Photographing Insects – my approach

Common blues

Mating pair of common blue butterflies – backlit

I love photographing insects.  Not just the showy ones, but the small and insignificant ones too.  Butterflies, dragonflies, moths, damselflies, overflies, ladybirds, bugs, flies – all of them are interesting and challenging.

Equipment

Actually, I use very simple equipment, but insect photography IS one of those specialist areas where it does help to have the right equipment – a digital SLR and a macro lens.  I have my SLR (Canon EOS5D Mark III), and a few lenses, of which my favourite is the 100mm f2.8L IS Macro.  I also have a 70-300mm f4 L IS zoom and a 300mm f2.8L IS prime lens.  The 300mm is big and heavy, and I don’t use it often.  I stick to the first two lenses which I can carry easily.  The 100mm lens is absolutely without compare in terms of image quality, but does require you to get pretty close to your subject if you want the insect to appear a decent size.  It is also f2.8, which gives the opportunity to blur out the background if you wish.  The 300mm zoom or prime have the advantage of a longer reach, which is useful for shots over water, or where the insects are easily-disturbed.  The disadvantage is that the longer reach is no advantage if there is undergrowth in the way, and there often is.  It is also harder to hand-hold.

A lot of people use a tripod or monopod to reduce camera shake.  I don’t do this for three reasons.  First, I have a serious illness (cystic fibrosis) and my breathing isn’t good.  Carrying a tripod and monopod on top of the heavy camera and spare lens really tests my breathing, so I tend to avoid it.  Second, I find tripods or monopods tend to restrict your viewpoint.  You set it up and then can’t be bothered to adjust, particularly if you are close to the insects, which means that you aren’t as flexible with your viewpoint, and consequently with your background, lighting and everything else, as you can be if you hand hold.  Finally, the problem with insects is that they are often moving, or what they are perched on is moving, and a tripod doesn’t help with this at all.

The other thing worth considering is a circular polarising filter – this allows you to make adjustable changes to the way in which reflections are handled in your pictures.  Particularly when photographing over water, it can be nice both to show reflections and also minimise them, for example when you are trying to get a picture of an ovipositing female dragonfly.

Southern hawker

Southern hawker dragonfly by our pond

Finally, it is worth learning how to use the non-auto features on your camera: aperture-priority to control depth of field in your pictures, shutter-speed priority to freeze motion for in-flight shots, and manual focus to get focus on exactly the right plane, exactly on the right part of the insect – usually the eyes, but sometimes the root of the wings or other parts.

Learn how to approach

The first difficulty with insects is getting close to them (apart from mosquitoes, which like to get close to you all the time!).  They have good eyesight, and are very sensitive to motion, not to mention sound, vibration and smell.  You can’t just go crashing through the grass, waving your camera around, and hope to get a decent photo, or indeed, get anywhere near them.  I find the key is to move very slowly, no matter how tempting it can be to get in quickly before the insect goes.  It might disappear anyway, but is much more likely to disappear if you rush.  It is useful to practice the Tai-Chi way of walking which is quiet and smooth.  Also, use the wind, if there is any and time your movements to coincide with gusts of wind.  It is also worth learning how to squat or kneel very slowly, quietly and smoothly – doing very slow squats isn’t easy, particularly with a heavy camera.  It is worth practising this  without taking photos, until you can do it well.

Remember, they can smell you too – so it might be worth remembering this when preparing to go out and avoiding things like smelly hair dressing, perfume, deodorant and of course, insect-repellent.

Viewpoint and Background

Once you have made the effort to get close to the insect, it is tempting to blast off a photo and be happy with that.  However you really do need to think more about it than that.  What viewpoint do you want?  Which bit of the insect do you want to feature?  Do you want to see it from behind, from the side, head-on, from below, above or on the level with the insect?  Do you want detail on the wings, or do you want the light shining through the wings?  This should be in your thoughts as you approach, so that you approach from the right direction, and get yourself on the right level to take the photo.

Emerald Damselfly

Emerald Damselfly – dark damselfly, bright background

Likewise, how do you want the background to appear?  Do you want it to be a blur, or do you want to show detail?  Do you want it to be dark or light, a complimentary colour or the same colour?  When you are close to a subject, a very slight adjustment in your position can make a large difference to the background.  Likewise, it is easier to blur the background when you are close than when further away (for any given aperture – it is down to distance ratio between subject, lens and sensor).  A very slight shift in your position can give the picture a totally different feel, if the subject allows it.

