High on opinion but low on facts.

Ring ouzels, near Machynlleth
Ring ouzels, near Machynlleth

Following a talk in Aberystwyth by George Monbiot last spring on “rewilding”, a local ornithologist and friend Roy Bamford wrote a full-page article on the subject in our local newspaper, the Cambrian News. His main thrust, borne out of many years of personal experience, was that rewilding may happen – come what may – and that its effects may be unpredictable. The article was almost entirely uncontroversial but was followed a couple of weeks later by a letter from the Farmers Union of Wales. This included a personal attack on the author and a suggestion that he was quoting tittle-tattle from the internet (among other things) to support his case. I felt that this should not go unchallenged so wrote the following, which was published in the Cambrian a few weeks later.

I am writing with reference to Roy Bamford’s piece ( 3rd July) on rewilding and the subsequent letter from the Dafydd Jones, vice-chairman of the Ceredigion FUW.

Firstly I suggest that it is unfortunate that Mr Jones chose to make such personal comments in his letter. Mr Bamford has already defended himself on the letters page but a less modest man would have gone further. His knowledge is based on the many years of professional field work he has undertaken. It is upon this field work that much research into the relationship between agriculture and wildlife in the Welsh hills has been based. I cannot think of many people more qualified to make these observations than Roy Bamford. So if he quotes studies that include photographic evidence of sheep eating curlew’s eggs then this not an anecdote, it is a fact – unlikely as it may seem to most of us.

On a far more limited scale I have been surveying the same tract of land above Tal-y-bont for 20 years. I walk the same route twice a year and record every bird that I come across. I follow a fence line with improved grassland and heavy sheep grazing on one side, and unimproved grassland or “ffridd” on the other. The contrast could not be more marked. With its very low sheep numbers the ffridd is, in effect, rewilding in action, and it is home to a large and varied selection of small birds. The improved grassland might as well have been concreted over for all the wildlife it contains. A few meadow pipits and a few scavengers and that’s about it.

The farmers that Mr Jones represents have benefitted to the tune of many, many millions of pounds from the public purse since the last war. This same period has seen the Welsh uplands becoming demonstrably more and more impoverished in an ecological sense. The farming industry has itself become more depleted at the same time. Rather than the mixed farming of earlier generations, does the average hill farmer now grow more than one crop – grass? Does he farm more than one product – sheep? I suggest, in many cases, that the answer is no. Through its lack of vision the sheep farming industry has manoeuvred itself into a cul-de-sac, an evolutionary dead-end. So it is a shame that the FUW does not show a more open-minded attitude to the future – which may well include rewilding. It would be far more constructive to do so, and they would be doing their own members a service.

I could have published this letter under “name and address withheld” but chose not to. I’m not afraid to hold such opinions, which would, anyway, probably be held by a large percentage of the population. I realised that the letter might be read by the landowner whose land I walk and that there might be repercussions. And so indeed there have been. This year permission to access his land was refused.

The Cambrian News did not print the final sentence of my letter, which was as follows:

Instead we get the same anti-environment rhetoric that has become the norm from the farming unions – high on opinion and low on facts.

I’m not denying that hill farming might at times be a challenging occupation. I’m not denying that sheep farmers work hard. But so much of their income comes from the public purse. What benefit does the public receive in return for their support? By displaying such reactionary, head-in-the sand attitudes, and continuing to deny what is quite clearly true, farmers and their representatives are their own worst enemies. When the public money runs out they will need all the friends they can find.

I’m including an image of ring ouzels taken yesterday. This has become a scarce species over the decades in Wales, and they are now difficult to see, let alone photograph. But this small group of migratory birds has been feasting on ivy berries not far from here in recent days.

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Not quite a dartford warbler…….

Arne, Dorset
Arne, Dorset

Easter week found Jane and I down in the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. It was a part of the world I’d never seen and it also seemed to be a good chance to see, and possibly even photograph, a dartford warbler. We treated ourselves to the luxury (cough……) of a holiday flatlet in Swanage. Our first full day we decided to do a cycle ride, and, not being the hardcore types, it was soon time for a coffee stop.

We arrived at the village of Corfe Castle. Talk about picture postcard pretty! The restored Swanage railway passes through the village too, and the steam engines gave it a real flavour of the past. Purbeck has a very strong Enid Blyton connection and one could imagine the Famous Five still fitting in quite easily. However the women dressed up as wenches were, I felt, taking Heritage Britain a little too far. The Castle itself is owned by the National Trust, with an entry fee of £9.00. We decided to give that a miss. It is a spectacular ruin, however, and the National Trust tea shop nearby provided a fabulous view of it from its back garden.

Relaxing with coffee and cake, I noticed that house sparrows were popping in and out of a severely pruned privet hedge. They were using conveniently positioned twigs as lookout posts in their search for crumbs. Although I wasn’t in photography mode that day I could see an opportunity to add some “birds in the landscape” images to my collection. I filed the idea away in my memory banks.

