, see this clip from Springwatch –

https://youtu.be/aL5LFGk_Qd8

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click Follow.

Stonehenge : a photo-essay.

I recently spent a week touring central southern England in my camper van and one of the locations I visited was Stonehenge in Wiltshire. I had only seen the stones once before; I believe I may have been to a free festival there in my youth but that might be my imagination! I do recall that I had been expecting the stones to be larger than they in fact are. I gather this is a common misconception, and may be due to the ability of photographers to compress the perspective of the scene using telephoto lenses.

Entry to the visitor centre and monument costs a staggering £21.50: it is a real cash-cow for English Heritage. However it is possible to get close-ish without paying by using the remains of the A344 which passed the stones on the northern side. Although the road has now been grassed over it appears that a right of way on foot has been retained. A wire fence is all that separates the viewer from the grassland surrounding the stones.

The weather on my visit was clear and still at dawn rapidly clouding over and becoming very cold with a northerly wind and showers.
Between the showers the light was dramatic.
From certain angles the visitor infrastructure surrounding the stones was very evident.
Security guards patrol the site 24/7.
About 5 a.m. I was woken by voices outside my van. Then laughter and dogs barking. I hurriedly got dressed and put on my best Mr. Angry voice. What do you think you’re doing at this time in the morning etc, etc……? It turned out they were celebrating Beltane (even though it was four days previously …..) and it had to be done just there. It’s the alignments, man …. It was a bit of a grumpy interlude all round but I soon saw the funny side of it. I hope they did.
It was a lovely morning, though, and skylarks were singing their little hearts out overhead.
The travellers were living in vans about a quarter of a mile away. This one had been burnt out a couple of nights earlier. I met the couple whose prized possession it was. He blamed himself for the fire and she was in tears, having lost everything she owned.
Jackdaws are nesting in crevices between the stones.

Until the closure of the A344, the stones were within the fork of that road and the A303 to the south. For many years there have been plans to divert the A303 away from the site and recently a £1.7 billion plan was approved for it to pass underground in a two-mile long tunnel. That would seem to a layman like myself to be an expensive but reasonable solution. However the Stonehenge monument is only part of a much larger historical landscape of world-class importance. Archaeologists believe that a tunnel would need to be about 5 miles long to avoid damage to the outer sections of the site. A protest camp has already been set up and a judicial review is under way to decide on the matter, but I can’t help feeling we have not heard the last of this one!

Viewing the stones even from a respectable distance I did feel that they gave off far more of a presence than I had felt all those years ago.

After about twenty-four hours around the Stonehenge I hit the road again. I’ll write about the rest of my trip shortly.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click on the Follow button

Copyright – photographers are their own worst enemy. (Part 1)

Following the publication of my first book in 1995 I was asked by the Wales Tourist Board to do some landscape photography for them. I was a rather naive at first about copyright; the WTB asked me to transfer it to them. I signed a contarct to that effect but it was accepted with a nod and a wink that I could keep any spares for my own use. It was a compromise that I could happily live with. For several years I did all the work for them that I could and earned a reasonable income from it.

Enter the Photolibrary Wales, set up by the photographer Steve Benbow. This was a traditional slide library, sourcing its images from Welsh photographers and specialising in Welsh subject matter. It was in direct competition with the WTB with one important difference: WTB supplied images free-of-charge to any request related to tourism (and many that weren’t). That seemed fair enough to me too, as they had paid for the images in the first place; but not to Steve, because he had to charge reproduction fees for images of the same type that, in many cases, could be obtained gratis from the Tourist Board. As far as payment to the photographer was concerned, they received a percentage of the repro fee from the library.

In the traditional slide library model the photographer retained copyright, but any photographer commissioned by the WTB was obliged to transfer it over to them. The latter was known in the trade as “a copyright grab”, and was looked upon as being unethical by many photographers. In an attempt to create a better balance between his own business model and principles, and the WTB’s, Steve began agitating for the latter to remove the copyright grab and begin operating like a standard slide library. Photographers were called down to Cardiff for meetings, meetings were held with the WTB, but the latter refused to budge. Although the attempt failed, as an attempt to get photographers to work together towards a common aim, it was relatively successful. Normally they are like cats in a sack. As a result I understood more clearly what the issues were but continued to take up offers of work from the WTB under the understanding then in place.