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly in meadow


Lighting

Full-on front lighting is great to show details of the markings and structure of the insect, but try experimenting with other types of lighting including side and back-lighting, because these can give a very different feel, although getting the exposure right is more challenging.  Again, worth thinking of this before you approach the insect, so you can get set up in the right position.

Common darter dragonfly

Common darter dragonfly on a cane


Exposure

Getting exposure right can be challenging.  You may have a dark insect with a bright background such as sky, grass or water, or a pale insect against a dark background such as dark leaves or water, as well as challenging lighting, such as side or back-lighting.  It is worth becoming familiar with the exposure-compensation button on your camera, and learning to use it without moving your face from the camera.  This will allow you not only to make a best guess as to how much compensation is needed, but also to manually bracket the exposure so you get some insurance against having made and incorrect decision.  This is something that comes with practice, and is well worth it.  As a guide, if it is a dark insect on a light background, I usually over-expose by 2/3 a stop and then adjust – for the converse, I underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop then adjust.  You can also adjust exposure to give a particular feel to a picture – over-exposed ethereal, or under-exposed and dark and menacing.

Banded Demoiselle

Banded Demoiselle – challenging exposure!

Some insects are surprisingly difficult to judge:  butterflies, for example, have very iridescent wings, and it can be hard to judge the exposure.  Common blues, for example, often need a surprising amount of under-exposure to get the colours correct, because of the reflections from their wing.  Ladybirds, also, tend to look very washed-out at correct exposure because of the reflective nature of their elytra (wing cases).

Male common blue showing iridescence

Male common blue showing iridescence


Learn to see the picture in your head

Finally, it is very helpful to practice seeing in your head what the final picture will look like, after you have taken it and processed it.  Visualise what you want to see.  What details do you want to see?  How do you want the colours to look – bright, subdued, deep and rich, pale and ethereal?  How do you want the balance of light and shade to look in the picture?    How do you want the background to look – detailed or blurred, bright or dark?  Which bit of the insect do you want the viewer to focus on?  How can you best compose the image so the viewer sees it through your eyes?  Is there anything you can do to draw attention to what interests you about the insect, or the setting in which it is placed?  How do you want the viewer to feel?  How do YOU feel?  Can you convey that feeling in your imagery?

Common darter shelters from the rain

Common darter on willow leaf, sheltering from the rain


You may disagree

This is my approach.  Many will disagree, and many will have their own, different, and equally-successful approach.  It works for me.  In 2014, a portfolio of my insect work reached the final round of Wildlife Photographer of the Year – not something to be sneezed-at, even though I didn’t win.  I hope it has given you something to think about, and provides some guidance for beginners.  Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy looking closely at insects, and getting into their weird and wonderful world.

Common darter in oak tree

Common darter in oak tree

The World has Changed

This blog is a bit different – but please bear with me.  Some of you know, and some of you don’t know, that I have cystic fibrosis – an inherited condition that I was born with, diagnosed at age 10, and have lived with for 54 years of my life.  For most of my life, by making a huge effort to keep fit and exercise almost every day (except when injured or ill), I have managed to keep symptoms to a minimum, and stay as well as I possibly can.  Working at the woods has played a huge part in keeping me well.

However over the last couple of years, things have been heading inexorably downwards, despite every effort I could make.  This year, things have been much worse.  I have struggled to breathe walking round the woods, and have found I have to stop a lot.  I couldn’t chase the butterflies that I love to photograph.  I couldn’t do as much of the work as I would have liked.  I was struggling to talk while showing groups around.  And at home, I had to have a rest after having a shower, and was breathless after getting dressed, or cleaning out the chickens.  My life was becoming a lot more constricted, which, for somebody who loves to be outside in the woods doing things, and a lover of sport, was not a good thing.  In reality, my life expectancy was down to a few years, with the prospect of being permanently tied to oxygen looming large, and beyond that, the trauma of considering a lung transplant, should I be eligible.

This year, a new medication has been licensed.  It treats a mutation that 5% of people with CF have – one of many thousands of mutations that occur in this condition.  Amazingly, that is one of the mutations I have.  What luck!  Except, of course, that the medication is very expensive.  There are relatively few people in the whole World who could benefit from it, but the costs of licensing and regulation to take it to market are the same whether 100 or 10,000,000 can take it.  There is also the issue of producing a return on investment, and making a profit.  These two, combined, have set the price extraordinarily high – about £15,000 a month.

