More tales of the riverbank

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Last autumn I was fortunate enough to work on a project with leading wildlife conservation and environmental photographer Terry Whittaker .

I’d long admired Terry’s work  which I’d seen through his success with the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. It was a privilege to finally be introduced to Terry  when I attended the British Wildlife Photography Awards in London.

Terry was the worthy winner of the 2020 vision special award (he has a habit of winning things) for his work documenting a Water Vole re introduction project in mid Kent. I was particularly interested in this category as I had a go at entering it myself. You can see my meagre efforts in comparison here. I have to say it wasn’t a particularly fair fight though. Terry’s work showing everyone how it should be done!

Terry was kind enough to invite me down to have a go at photographing his voles. The site was continuing to work well, and we both agreed that there’s no time like the present. So a week later I found myself immersed in freezing cold water, looking particularly resplendent in a pair of chest waders. I must have looked  a fetching sight to the vole sat nibbling on crowsfoot only a few metres away.

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The site is absolutely idyllic; an old mill with a stream running through it,  along which the voles have made their home. The photographs in this blog were all taken in October and November when most of the activity was concentrated at the top of the stream near the house. Here the voles are a little more habituated to people by curious passers by

Photographing  voles in close proximity isn’t easy . It involves a lot of patience and waiting, sitting prone and perfectly still in icy cold water for hours and hours on end, in the hope that a vole will happen by. Once you have a vole in front of  you, you can’t move a muscle either otherwise they’re gone in the blink of an eye. Although their eyesight is particularly poor they can sense the movement from the ripples which is amplified ten fold by the time it reaches them. It’s no wonder they’re so skittish, with so many predators such as  mink, fox, heron and owls (them again) . Cramp is a real problem for the photographer as is the ice cold water at this time of year. After my first visit there it took a couple of hours sat in the bath on my return to London to get my core temperature back up again. To add to the challenge you’re also working with your camera gear a matter of centimeters off the top of the water’s surface. In my experience cameras and water don’t mix that well.

A few hours discomfort and worrying about your camera gear is nothing compared to what the Water Voles have to put up with though. As Terry explained to me, it’s a tough life being a vole. Habitat loss in particular, as well as predation (with non native mink often being singled out as the main culprits) have left this species on the brink and they are currently one of the UK’s most endangered mammals. Although conservation organisations are doing as much as possible to re introduce them, these projects in themselves involve a lot of work. In particular the riverbank habitat needs to be protected and maintained against invasive plants and vegetation. Despite all the sterling conservation work currently being done, as things stand at present the survival of the species remains fragile.

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Despite the struggle they face, it’s difficult not to root for these guys. They’re endearing creatures and their behaviour is fascinating to watch. When I was last there a vole decided to swim right under me rather than taking his normal route. You haven’t lived until a vole has swum underneath you.

They can be feisty too. Neighbourhood relations aren’t always harmonious, particularly where food is concerned.

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The water is fast flowing so there are no opportunities for perfect reflections at the site. In a way, I prefer the kind of  diffuse reflections I was getting though. There’s something almost ethereal about them.

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They’re amazing creatures and working with them over the last few months has been quite and experience. It’s difficult not to  become very attached to them. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, they have the habit of surprising you.

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It’s an ongoing project which I’m going to be returning to over the next few months. Winter is a particularly difficult time for voles. We’re keeping our fingers crossed though they’ll make it through though and hopefully I’ll be able to share some new images with you into the Spring.

In the meantime, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Terry for giving me such a fantastic opportunity. My knowledge of this species and fieldcraft have really benefited under Terry’s expert guidance. He’s someone I have a  lot of respect and admiration for. For anyone not familiar with Terry’s work, it’s well worth checking it out; also his blogs for 2020 Vision. I’m also grateful to Richard who owns the site for allowing me access and for keeping everyone going with tea, biscuits and his unfailing humour. Terry and Richard make quite a double act. Thank you gentlemen.

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4 Responses to More tales of the riverbank

  1. Hi Jules,

    That’s a superb portfolio of the voles. I’m a big fan of low level reflection work and your first two images are brilliant.

    It’s this kind of work that makes an impact when viewed by wider audiences when being alerted to the voles’ precarious situation.

    Glad to hear the site is maintaining its health.


    • jcoxfoto says:

      Cheers Chris. Sorry it has taken so long for me to reply. Just getting used to the wonders of WordPress

  2. Jules, Your Vole images are inspiring. I really like your second image a lot. Great stuff!

  3. I am so glad you and I are facebook friends. These photos are fabulous. I can’t believe what you had to do to get them. The shots are like you are looking right into their little souls and that feeling goes right to my heart. I so enjoy your work. These are great shots. Thanks for sharing