Jane may not have my perhaps obsessive interest in birds and/or photography but she can be very tolerant. So a couple of days later I spent the night alone in the camper van close to the Arne RSPB reserve not far from Corfe Castle. It was a fabulous still and misty morning, with the sun rising like a crimson ball though a layer of fog. I confidently set out in search of a dartford warbler. Maybe a pair. Or two. It would be easy to find them. Two hours later I still hadn’t seen or heard one and I walked back towards the van. I began to think that dartford warblers were a figment of other people’s imaginations. Then I heard an unfamiliar sound and located one of these elusive birds on the topmost twig of a gorse bush not far away. But it flew very quickly and proved impossible to track down. The same thing happened with a second bird I found a few minutes later. So I gave up.

House sparrow, Corfe Castle (click to enlarge)
House sparrow, Corfe Castle (click to enlarge)

After such an early start coffee was now calling and the memory of those house sparrows was getting stronger and stronger. It was time visit the Corfe Castle tea shop again. I introduced myself, told them about the project I was working on, and asked if it was OK to take some photographs in the garden. No problem.  I spent an hour there taking as many different compositions as the birds would allow.  Being at such close quarters to them I was only using the standard zoom on my Canon 5d3, so I didn’t look too conspicuous.  Ideally I would have had more time but the images have an interesting graphic quality to them, and who bothers taking photographs of house sparrows! I think there’s enough variety overall to create one triptych for the exhibition.

Not quite a dartford warbler…….but hey!

 

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What do photographers do all day?

Black grouse, north Wales
Black grouse, north Wales

Over the winter I’ve seen a couple of episodes of the TV series entitled “What do artists do all day?”. Each programme featured a particular artist and showed them doing the sorts of things an artist might do. Like, well, painting, for instance. But what about photographers?

I’ve spent quite some time this week trying to get my PC to work more smoothly, with some success, I think I dare to say. It certainly wouldn’t make good TV but I spend so much time at the computer, and I imagine the same is now probably true for most photographers. A far cry from the days when you exposed a few rolls of film, put them in an envelope, and waited for the transparencies to come back. Oh, then there’s updating the website, writing the blog, invoicing customers, emailing contacts…..the list is endless.

How come I found myself, yesterday, pulling the vacuum cleaner apart and putting it together again, of all things? One of my most crucial pieces of equipment is the camper van. It’s my home from home and enables me to be on location first thing in the morning when so much top quality wildlife and landscape photography is done. And with the passage of time you just have to do a bit of spring cleaning. Banal, I know, but true……. and one thing leads to another……..

To give an example of how indispensable the camper van is, though, a couple of weeks ago I had another go at photographing the black grouse lek which I also wrote about here and here. I drove up the previous evening, parked up nearby and settled down for the night. It was clear and frosty so by sunrise a thick layer of ice had formed on the inside of the windscreen! At 5.15 am I could hear the birds’ bubbling and hissing calls as they began displaying nearby. But it was still more or less dark, and I had plenty of time to make some tea and observe the birds with binoculars while the day gradually dawned.

It became apparent that there were more birds present than on any previous visit, and they were taking up stances over a wider area. Having said that the amount of activity was rather variable. Some birds actively jousted with their neighbours, while others looked a bit bored. It was as if they may have been young birds which knew where they needed to be, but didn’t know what to do when they got there. As a whole the birds seemed to be rather nervous and at one point all suddenly swept away. A couple of seconds later a sparrowhawk briefly landed on the deserted lek site. One wonders if the grouse would be less easily distracted at the peak of the breeding season in a couple of weeks time. A little later two greyhens (female black grouse) also flew in, which provoked an extra burst of activity from the lekking males.

It was inevitable that on a still morning such as this extraneous noises like the rapid firing of a shutter would be heard by the birds. In anticipation of the “action shot”a shutter burst would begin just as two birds sized each other up. One could imagine how strange, and possibly distracting, this might be from the bird’s point of view.  On the other hand it was also noticeable that during a lull in activity a car engine starting (for example) might  provoke the birds into briefly displaying more vigorously.

This was my seventh visit altogether to the lek site and it was probably the best. Being a weekday there wasn’t too much disturbance as  impatient birders and other photographers came and went. Despite bright sunshine the light had a soft quality to it thanks to some atmospheric mistiness, and this was ideal for photographing these high-contrast, black-and-white subjects.  The winter yellows  and ochres of the vegetation and a layer of hoar-frost made for an attractive landscape in which to set the birds; so much so that I’m planning to include a set of three images from this visit in my forthcoming exhibition. It was also a pleasure and a privelege to be able to watch this fascinating spectacle.

So what do photographers do all day? It can really be almost anything from the sublime to the ridiculous.

 

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