The medication works in a clever way.  CF is a condition caused by an absent or malfunctioning chloride channel called CFTR that sits in the apex of cells lining the lungs and other organs, and actively transfers chloride ions from one side to the other.  Along with the chloride goes water, and the absence of water in secretions causes the lungs to block up with sticky mucus that then gets infected with unusual and unpleasant organisms which cause inflammation, lung damage, and declining lung function.  Treatment of these organisms is unpleasant, involving daily nebulisers, physiotherapy and periodic admission to hospital for intravenous antibiotics, which also have nasty side-effects – in my case, I’m also allergic to most of them.  The new medication, called ivacaftor, opens the gate in this chloride channel, allowing it to function.  It doesn’t treat the symptoms, it treats the disease itself, turning a non-functioning protein into one that works normally.  It effectively converts you from somebody with CF to somebody without CF, although still with the lung damage brought about by years of having CF.  But this is a much better state of affairs.

In trials, people have had average improvements in lung function (FEV1) of around 12-15% – this is enough for some people to come off oxygen, off the transplant list, start exercising again, and enjoying a full life.

But the NHS in England still haven’t reached a decision on whether to fund this drug.  In the meantime, the drug company, Vertex, have instituted a free access programme for patients whose lung function is poor, allowing them to get the drug free for as long as it is needed.  Your FEV1 had to be below 40% for six months – and mine wasn’t.  It was hovering around 40%, but after recent IV treatment it went up to 47%, just for a few weeks, so I felt I wasn’t eligible and didn’t want to ask for it, in case I was turned down.

However Stephen decided otherwise, and asked for my case to be considered.  On 26th November, I heard the amazing news that I could have this treatment, and I took my first pill on 29th November.  And the effects have been amazing.  The World has Changed.

I noticed it on holiday – I was able to walk further, much faster, and up hills, all at the same speed as Stephen.  We went fell walking.  I went swimming and managed 40 lengths without difficulty.  My chest feels clear and quiet, not constantly inflamed.  My racking cough has disappeared.  I have more energy.  I am not always hungry.  I can get showered and dressed without even thinking about it.  I can even do a session of spinning on my indoor bike.

I am often asked what it is like to have cystic fibrosis, and I answer that I don’t know, because I don’t know what it is like NOT to have cystic fibrosis, so I have nothing to compare it with.  Well, now I do, and I have to say that I definitely prefer NOT to have cystic fibrosis!  If this is what it feels like to be normal, then bring it on!  The World has Changed for me, and I am extremely grateful.  I have been given my life back.

And the woods?  Well, I hope that a rejuvenated me will be launching vigorously into the winter work very soon now, able to play my full part again in the management of the woods, all the activities that we do there, and enjoy being outdoor, and free, in a beautiful wild place again.  Now that really is worth it!

We are expecting an announcement on whether ivacaftor will be funded for all patients with the G551D mutation on 18th December in England – decisions in Wales and Scotland will be later.  I hope all patients will be able to benefit from this amazing, life-changing drug.

Traditional or Industrial?

 It is lovely to picture the traditional woodsman, plying his or her trade with an axe, a bowsaw, a billhook, a slasher and maybe a scythe to mow the clearings.  Then shaving the green wood and turning it into useful items for sale or personal use.
The fact is, we would love to be able to do that, and a lot of the time we do:  I’m hoping to take delivery of a shave-horse and pole-lathe, we use the axe to split small logs and pallets into kindling, we use billhooks when coppicing, and we try and do most of the work ourselves, rather than through contractors.  We are off grid, and use solar panels for electricity, and collect rainwater.
The other fact is that we have 20 acres of land, and there are two of us, and we have to make compromises:  using a tractor, a quad bike, a 4 x 4 and trailer, chainsaws, water pumps and occasionally, a generator. 
And many of my readers don’t know that I have cystic fibrosis as well – until quite recently I was well enough to run fitness walking classes in our woods, and even to complete the Hawkshead fell race, and a half-marathon, as well as a 100km bicycle ride, all after the age of 50.  But at the age of 53, my lung function, despite my best efforts, is declining, and walking around the woods is becoming an effort that, on some days, I can’t sustain for very long.  Hard physical work is often beyond me, even though I do my best with the coppicing, logging the fallen trees with my chainsaw while Stephen works on felling the next one.  Carrying my camera round the woods is becoming more difficult.  Even getting dressed in all the clobber you need to stay warm and safe when working with a chainsaw on a winter’s day makes me breathless.  Sometimes, I regret to say, I have to drive round, or ride the quad bike – the unthinkable alternative being that I can’t see the woods at all.
So it is that we appear rather industrial in our approach to the woods – we have to use machinery and non-traditional methods to get the job done.  We don’t camp out there or hold camp-fires very often because the smoke makes it hard for me to breathe, and the damp affects my chest, not to mention the difficulty of sterilising nebuliser equipment while out in the great wild woods. 
It is a trade-off.  Without the equipment, we could do stuff, but we wouldn’t get enough stuff done, particularly as Stephen is the one who does most of the doing these days.  We could not have coppiced the area we promised to do under our management plan.  We could not have planted 5000 trees, we could not have mowed our meadows using a scythe, we could not have weeded around all 5000 trees to stop them being choked without using chemicals, and we could not have made the progress that we have for the benefit of wildlife.
But here’s the thing – we still like the traditional way of doing it too.  We love and appreciate wildlife as much as anybody.  I love the feel of wood, and working it by hand.  I love sitting there, with my camera, watching and photographing the birds, and capturing the beauty of the breath-taking landscape, trees, flowers, birds and other creatures on my camera.  I love being outdoors.  I love doing as much work as my lungs will allow, making myself breathless walking up the slope to the top of the woods.  I love the sights, smells and sounds of the woods, the feel of the breeze on my face, and the patter of rain on my jacket, and the sounds of water rushing through the ditch.
So, we are traditional people who manage things in a fairly industrial way sometimes – but we hope the results from this approach justify the means.  Without the industrial, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the traditional either.
* Please note, Stephen is not demonstrating the recommended safe method of driving a quad bike!

