Heatherlands

_K7R6174As I set out on my long term project to photograph the natural history of roe deer nearly five years ago I knew I wanted to include some images of roe in flowering purple heather.

Lowland heathland is a rare and threatened habitat occurring on acidic, impoverished, dry sandy or wet peaty soils, and is characterised by the presence of a range of dwarf-shrubs. These include various types of heather and gorse, as well as bilberry/bleberry, cowberry and crowberry. This habitat is also home to a variety of fauna, including roe deer. It’s sharp decline over the last 200 years makes it a priority for nature conservation

Terry, my deer mentor, who I wrote about in my last blog, and I had spent a lot of time trying to find a suitable location in previous years. Heather wasn’t a problem. But a site holding a good population of roe was. In 2013 I had spent most of the summer working at a private site in the heart Wareham Forest with permission kindly provided by the forestry commission with very little to show for it.

In one of the last conversations I had with Terry when he was in hospital I told him I was going to have another go at getting images of roe in heather and share them with him. Terry sadly passed before I was able to make make good on that promise.

In the weeks that followed, as I struggled to come to terms with Terry’s passing I found comfort and solace amongst the wild beauty of the heather lands at a new site I had identified in Dorset which had potential close to where I grew up.

Driven by grief I have probably never worked harder on anything in my life in terms of creative endeavour. I know I walked an average of 10 to 15 miles a day in search of roe deer with heavy camera gear slung across my shoulders. It was tough going with 3am starts to get to the site and late finishes getting home at close to midnight. The Roe rut is like that. I was so determined though to achieve the images I wanted in Terry’s memory it hardly registered.

Putting into practice the wealth of skills and fieldcraft Terry had passed on to me over the years, I was fortunate enough to have a number of wonderful encounters over the next few weeks, involving a variety of different deer from big mature bucks (beasts as Terry used to call them) to little yearlings. The selection of images below represent some of my own personal highlights from the project.

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_K7R6203After weeks of blood sweat and tears though the does eluded me. I was fast running out of time as the heather was starting to go over leaving just a few purple patches in those areas of the heath that received less direct sunlight. I decided to call it a day until next year. On the last night though I thought I would try one last time for a shot of a mature buck I had encountered at the start of the project.

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I set myself up just as Terry had taught me and waited…and waited. Nothing. The light had much gone and I was pretty much ready to call it a day when I saw movement out of my peripheral vision. A beautiful adult female doe, no doubt the dominant female in the territory walking past me through the heather. In that moment I felt Terry’s presence and voice very clearly and knew what to do (and perhaps more importantly what not to do to mess up!).

The next shot is the resulting image and the final one of my summer project. Taken at 1/25 second by some small miracle it is sharp.

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As I walked out of the heath in the pitch dark for the final time, listening to the sounds of the night, I smiled to myself at the thought of my magical encounter and my spirits started to lift a little for the first time in weeks. I knew Terry would have been proud and would always be there with me when I am out with the roe.

This blog is dedicated to Terry, a celebration of a  life well lived, filled with strength, beauty and vibrant colour. Just like his beloved roe standing among the flowering heather.

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Terry Copperthwaite – my mentor and friend remembered

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It is with great sadness that I write this tribute to my roe deer mentor and great friend Terry Copperthwaite who passed away a few weeks ago. All the images appearing in this post were taken with Terry over a number of years.

I first came across Terry five years ago when I was looking for a deer expert to help me with a long term project to document the natural history of Roe deer. Roe are perhaps our most beautiful species of deer in the British Isles. As a prey species though they are naturally shy and therefore difficult to get close to. In approaching the project I knew I would need to learn the specialist fieldcraft required if I was to have any hope of getting close enough to get the images I was hoping for. Terry appeared on a DVD I bought from Sweden about stalking Roe. Terry was introduced as a professional deer stalker, whose territory he managed lying in the beautiful rolling hills of southern England, holding a well kept and balanced population of Roe deer. The film features a variety of encounters with Roebucks during the rut. On each occasion Terry was able to get the Swedish stalkers to within just a few metres of the buck. At the end of the film the programme makers included a credit to Terry which simply read ‘Terry Copperthwaite – thank you for teaching us.’