Then, following devolution, the WTB was absorbed into the the Welsh Assembly Government. At the time of these changes the WTB/ WAG ‘s attitude towards towards photographers hardened and its copyright grab became extreme. I was halfway through a commission when I received a copy of their new contract. Under the new conditions the photographer would be required to hand over every single piece of film exposed while working on the commission – blurred, out of focus, you name it, they insisted on having it! And all to ensure that they had absolute control over all the images they were commissioning. It was quite shocking. I refused to hand over the work I had already done for them, and – it goes without saying – burnt my bridges with them.  I had to accept a reduction in income but I was able to take up other opportunities which were opening up to me at the time. It was tough anyway, continually being on the road – “if it’s sunny then it must be Tenby, or is it the Llyn peninsula?” – and I sometimes felt like little more than a cog in a machine.

So over the next ten years I produced a series of books for Gomer Press. Subjects were either directly commissioned by Gomer, or suggested to them by myself; and I exhibited my work several times. Looking back it was a great time, far more creative and stimulating than working for a tourism client.  As for the WTB/WG no doubt they found enough photographers willing to hand over copyright to allow them to operate successfully.

In 2013 I was asked to quote for some landscape photography for Natural Resources Wales. I enquired what kind of licence they wanted and discovered it was another copyright grab. I explained that they didn’t need copyright but that a licence to use the images within the organisation for a specified number of years would suffice. Eventually they agreed on “joint copyright” which when I thought about it didn’t actually mean very much at all…….. So I quoted, got the job, and handed the work over. They were pleased, and I was able to put a large number of images in my own library. I’ve since used a few of them for my own purposes…. a very few.

That was the last commissioned work I’ve done. My career as a professional photographer continues to wane, so I was very pleased to be asked to quote for some work at my local reserve (Ynyshir) for the RSPB. It was to be part landscape and part “people”. I mentioned a daily rate and then a couple of days later discovered – yes, you’ve guessed it – it was a copyright grab. Their T&C’s were not as extreme as those used by the WG/WTB in that I would be able to use the work on my website, for example. I discussed it with their member of staff and it seemed likely that we could reach a compromise. And then the email came……….sorry, we cannot compromise. Again, no doubt they will find a photographer willing to hand over copyright. The funny thing about Ynyshir is that I know much of the reserve like the back of my hand and have always found it quite difficult to photograph in a distinctive way, so perhaps it was a blessing in disguise!

 

Nine and a half years later.

Back in 2011 I was exploring the country taking photographs for a book – Wales at Waters Edge – about the Welsh coastline. It wasn’t landscape, or wildlife, or documentary; rather a combination of all three. It took me a long while to realise it, but what I was doing was creating a natural and social history of the coast of Wales. On 2nd July I found myself in Tenby and discovered that there was a sandcastle-building contest on South Beach that afternoon. It sounded like a good photo opportunity.

So I duly turned up and took a series of photographs of the event. As it happened none of them was used in the book and most have long since been deleted. But a more interesting idea was forming in my imagination – to come back after the contest was over as the tide was rising. I thought a series of images of disintegrating sandcastles might illustrate sea-level rise and the consequences of global warming. So I returned to the beach about six in the evening – armed with my tripod – for some long exposures. It was deserted and the waves were beginning to lap around the first row of sandcastles. I quickly selected one, set up the tripod, and took a series of images as it collapsed. Focal length was set at 50 mm and exposures ranged between 1.6 and 4 seconds at about f11. I must have been using a neutral density filter as it was still broad daylight. I ended up with 35 images taken over a period of 11 minutes.

They then sat on my hard drive for nine and a half years! But in January I discovered that the Mid-Wales Art Gallery (near Caersws) was inviting entries for an open exhibition on the subject of global warming. I went back to my Tenby long exposures, selected ten of them with a view to making a sequence and began processing them. I made a whole series of minor changes to them all in an attempt to standardise the colour saturation, and cropped them all square. I sent a preliminary set to the gallery, who approved the idea, and suggested that I should have them printed on aluminium. Although this is an expensive medium to print on it avoids the need for framing.

I found a printing company online who do aluminium prints and provide layouts for dropping images into, including a 3 x 3 grid. Arguably a horizontal or vertical strip of single images might make the message clearer but the square format is much easier to deal with for both me and the gallery. I’ve just sent the work away for printing.

