Wildlife photographer, Paul Hobson, goes one step further and explains how photography, within conservation projects, can really make a difference.
As a wildlife photographer, I have changed as I have grown older. I am now wiser, but also more reflective. Not only have I changed, but the world around me has as well; some of it for the better, but a lot (particularly that of our wild creatures and places) for the worse....
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In 2018, I reached a pivotal year, one in which I had promised myself I would take stock of where I had come from and where I wanted to go. I have been pondering for over a year now and have come to a number of conclusions.
I started by considering the wildlife near to where I live, in Sheffield, and the Peak District. Here, I have witnessed so many changes; the rivers beds are plagued by the signal crayfish, that has decimated our native variety. Black grouse have disappeared, hen harriers have been blasted into the ether, twite no longer twitter in the heather, badgers are threatened with a cull, and hedges that once exploded with bird song are strangely silent. Close to home, the very trees
I have grown up with (the second longest continuous lime grove in Britain - a true dendrological delight) are under threat, simply to save money. I kept asking myself how did we get here? Britain is now ranked at a paltry 189th out of 218 countries surveyed for ‘biodiversity intactness’. The recent State of Nature report (2016) shows that 56% of UK species have declined between 1970 and 2013 and that 15% are threatened with extinction. In many respects traditional wildlife conservation, as we know it, has failed dismally in the UK. Many will be appalled at this statement but I can’t see how it cannot be considered as anything else, in light of the previous statistics.
Running in tandem with the catastrophic decline in over half of our wild species, wildlife photography has boomed. I am fascinated by claims from some wildlife photographers that they are ‘conservation’ photographers, but are these claims hollow? They may think it’s justifiable to photograph wild animals or plants and hope the images sell and, if they do, bring attention to another declining species. The question I ask myself is ‘Did this actually make a real difference?’ There have been some fantastic projects, but very few that involve large numbers of wildlife photographers across the UK in a meaningful way. A current project titled ‘Scotland, The Big Picture’ is a truly inspirational idea, but it is not one that I can contribute to in a practical way. I love this project and gain inspiration from it, but I am realistic. I can’t replicate it for Sheffield, or the Peak District.
It is these two threads; the continuing decline of UK wildlife and the effectiveness of many UK wildlife photographers playing an active conservation role, that I have been pondering over. The two questions I have asked are ‘Does my photography make a difference’ and ‘Why do I actually do it?’ In the past I donated a few images to support Sheffield Wildlife Trust, but I struggled to do this once I turned professional and became a jobbing wildlife photographer. It was hard to resist the constant calls for free images and I did have an underlying feeling of guilt lurking at the back of my conscience.
The second question, ‘Why do I photograph wildlife’, is easier to answer. I love wildlife and I love creating images. That’s it in a nutshell.
So where has all this reflection brought me? I know I want to carry on being a wildlife photographer. I know I want to make a difference and I know I need to change. So I have come up with a plan. My idea is to work as a volunteer on a number of conservation projects, taking part in the practical work. As I do this, I can record my work and the project photographically. These images would be donated to the organiser for free, to use them as they see fit and I would also publicise the work in magazine articles where possible. This can be a great platform for the projects I work on in the Peak District and I started 2018 by working on two projects, the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (and the National Trust) badger vaccination project, and the ‘Crayfish in Crisis’ scheme, run by the South West Peak consortium.
The crayfish project illustrates well my aims, as I embarked on my new direction as a wildlife photographer. I started by contacting the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust and we agreed that I would come to the next crayfish relocation day. The aim of the project is to survey, monitor and create ark sites for white-clawed crayfish, our native species, whose population is dropping like the proverbial lead weight. White-claws are one of the 15% threatened with extinction. Once healthy populations are found (and there are not that many left), the team survey dozens of potential sites that could become ark sites. These are sites which the non-native signal crayfish should never be able to reach and do not have a population of white-claws. The very specific conditions that must be met to create an ark site
are difficult to find, but over the last few years the team have successfully established fifteen.
On the days that I worked with the team, we collected healthy white-claws from two sites in Staffordshire and relocated them to two ark sites. The work is fiddly, especially as many of the crayfish are very small, but these are possibly the ones that will adapt to their new home the best. As I worked, I also recorded the team in action as they collected, measured and gave a health check to more than two-hundred white-claws we managed to collect each day. This reportage style of photography was new to me and I had to adjust many of my preconceived ideas about working with people, both as a team member and as a photographer. The main issue I had to contend with was to record what was happening, as it happened. I am used to spending hours watching and choosing the moment and light which I think will produce the best images. Reportage style doesn’t have this luxury - something I quickly
I chose to use one lens only, a 16-35mm 2.8, and worked with my favourite camera - my 5D Mk III. It’s light, versatile and works brilliantly in low light. I also chose to use flash occasionally, to add catch lights and kill shadows. As we worked, it became obvious that they had very few images of crayfish ‘au natural’, both of the white-claws and signals. I was now able to move back to a genre I was confident with.
One of the many problems facing photographers working with endangered species in the UK is the need for a Schedule 1 licence from Natural England, which I don’t have for white-claws, so I had to operate under guidance. For signals the situation is different; a licence is not required to work with them as they are a non-indigenous invader, however, a licence is necessary if catching large numbers of them. Since I didn’t intend to do this, and I was going to photograph them in situ, a licence was not needed, but there was another consideration I needed to be aware of; if I did take one out of the river, I could not return it. I would have to kill it, as it’s illegal to introduce non-native species into a UK habitat, even if you have removed it from the very same place you are going to let it go back into.
Photographing under water is not easy. The river I intended to use to photograph the signals is quite shallow and slightly peat-stained.
I wanted to create split images; half in, half out of the water. In the past I have used an underwater camera bag, but this time I decided to build a small tank to immerse the camera. I used a split-level graduated density filter to darken the extremely bright skies. I quickly realised that only bright, sunny weather worked and that the many shadows from trees meant finding the perfect spot took time. In the end, over a period of several weeks, I accumulated a set of images I was pleased with.
So, now 2018 has been consigned to the history books, how do I feel about my new approach? Well, so far all the comments from both projects have been incredibly supportive. I feel that I really did make a difference; not a huge one, but one that gave me tremendous satisfaction. And this new direction will become firmly embedded into my work as a wildlife photographer for at least the next few years, if not permanently.