Water, Water, Everywhere!

It has been two years.  When we first bought the woods, water would flow in a stream down our ditch for most of the year, just drying up in September and October, before the rains came again in the winter.  Our well had water in for the whole year.  Our ponds stayed within six or eight inches of the top for the whole year without any intervention.  Our drainage trench across the clearing was actually needed, and provided security for trees that were affected by waterlogging of their roots.  Our rainwater tank provided enough water for the greenhouse, and vegetable beds, and we didn’t need anything else.

But then it stopped raining.  We all remember the drought of 2011, but 2010 was also a dry year, and 2009 had rainfall below average too.  The last time we had any flow in our ditch was a brief flurry at the melting of the snow, but the last regular flow was in early 2010.  The rains did not come in 2010, and they did not come in 2011 either, and the ditch has been dry for a very long time.  Long enough for the rabbits to forget that it was once a stream and to dig holes lower down.

The first ponds we dug, near our entrance, needed topping up in 2010, and all but dried up completely in 2011, with our main, deep pond, being reduced in depth by almost 3 feet, to a small muddy puddle.  Our complicated engineering to ensure flow through the series of ponds and into the ditch seemed rather pointless.  We could not see the ponds filling up again.  We fought a losing battle to keep a remnant for the wildlife in 2011.  Even the three ponds created from a pre-existing pond lower down in the woods were reduced to a couple of tiny puddles.  We feared for the wildlife and the future of our greater duckweed.

We spent a lot of time and money constructing a drainage ditch to remove water from an area where the oak trees were put at risk by waterlogging, taking water across our clearing, and into our ponds and ditch.  This has been completely dry for more than two years.  We were beginning to think it was a waste of effort.

Our new ponds in Betty’s Wood were constructed in one of the few rainy months in the last two years, February 2011.  But even then, there was not much water, and although they remained wet throughout the summer of 2011, providing much needed water for the young trees, the complicated series of overflows designed to prevent flooding seemed rather spurious.  One didn’t fill at all, the other emptied in August, and it looked as it our design for wet woodland, meadows and ponds was not going to work.

But the rain has come.  For the first time, we have had proper, sustained rain.  Our ditch is flowing with a good volume of water, a proper stream, which has surprised some of our rabbits and their flooded homes.  Our well is full.  Water is pouring into our stream from the farmland across the road too, via a land drain.  The culvert under our bridge is once again in use.  Our lower ponds are full and overflowing.  Our upper ponds are full and water is flowing through them into the ditch, and our drainage ditch is again in operation.

Betty’s Wood ponds are testing the water engineering which, by and large, is working, and is not redundant after all.  The willow and alder are happy with wet feet again.  Our bog is boggy again.

In short, we have got our woods back – those lovely, damp, water-filled woods.  How much we have missed the noise of water flowing through the ditch.  How much we have missed needing to wear wellies!  How much we have forgotten just how big our ponds are!

It may not be quite so nice going outside in the rain, but it has transformed our lovely woodlands, and we hope it keeps raining, just a bit, all through the summer.  Water makes our woodlands special.  We need it, everywhere.

With apologies for photos on iPhone rather than proper camera – I forgot to put a card in the camera, so phone was all I had with me!