The exhibition will be at Mid Wales Arts, Caersws, Powys; provisionally from April 2nd > May 17th. Tel: 01686 688369

To read more Tales from Wild Wales, please click the blue Follow button

In the abstract

Still locked down and with the weather continuing to be as grey as grey I have very little to report from the last few weeks. As mentioned in my last post I’ve been going through my images – some 40,000 dating back to the year 2006, when I began my journey in digital photography. I’ve retained the habit from my film days of taking a three-frame burst for most landscapes, with 1/3 stop difference in exposure between each one. This was crucial with transparency film as you really only had one chance to get the exposure right. With digital it is far less important – especially with full-frame, I’ve found, which is so forgiving of minor errors. So after every photography trip I have a very large number of surplus files to examine, rate and dispose of. I’m getting quite good at it now but going back a few years I kept far more than I needed to.

As well as deleting about 6,000 of them I’ve found a few gems which I had missed the first time round. Some might be suitable for postcards and there are also quite a few “abstracts” which will never see the light of day unless I post them on my blog and/or website. So, for your viewing pleasure, here is a selection. Enjoy!

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click on the blue Follow button.

Warts and All

Looking north east from Tre’r Ceiri

As I’m sure most of us now are, I’m stuck at home and finding it difficult to keep myself occupied. During the spring/summer lockdown the weather was delightful and I explored my local area on foot and electric bike. It was exciting to get to know the local wildlife a little better. Mid-winter is a completely different kettle of fish, of course, and my bike has barely left the garage in the last couple of months. I’m still walking, but to a very limited extent; on the edge of the uplands around my home it’s cold, wet and windy and most of the wildlife has left for lower altitudes. It’s not a very exciting task, I know, but I’ve taken to deleting digital image files to make more room on my hard disc.

This morning I came across a folder from January 13th 2012, exactly nine years ago. I was working on the book Wales at Waters Edge at the time, and spent the day on Yr Eifl, a triple-topped peak on the north coast of the Llyn peninsula between Caernarfon and Nefyn. It is one of the most spectacular locations in Wales, with views down Penllyn to Bardsey Island and inland to the mountains of Eryri. On one of the peaks is a beautifully-preserved hill-top settlement known as Tre’r Ceiri – or, in English, “Town of the Giants”. There are numerous hut circles within the settlement walls, suggesting that the inhabitants were – in fact – far from tall in stature! Isolated fragments of low cloud drifted onto the hilltops in a light breeze, while most of the landscape remained lit by strong sunshine. It was one of those once-in-a-hundred days. I spent several hours up high during the morning, before returning to the van for something to eat.

Tre’r Ceiri itself; hut circles are clearly visible, but hardly big enough for giants…..

Finishing my lunch I discovered I no longer had my mobile phone. I had recorded some thoughts on it during the morning so I must have left it up on the hill. Fortunately it is not a difficult walk back up to Tre’r Ceiri and the repeat visit gave me chance to try some sunset shots. But despite a thorough search there was no sign of the phone and I came back empty handed. The sunset shots weren’t much cop either……….

I started the blog in July 2012, but by the January I must have already started thinking about how I could describe my experiences in outdoor photography.

It was never intended to be a typical photographers blog, with equipment reviews and technique lessons. Plenty of people were doing that already. It would be more of a story-telling exercise in which I wouldn’t necessarily take myself too seriously. Leaving my phone on a hill-top after an exhilarating morning’s photography was exactly the sort of thing I thought I might include.

Even more so when I found the phone in the cubby hole above the van windscreen where I always put it! It had been there all the time. So, just a mere nine years after it happened this is the “warts and all” account of my day!

To read more Tales of Wild Wales as they are published, please click the blue Follow button

Homecoming – the Aberystwyth purple sandpipers

A couple of weeks ago I had a look for the purple sandpipers at Aberystwyth. There has been a wintering flock of these dumpy little waders here since at least 1927, and their high tide roost is always at the same place – on the sea wall, facing north, below the castle. This year a maximum of four birds has been seen, but the size of the flock has normally varied from five birds up to about twenty-five. Perhaps the current cold weather will bring some more in this winter.

I’d like to say that I found them after a couple of hours staggering about across treacherous rocks and seaweed, but it wasn’t like that at all. I parked my van near the right spot, walked over, looked down, and there they were! They were a little jittery at my presence above them and at the waves passing by below, but allowed me to take a nice series of photographs. Later, as the tide began to drop, I found them beginning to feed on the rocks.