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I contacted Terry to introduce myself and asked if he could help me with my project, teaching me the fieldcraft skills involved in stalking Roe. I wasn’t expecting a reply to be honest. Hunting is an emotive subject and the stalking community are naturally careful when it comes to unsolicited approaches. I was very surprised therefore when Terry came back to me almost straight away. That was Terry though, he would do anything for anyone.

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Terry said he really liked my work and proposed a deal, he would help me and in return he wanted my help with photographing the deer. Terry had a deep love and passion for Roe deer and whilst he had stalked Roe all his life he confessed that these days he preferred watching and photographing them to shooting. I agreed and so developed the start of a very long and rewarding mentoring relationship and friendship.

I went down to stay with Terry at his based on the outskirts of Salisbury and he would take me out to find deer early morning and late evening on the 24 or so farms he managed across Wiltshire, Hampshire and Dorset. The Roe rut takes place during high summer so it meant getting up early at 4am and we weren’t back to 11pm. These were halcyon days though. Terry was extremely generous with his knowledge and taught me so much about the natural history of Roe deer. He had also led a very interesting life, characterised typically by bravery and serving others, having previously had a long and highly distinguished career in the Metropolitan police before retiring in 2010 to set up his stalking business. We spent many hours talking and putting the world to rights. As well as being highly knowledgeable about his subject and possessing a huge generosity of spirit Terry also had a very dry sense of humour that suited my own and there was a lot of laughter. My times with Terry over the next few summers are now such treasured memories

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In 2014 Terry and I started leading Roe deer workshops together. To my knowledge we were the only people confident enough to offer specialist Roe deer photography workshops.

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The above image of a Roe doe in a crop of barley was taken with Terry. Called ‘Fields of Gold’ both Terry and I were proud that it won a highly commended in the Habitat category of the British Wildlife Photography Awards a couple of years ago. Those close to Terry will appreciate the way in which the title of the image now resonates.

Terry was more than just a mentor and business partner though, he was a dear friend. He was very caring and I will never forget the times he called me when I have been going through difficult times myself. His support during these periods made all the difference and helped get me through a stronger person. Terry was like that, just inspirational.

I count myself fortunate enough to be able to spend  time with Terry before his passing and got the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to me. I also made Terry a promise that I would finish the Roe deer project and that the resulting book would be for him. It will take me a few more years to ensure it is a fitting tribute but I intend to keep that promise

Terry was a true gentleman, a loyal friend, a superbly knowledgable naturalist and a passionate conservationist. I am going to miss him greatly. My thoughts are very much with Terry’s family at this difficult time. I would like to take the opportunity to thank them for welcoming me so warmly into it. I very much feel like a member of the Copperthwaite clan.

In the weeks since Terry’s passing I have spent a lot of time out in the wild with the Roe, determined to continue with the project. This has been a great comfort in dealing with my own personal grief. I have felt Terry with me, his voice and presence, as I have put into practice the fieldcraft and knowledge he generously passed on to me. I hope it shows in my work which will feature in my next blog, Heatherlands. In the meantime, I wanted to finish with the images below. Going back through my files these are the last two photographs I took with Terry on a workshop with a couple of clients during the Roe rut in 2016. I hope this blog is a fitting tribute to a very special person and role model.

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Terry Copperthwaite, master buck you’ll always be with me in my heart and thoughts – thank you for teaching me. My turn now to pass it on to the next generation.

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Meadowlands

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Over the summer I have been working on Roe deer again at one of my favourite sites close to home in the South East of England and thought I would share some highlights with you (please click on each image to see them at optimum resolution).

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I was away this year for much of the period coinciding with the rut. I was still able to run a few photographic workshops either side of my trip and the following images are all taken on workshops with clients.

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At this year the bucks are bulked up full of testosterone for the rut. You can really see it with their thick necks.