A Different Perspective

Sometimes, it is good to look at things from a different perspective.  This can mean many things, but I mean here that it is good to look at things from a different viewpoint or angle.  In photography, this can be extremely valuable in getting an unusual image from a familiar item or setting, perhaps by concentrating on a little detail, on patterns or textures, colours and shapes, or photographing them from an unusual angle.  I love to get down on the ground to get pictures of bluebells, for example, from below.

However, this weekend, we got the chance to see Betty’s Wood from a different perspective.  When planning the project, we were able to draw out and plan out on paper what we wanted to see.  We planned ponds, meadows, rides and glades.  We planned thickets and clumps, new areas for coppicing as well as areas to become successional high forest in future.  We planned areas of cover for wildlife, and areas of wide open sunshine for flowers and insects.

Then we had to mark this all out on the ground and plant to the plan, which we did in February 2011.  All of the time since then, we have been working on the ground to make the plan come to fruition.  Mowing the meadows, watering the trees in the drought, repairing damage, replacing lost and stolen trees, sorting out the ponds so that they hold water and provide good habitat, cloning willows from the canal bank to form new coppice for the future.

It is possible to see part of the wood from the top of Pooley Mound.  But we have never actually seen Betty’s Wood from above before, so have never really seen how well we translated the plan into reality on the ground.  We had permission to walk along our neighbour’s hedge and up to a tumbledown barn on the top of the hill, but have never done so (we’ve never had time!).  Labouring away in our little field, we weren’t really aware of how high up this viewpoint is, and therefore of the potential it has for monitoring the progress of our little wood.

So it was that we walked up past a huge rabbit warren, in the lee of the hedge, to the pile of stones on top of the hill by the M42…

…and turned round.  Wow!  There it was.  There was our drawing, made reality on the landscape.  Sloping down towards the ditch in front of us, facing towards us, there were our meadows, our hedge, our curvy lines of trees, our thickets, our clumps, our new areas of coppice and our ponds.  From above, just like the drawing, almost like art on the landscape.

It is a privilege to change a landscape, something that so few of us ever get the chance to do (at least to do directly).  Our perspective had become very narrow, working away on our own little patch, and never really looking up, realising the potential of, or need for, taking a new point of view.  Too narrow.  Without taking that short walk, we would never have realised that we were truly painting with trees.

A lesson learned – it is always wise to take another viewpoint and see things from a different perspective.  You may get a very nice surprise.  A walk we will definitely be taking again!

Equinox

The Spring Equinox.  Day and night of equal length.  Summer is coming!  Today at the woods, in the glorious sunshine, the World was full of the vibrance and energy of Spring.  Little birds fill the sky with the flutter of their wings, and the chitter of their song.  There is frantic activity in the undergrowth, with nests being built, and food being collected.  In the background, the great-spotted woodpeckers drum, and the green woodpeckers laugh.  Bumblebees make their ponderous way around, sampling the pollen and nectar from early flowers.  Daffodils nod their heads, their bright yellow colour bringing joy and happiness to all who see them.

In the meadow, speedwell, chickweed, early dandelion and wild pansy are in flower, the grass is rising.  You can almost hear and see it growing!  The clover, vetches, trefoils, mayweed, daisies and other wildflowers are starting to stand proud of the grass.  In the ponds, little blades of sedge and iris stand up above last year’s wilted offerings. The bluebells are well advanced, and the wild garlic is coming through – the smell guides you to it.

Everything has the glorious backing music of the waterfall notes from the skylark, the chirruping of our linnet flock, and the rattling of the remaining fieldfares.  Opportunists looks for a quick meal – the buzzard, sparrowhawk, goshawk, kestrel and magpies actively seek the unwary.  Rabbits risk being seen in the daytime for a treat of fresh grass. Ladybirds and peacock butterflies are on the wing.

Along the canal, the laughter of childrens’ voices, the vibrant yellow of the willow catkins, dripping with profuse pollen.  And everywhere, there is a whisper of green.  Just a tiny touch, a perceptible change, a pulse of life after winter.  The elder leaves are growing fast.  Spindle is one of the first to emerge with profuse, effusive growth.  Dog rose, guelder rose and the tiny, perfect, hairy, translucent leaves of hazel are coming out of their furry cases and grasping the rays of the quickening sun.

As you walk round, you catch the retreating forms of voles, mice, rabbits, squirrels and muntjac.  Wrens come and shout at you for daring to approach their territory.  The soil is warming.  You sense nature taking a deep breath before sprinting upwards, ever more vigorous and green, towards the sky.