What amazes me is how they return to the same spot every year. There must be plenty of suitable habitat for them around the coast. Could there be a suggestion of “culture” about it, rather than ecological necessity? Whatever, Aberystwyth must feel like home to them.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales, please click on the blue Follow button.

With seasons greetings ……

Well, it’s that time of year again. After the year we have had – and many people have had a far worse one than me – it doesn’t feel as if we have much to celebrate. Staff in hospitals and care homes who are putting in superhuman efforts to treat their patients deserve, once again, our thanks. And the tremendous efforts made by scientists all over the world to create new vaccines also deserve recognition, and perhaps, in good time, they will officially receive it. Let us hope that the fruits of their labours will allow us to return to “normal life” before too long.

The photograph shows Comet Neowise, taken at Aberystwyth at 12.45 am on July 20th. I’ve done very little astrophotography and my current camera – an Olympus EM1 Mk 2 – is rather ill-suited to this branch of photography. It has a very small sensor and consequently usable ISO’s are limited without introducing high levels of noise. I eventually settled on this composition and took a range of shots at different shutter speeds and apertures. In the end it turned out to be – to adapt a well-known photographic maxim – “8 seconds at f4.5 and be there”.

I had to do more processing on these images than normal: it was basically a case of “try anything and see if it works”. In particular it was one of the first tests I threw at some software I had recently acquired – Topaz Denoise AI. This seemed to be able to distinguish between required detail and unwanted noise, and was able to sharpen the image at the same time. So I’m quite happy with the final result.

So to conclude this short post –

With best wishes to you all and let us hope that next year will be a good deal better than the current one.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click the blue Follow button.

(Still) shooting itself in the foot…….. (Part 2)

Firstly if you’re a landscape or wildlife photographer wanting to hear my opinions on the latest piece of kit or technique – my apologies. I’ll get back to photography in due course. But the first part of this post (see here) has proven to have been read by far more people than anything else I have written in the past eight years, and I have a couple of updates.

Firstly, a comment on my piece from Tony Johnstone went like this:

Wild Justice did not win their case at all, this is false news put out by a failed attempt to stop Game Shooting. DEFRA issued an open licence with regard to EU SSI’s and all other UK SSI’s are already covered by existing UK laws. Please get your facts right.

I didn’t suggest that Wild Justice “won their case” but nevertheless Tony Johnstone did have a point. The case did not get as far as court because prior to the hearing DEFRA agreed that gamebird shooting should be subject to licensing (in England, inside and within 500 metres of a site protected by European law). I realised that I needed to understand more about gamebird shooting and the law. In particular I needed to know what “open licences” were, or “general licences” as they are actually called.

A general licence is deemed to be held by anyone, providing certain conditions are met, without needing an application to be made. A general licence is required to control agricultural pests such as crows and woodpigeons, plus introduced species like canada geese; or to protect endangered wildlife species or human or animal health. Please note, however, that this is a very condensed version of the situation and I Am Not A Lawyer. For more complete details see the Guns on Pegs website.

DEFRA is making general licences available for the 2021 -2022 shooting season as a temporary measure. More research will take place meanwhile on the actual impacts of gamebird releases on the environment. When that has been completed, decisons will be made on what new conditions to impose on the gamebird shooting industry. Wild Justice have a list of actions they expect to be considered in setting up a new licensing scheme. Whether they “won their case” or not depends on how many of these ultimately turn out to be included. For more information see this post.

The second thing I’d like to mention here is this: on November 12th I walked up the Llyfnant valley to observe the shoot that was taking place on that day. I kept a very low profile, carefully using public rights of way (where they weren’t blocked) and open access land. I left my van at the end of the public road adjacent to the entrance to Cwmrhaiadr. When I returned I found that two of my tyres had been slashed.

EDIT: For a much better (but much longer) explanation of General licences, please click on this link –https://wildjustice.org.uk/general/general-licences-in-general-and-our-challenge-to-the-nrw-general-licences-in-particular/

NB 1: Guns on Pegs is a shooting website but their summary of the situation is far more straightforward than, for example, the BAS(C) website, with all its spin and prejudice.

NB 2: Following the DEFRA decision, which is only valid in England, the Welsh Government is opening a consultation on the subject of gamebird shooting.

To read more Tales from Wild Wales as they are published, please click on the Follow button