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The females look very attractive also with the deer in their summer coats. The word Roe comes from the old English for red and Roe deer are in fact a lot more red than their bigger cousins the Red deer.

The Roe deer population in the South East can be traced back from fossils millions of year and in my opinion are much prettier than the roe found in other parts of England that have largely been re introduced from poorer stock from the continent. You have to go up to Scotland to find animals of a similar quality.

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One of the meadows where I work has a lovely black background. It is one of my favourite places to work.

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By mid summer the meadows are vibrant and alive with the flowers in bloom,  including thistles, buttercups and orchids. It’s always lovely to see our prettiest species of native deer amongst the summer flowers. It’s a very special habitat – there has been a 97% decline in traditional hay meadows since the Second World War. It’s very sad as this is an important habitat for many of our native species.

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This particular buck is one of my favourites to work with. He is very tolerant if you know what you are doing. With his six point antlers, prominent pearling and sloping coronets he is a mature animal, coming into his prime.

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Putting together this blog I had an opportunity to go back through my files. It’s strange to think I have been visiting this site for the last five years. I haven’t really worked there very much over the last three years with family taking priority but it was nice to take a stroll down memory lane. I’ve never really put together the shots in a blog as a set so I thought I’d present them here.

Roe deer Capreolus capreolus, in hay meadow, England, May

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Bringing my photography up to date, I have been working on some shots this summer to convey Roe being more active at night. Shot with a very cool blue white balance and in the majority of cases manually focuses in the gloom at very high ISOs for a deliberately grainy feel and very low shutter speeds (1/25 sec) it’s very much hit and miss getting sharp images but good fun none the less.

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I’ll be working a lot more at this magical site in the next year as I really get to know the resident deer families.

I run one to one Roe deer workshops throughout the year. Please call me on 07525618363 for details and to secure your booking.

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Cuckoo!

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For the last couple of months, I have been working on a project to photograph the common Cuckoo, one of nature’s most notorious birds.

These are images of an adult male cuckoo I photographed over a period of two months in England. The following shots depict the male cuckoo in its traditional territorial display pose of dropped wings and raised tail.

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Beloved as nature’s traditional herald of spring and summer, Cuckoos have held a place in the hearts of many for centuries.

The adults arrive in Britain in late March or April after 4000 journey from their wintering quarters in Africa. They stay only a few short months to breed, departing in July or August, with young birds leaving a month or so later.

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I had a go at trying some flight shots with this bird. It was all a bit hit and miss but I got a couple of front lit shots I was reasonably happy with.

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By June the meadow making up part of the cuckoo’s territory was carpeted with some beautiful flowers making for a very pretty backdrop as the bird foraged for food.

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In this next sequence of images, the cuckoo can be seen foraging for its favourite food, hairy caterpillars.

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The best opportunity the site afforded undoubtedly though was for backlit images. The next sequence are by far my favourite images from the project. I love using light in this way.  Initially I seemed to be the only photographer set up for backlit. By the end of the project though other photographers saw what I was getting and were persuaded to join me shooting contre-joure.

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One other benefit of shooting backlit is the light highlights dramatically the  spray as the cuckoo flays its prey to get rid of the harmful toxins.

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The best session was on the cuckoo’s final evening at the site before it left to make it’s arduous journey back to Africa. I love this next sequence of the bird coming onto the perch and the different wing positions.

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Contrary to their name, the Common cuckoo is in sharp decline most likely as a result in the crash in the butterfly and insect population they feed on as a result of the agricultural industry’s insecticides. The recent population decline makes this extraordinary bird a Red List species.

Based on the latest scientific research this Cuckoo has around a 60% chance of making it back next year from its home in the Congo where it spends the majority of the year. Godspeed.

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The project was great fun and a real privilege to be able to create images of such an extraordinary bird. I met some lovely people along the way many of whom have become good friends, including Lesley, Marcus, Paul, Graham, Dan, Gary, Jerry and John to name but a few. It was nice to meet you all. This blog is dedicated to you.

 

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