Wonderful, vibrant, exciting spring.  We hope you will share it with us on our Open Day this coming Sunday – and come again throughout the year.  It is the changing of the seasons that makes the wood so exciting, never the same, always evolving, growing, and living.  It all starts at the Equinox, a special day, a special time, a special place.

Why I’m Excited about Linnets

Linnets.  Little brown birds with pinkish breast and head.  Something to get excited about?  Well, we certainly think so.  Because the arrival of linnets in our wood is something pretty special.

A bird in decline, the UK population has fallen nearly 60% in the last 40 years, particularly in England.  As a bird of farmland edges, it has responded to the reduction in hedgerows and the intensification of agriculture, with a reduction in area set aside for wildlife, plus the use of herbicides which reduce the plants upon which they depend.  They form little colonies, just like the one we have in our woods, and feed almost exclusively on seeds from wildflowers, particulary from the cabbage family.  They need thick hedges or bushes for breeding, something else that has declined with the fall of hedge-laying and the advent of savage flail cutting.

We had not seen them in our woods before last month, but a little flock of 20-30 linnet, males and females, have arrived, and stayed.  They have a happy, scratchy little song, twittering away in the tops of the trees like a bunch of nattery old ladies.  They can be seen as a flock with their little bobbing flight, hither and thither over the meadows in Betty’s Wood, suddenly wheeling and landing on the ground to feed, or sweeping up to roost in the trees.  Despite the presence of an uncultivated strip in the adjacent field, and a higher level stewardship field adjacent to us, they seem to like it on our patch, and seem to stay there much of the time.

We know they will eat rape-seed, and this year, one neighbouring field has it growing, but it is not in seed at present.  It is three years since rape was grown in Betty’s Wood and the field immediately adjacent.

But last year we planted a meadow that included a range of plants from the cabbage family – yes, there was some rape-seed growing too, a breakthrough from seed left in the soil after previous crops.  We also had various species of mustard and other brassicas, including hedge mustard, bitter-cress, field-mustard, and other seed-bearing plants like chickweed, shepherd’s purse.  The point is that there are plenty of seeds left from our meadows, even though it was a drought year.  We have planted a meadow, the plants grew, they set seed and the birds we wanted to attract have come.
 
So, that is why we are excited about the linnets.  They have come to the field because of what we have done to the landscape, and the habitat we have made.  They may desert us when the rape seed is ripe nearby, but the chances are they will come back again because we are creating something that will provide a permanent, or semi-permanent food source for them.  Exciting stuff!

In Praise of Stillness

How often do you really sit still in the woods?  If you are a woodland owner, I’d guess it isn’t very often.  There is always something to do.  You can always see something that needs your attention, particularly during winter, when all the woodland management work needs to be done.  There are always brambles and elder and bracken to be controlled and cut back, coppices to cut, log piles to stack and to dry, paths and fences to maintain, trees to plant, hedges to cut and lay and repair.  If you are into woodcrafts, there is always new green wood that needs attention.  And if you are keen on wildlife, there are nest boxes to clean out, seed feeders to top up, wildlife trail cameras to check and maintain, and sites to prepare for photography. 
Then again, even if you do none of those things, there is the relentless urge to move.  We are told we must “eat well, move more, live longer” – the slogan of the Change4Life programme.  Being sedentary is seen as being wrong in some way.  We are even being encouraged to fidget more as a way of staving off an attack of flab (it is now called Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis or NEAT).  Yes, seriously!  We are urged to activity from every angle.  Don’t just take a stroll, take a brisk walk!  Get your heart rate up!  Make yourself breathless!  I am as guilty as anybody of encouraging people to do this, being a qualified fitness instructor myself. 

People like me sit and fidget.  We don’t watch the TV, we watch the TV and do knitting or embroidery.  We don’t sit down and enjoy a camp-fire in stillness and quiet, but we whittle a stick, or carve a spoon, or use a bat-detector, or sing, or toast damper, or poke the embers…the list of fidgety activities is endless. 
I find I really have to make time and take trouble to be still, but when I do, the rewards are immense.  Enjoying, as I do, photography of birds and other creatures, you have to learn the art of stillness, for unless you sit still and become one with the surroundings, they will not trust you, or come close, and you will not get those special pictures.
So it was, yesterday, that I found myself sitting still.  Yes, I had my camera, but I was completely still, on a pile of rotting logs.  Still and quiet, I sat without moving and the rewards were immense.  As I deliberately stilled myself, I started to blend in with the surroundings.  I felt connected to the place and time in a very special way.  Peacefulness washed over me.  I lost the stress and care of the day (even though I knew there were jobs to be done).  And the little birds came.  Just a few at first, flying past me, or looking at me from a distance, and deciding whether they could approach a little bit closer to get to the feeders.  Before long, they were flying by so close I could feel the wind from their tiny wings against my face.  They would come and sit only a meter or two from me in the bushes and posture, sing, or just eat the seeds they had harvested.  Just for a few minutes, I became part of their world, feeling the air, hearing tiny sounds, aware of the little mouse that was running around by my feet.  My world and theirs connected in a way that was beyond visual, or auditory.
A walk round the woods is good.  Exercise is good for you.  Fidgeting can be very productive.  But every once in a while, it is great to take time to be really and truly still, connect with the world around you, use all of your senses, and find peace.  Next time you are out in the woods, try it.

