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.

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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!

Edit: bearing in mind the May weather, I don’t have any regrets at all about not doing the Ynyshir job for the RSPB. Instead I was able to travel around southern England for a week without worrying about what I might be missing.  You can read about this trip in the following four posts.

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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

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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

The Upper Llyfnant valley (with newly bulldozed tracks)

Living in west Wales as I do the issue of gamebird shooting has rarely raised its unpleasant head. I knew there was a shoot on the Dyfi estuary but it didn’t really seem like a problem. That all changed in a big way over the summer.

Cwmrhaiadr had been farmed in a fairly wildlife-friendly way for decades, is much loved by local people, and is stunningly beautiful. It consists mainly of the Upper Llyfnant valley, which runs north-south along the Ceredigion / Powys boundary, a few miles from Machynlleth. The river then swings westwards and flows into the Dyfi estuary. It is short but sweet. At the head of the valley is Pistyll-y-llyn (“waterfall of the lake”), down which the infant Llyfnant plunges from the Cambrian Mountain plateau into the lowlands. The farm was purchased by a businessman from Essex (he paid cash…), who sold the shooting rights to a Shropshire-based company, and began turning the valley into a commercial game-bird shoot. New roads were bulldozed throughout. It was lockdown so few people knew what was going on.

The valley has been renamed “Dyfi Falls”. The cost of a day’s shooting? A staggering £2640 (+ VAT).

The moorland at the head of the valley is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI); this includes the cliffs and steep hillsides at the head and upper reaches of the valley. Another SSSI lies a few miles downstream. It is deciduous woodland, a remnant of the “temperate rainforest”; rich in lichens, bryophytes and invertebrates. It would be susceptible to changes in the quality of the water running through it, and the air surrounding it..

In their early publicity the shoot company (Cambrian Birds) boasted about releasing 40,000 birds or more (pheasants and red-legged partridges) into the valley. Imagine that! Although this figure seems to have disappeared from their website they have never denied it. Certainly if you walk there (or anywhere within a few miles) you are continually tripping over pheasants, and I saw flocks of partridges totalling at least fifteen hundred birds. The shooting industry itself has estimated that only 35% (on average) of released birds are actually shot. At Cwmyrhaiadr that leaves 26,000 to die of starvation, predation, disease, parasites or being run over by cars. And of the estimated 57 million released annually in the UK – yes, you did read that correctly – 37 million will die similarly unfortunate deaths. One may view the shooting of birds for pleasure as unpleasant but these figures show that in every way the industry has a callous disregard for living creatures.

Now, regarding the SSSI. It is quite clear to anyone visiting the valley that the gamekeeper has placed many of the feeding hoppers as close as possible to the SSSI boundary. A trail of feed has illegally been laid – inside the SSSI – along the footpath from the valley bottom to the top of the waterfall. Cambrian Birds’ publicity states –

“The steep sided valleys will allow us to present high-flying birds flying straight back to their home at the centre of the estate”

And on their social media pages they excitedly tell us –

“Can’t wait to see these [pheasants] flying off the tops of those hills!”

The trouble is, those hills are the SSSI and (supposedly) protected from the release of non-native birds. Cambrian Birds may be (largely) respecting the letter of the law but certainly not the spirit. Or as one planning officer I spoke to put it:

They are very good at pushing the boundaries“.

For many years the RSPB has been equivocal about gamebird shooting. It accepted that in agricultural lowland Britain woodland was retained for the rearing and release of gamebirds. This provided habitat for many other species of wildlife and would otherwise probably have been felled to increase agricultural production. However the Society now recognises that the nature of gamebird shooting has changed, saying in a recent report –

there are substantial negative environmental consequences from the industrialised form of this shooting, including the direct and indirect impacts that released birds can have on other wildlife. ” 

It has now told the industry that if it does not put its house in order within 18 months – reducing the quantity of birds released, for example – it will call for statutory regulation of gamebird shooting. The RSPB is a powerful organisation and this may bear some fruit. But we should also remember that the landowning class has its own political party which is currently in power with a very large majority.

Meanwhile the pressure group Wild Justice is pursuing a legal case against the government in the High Court, arguing that it is failing in its duty to protect native species in the UK from the excesses of the shooting industry. . The industrial quantities of non-native birds released into the countryside amount to “a very serious ecological assault” upon it, Wild Justice says. The biomass of pheasants and red-legged partridges released every year “exceeds that of all native UK birds put together“, it adds. The Court case will be heard in early November.

What of the shooting industry itself? The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) portrays itself as the voice of the reason in the debate. It has a series of “guidelines” for the industry, for example, and a “policy” of zero tolerance over the killing of birds of prey. As for the RSPB’s new position on gamebird shooting, the BASC says –

 if the RSPB really wants to regain some good will and positive influence with the shooting world, they would do well to start formally recognising and celebrating where and how things are going right.”

The problem is that this has been the RSPB’s position for many years already. Self-regulation has failed to keep the shooting fraternity in check. Raptors continue to be killed on shooting estates, for example, and many believe that the industry is completely out of control. Hence the RSPB’s change of heart. So will the shooting industry begin to mend their ways? If the example of Cwmrhaiadr is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding “no”.

POSTSCRIPT: On November 12th I walked up the Llyfnant valley to observe and photograph 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.

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Taking your chances….

I recently heard about a very approachable otter not far from here. I assumed it was a one-off but later discovered it had already been attracting wildlife watchers and photographers for several weeks. Better late than never, of course, but my first visit offered two brief, unsatisfactory views and a few unusable photographs. I was more lucky on my second visit. I first noticed the otter mid-river; it then proceeded to hunt downstream towards me in the seaweed along the edge of the channel. It very quickly came up with an eel, brought it onshore and proceeded to crunch it down. It then resumed its hunt, moving back upstream in a similar manner. I quickly realised that if I could position myself beyond it, and my luck held, it would gradually get closer. And so it did! I was particularly fortunate in that there was no-one else around, so no there was jockeying for position or complaints that I might be too close.

I lay flat on my belly on the riverbank, the otter oblivious to my presence. I repeatedly reduced the focal length of my zoom lens as it got closer. At a certain point it stared directly at me at close range without really registering what I might be. After twenty minutes with this lovely animal I realised it was finally heading downstream. Meanwhile quite a crowd had built up on the bridge: the otter and I had had quite an audience! Back on dry land I felt like I was floating on air: one photographer friend said she thought I was in shock!

I hasten to add that I had already put plenty of hours in but when an opportunity like this presents itself you just have to grasp it with both hands and take it………..

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