Hurrah for Predators

Predators.  Killers.  Humans, of course, are predators, but have lost touch with the natural cycle of killing just what we need, just enough for food.  And we often have a muddled relationship with those natural predators that are so prominent at this time of year.

Predators often have many traits that we admire:  cunning, strength, beauty, muscularity.  We will happily give money to help save tigers, lions, jaguars, rare birds of prey in foreign lands.  But, it seems, all predators are not equal.

Take the fox.  To me, this is a stunningly beautiful animal.  Lithe and graceful, with a beautiful rich red coat, athletic, intelligent and cunning.  In the woods, the foxes are very active.  The dog fox and vixen are seen together, and they are patrolling day and night, looking for prey that, at this time of year, gets less cautious in a desperate search for food.  And they are successful, often caught on camera with squirrels or rabbits or birds.  The foxes do us a great service:  we have a lot of rabbits on our site, and they can get very destructive.  By reducing the numbers of rabbits, they reduce the destruction the can cause, as well as reducing the overcrowding that can result in myxomatosis, a horrible disease that we know is in our locality, although we have never seen an affected rabbit in our woods.  They also kill woodpigeons, which flock in their thousands onto local farmers’ crops, as well as our own profuse crop of acorns.  And grey squirrels, which can strip the bark from young trees and older branches, and sometimes cause the death of trees.

But for some reason, many people don’t like foxes.  Yes, they kill chickens if they aren’t adequately protected (as a chicken-keeper myself, I watch out for the fox!).  Yes, in towns they can be noisy during the mating season, as well as spreading rubbish around while foraging.  But is this enough to want to kill them?

The fact is, we need all the predators we can get.  In this country, all our top predators have become extinct – the wolf, the lynx, the wildcat (except in Scotland).  Large birds of prey are not widespread, confined to small parts of the British Isles – we have buzzards and occasional red kites, and three species of owl, but no ospreys or eagles in our area.  We are left with the red fox, the badger (which mainly eats earthworms), and the feral domestic cat (which eats small rodents). 

The consequences of our persecution of predators are there for all to see:  fields overrun with rabbits, areas of forest overrun by damaging deer (including the alien muntjac, against which we have to protect our own trees), huge flocks of woodpigeon breeding unhindered, and descending upon the fertile arable fields with gusto.

We try to replace the natural predation cycle ourselves.  But we aren’t very good at it;  or rather we are too good at it.  In a natural predator-prey relationship, the population of the one controls the population of the other – too much predation, and the prey will have more space, breed more, and make up the numbers, too little predation, and the prey gets overcrowded, suffers from disease, and breeds less.  Predator numbers depend on available prey and both are regulated to the levels the ecosystem will sustain.  When we try to do this, we usually kill far more than we need, and end up with an ever-escalating cycle of fast-breeding prey species and more human “control”.

We also feel the need to eliminate other predators to keep the prey for ourselves, even though very few of us now hunt for our own needs.  So we also kill foxes, badgers and birds of prey, because they occasionally kill animals that we consider to be “ours” – the pheasant, grouse, partridge and other game birds (most of which are introduced to an area by humans in the first place).

In our woods, we are trying to create a natural cycle of predator and prey.  We know that, given time, the numbers of predators and prey will reach naturally-sustainable levels provided the predators are allowed to live, grow, breed and develop.  Any human predation needs to fit into this model:  small scale, using natural methods, for food only, and sustainable.  We definitely don’t need to be killing the very predators upon which this natural cycle depends.

So hurrah for our predators, and welcome to our foxes, badgers and buzzards.  If only we could be more tolerant of these wonderful creatures, and the benefits they bring to the whole countryside, predator and prey alike.

New Year, New Opportunities, New Threats

2012 is a new year full of opportunity for Alvecote Wood – opportunities to improve the woods, and also to help the community in many different ways.  2011 was a great year for us.  It started with a bare former wheatfield, and ended with a lovely new wildlife site at Betty’s Wood, complete with meadows, 5000 new trees, a new hedge and colonisation by a huge variety of plants and animals.  Nature is just waiting for an opportunity, and in Betty’s Wood, it saw one and took that opportunity with both hands.

So what of 2012?  First of all, we have been planting again, and this provided an opportunity for a group of people from the Starfish Project in Tamworth:  this project, which seeks to help people who have had misfortune in their lives, brought a group of folk to help with tree planting in Betty’s Wood.  We had small areas we did not complete in 2011, as well as the replacement of trees that didn’t make it.  We spent a beautiful Friday in the woods, planting, working and enjoying the pleasure of being outdoors, working with our hands, and doing something positive for everybody to enjoy.

Other friends, old and new, joined us the following couple of days as we created a new coppice area in Alvecote Wood, and completed the re-planting in Betty’s Wood.  More people will join us to enjoy coppicing over the next few weeks (we hope!).

We have also been approached by a company who train Forest School teachers:  these teachers go on to teach children about nature, respect for the environment, how we are part of nature, and can work in harmony with it, and learn from it, and learn to respect ourselves, other people, and all of the species that surround us.  This is a programme we whole-heartedly support, and if we can help to train people to teach children in the outdoor environment, that would be brilliant.  We have also completed our CEVAS training (Countryside Educational Visit Accrediation Service) which allows schools to see that we can provide quality educational experiences in our woodland for children and adults who would like to visit and learn what we do there.  We hope this will lead to more children and educational groups enjoying our woods in 2012.

We have also embarked on a series of talks to local wildlife and general interest groups about our woodlands, why we bought it and what we have been doing for the wildlife there, starting with Tamworth Wildlife Group.  We hope that this will inspire more people to become interested in owning and managing wildlife sites as we tour around the local area, speaking to people, and running site visits for them when the weather warms up in the Spring.

As well as our programme of open days (last Sunday in every month from March), and open evenings (Wednesday evenings from April), we will be running more photography courses, and a meeting of the Small Woodland Owners Group to discuss landscape-scale conservation.

We are participating in, and supplying data to surveys on breeding birds, butterflies, moths, dragonflies and mammals – another opportunity for the woods to be valuable in building up a picture of what wildlife is around locally, and what changes are taking place.

Opportunities everywhere – for wildlife, for people, and for the woods to be a force for good – and we are delighted that our vision is starting to take shape and we are starting to make a difference.

So what are the threats?  Well, for a start, there is HS2 (High Speed Rail 2).  The route from London to Birmingham does not go anywhere near our woods, but there is a high chance that the route from London/Birmingham to Leeds will.  The route has not yet been published (it was briefly made public by The Telegraph earlier in 2011, only to be withdrawn).  Requests that it be made public have not been granted.  The best bet is that it will go up the M42 corridor, but it could go through our woods, or very close to it.  We simply don’t know, and we are very concerned.

Another potential threat is the pressure being exerted on the Independent Forestry Panel by some organisations to make all woodlands open to the public at all times (under the Right to Roam legislation).  Our woodlands has never been open to the public, but we are opening it up more and more, to allow groups and individuals to enjoy it, while allowing nature to take priorty most of the time.  A small woodland like ours has very little of its area away from paths and places where humans (and their dogs) will wander.  A larger woodland can provide plenty of sanctuary, but ours – not very much.  Our experience has been that the majority of people who want to enjoy the woodland, respect it and behave well, but a minority set out to steal, poach and cause damage by riding bicycles and motorcycles and driving 4x4s.

We would love to be able to open to the public more, but we would need an on-site warden or ranger to ensure that the impact is minimised and that damage does not occur.  We cannot afford this, and we hope that our efforts in making a previously-inaccessible woodland open at certain times will not be undermined.  Throwing open the gates will, in reality, mean that our equipment is stolen, our firewood is stolen, our trees are stolen, vehicles, horses and bicycles damage the soil and wildlife is shot, trapped, poached and ultimately driven away from the site.  We will no longer be able to provide a safe, enclosed environment for children to visit, learn and play, and for groups such as Scouts to come and camp there.  The value of the site for everyone will be degraded.

But we must be optimistic, as there are huge opportunities, and we hope to work with, or around, the threats.  It is a new year, we are doing new things, we hope to meet and work with new people, and most of all, we hope to see new wildlife moving in and enjoying the party.  Happy New Year.