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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Practical Photography Magazine exclusive: Roe deer – the private lives of a native species

 

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The latest issue of Practical Photography features an exclusive six-page article about my project documenting the personal lives of Roe deer – one of only two species of deer native to Britain.

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As part of my on going long-term project to document the natural history of this most beautiful and beguiling of species I wanted to photograph them in an urban setting. Roe deer are highly adaptable. The explosion of the deer population due to the all but disappearance of natural predators, combined with habitat loss have combined to make deer an increasingly frequent sight in our towns and cities.

 I’d heard about an old Victorian cemetery in the centre of Glasgow where a family of Roe deer had made their home. Sadly though they had disappeared by the time I started the project. It was a case therefore of keeping an eye out for a similar opportunity. This took a lot longer than I first anticipated.

 In August 2014 though I received a tip-off from a deer stalker friend of mine about a potential location a lot closer to home in East Sussex. I went to scout the site early one morning. Please click on each image to see at intended res.

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As I drove through the cemetery gates I was amazed to come across an adult female Roe doe resting with her kid next to a tomb. Roe tend to live in small family groups rather than herds like other deer species. Up to this point though all the Roe deer I have worked with had been nervous which is characteristic of the species. They are pretty much engineered by nature to flee at the slightest hint of disturbance. This is what makes them such a challenge to photograph and photograph well.

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These deer though we’re very confiding and perfectly relaxed. As I drove further into the cemetery I was even more surprised to find another adult doe and two kids. I couldn’t believe my luck.

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Roe deer are most active at dawn and dust. Leaving the deer to rest in peace during the day I returned in the evening I came across a magnificent Roe buck.

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A mature adult Roe deer stands at up to 76 cm at the shoulder and weigh as much as 29 kg. an adult doe can be up to 6kg lighter.

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From the elaborate pearling of his antlers I aged him at around five to six years old so approaching his prime.

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Sometimes you’ve just got to scratch that itch…

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It was at this point I think that I realised this was a very special site offering a unique opportunity to follow a family of Roe deer through the seasons and get to know their habits and behaviour intimately. I wanted to make sure to make the most of it.

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I always try to work on a project basis. It stands to reason that the more time and effort you put in, the better your images.

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Although living in an urban environment, the deer were far from tame. A close approach on foot was not desirable, only causing unnecessary disturbance. From working with Roe I know they can quickly change their behaviour and become very skittish. And they are very skittish in the first place. To minimise disturbance, I used my car as a (very expensive) mobile hide, placing my camera and lens on a beanbag for stability. As an additional precaution I also put some scrim across the car window to stop the deer seeing any movement within the vehicle.

Working very slowly and carefully at all times I was able to get some intimate images of the kids as they grew up.

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As I spent more time in the cemetery, I was also able to start to work out the light and able to achieve some some backlit images.

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There are some parts of the cemetery where the background is quite dark. Underexposing a couple of stops in camera enabled me to get some portraits of the deer without any distracting backgrounds.

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In summer a Roe deer’s coat is a striking chestnut red colour. At this time of year Roe appear at their most delicate and slender.

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Grooming was an aspect of Roe deer behaviour I was hoping to capture during the project and the deer duly obliged.

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Feeding was another aspect of behaviour I wanted to capture. Roe deer are a browsing species. Their diet include saplings, herbs, grasses, fungi and ivy.

They can cause a lot of damage to the vegetation and this often brings them into conflict with man.

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Their love of cultivated roses in particular did not endear them to some visitors to the cemetery.

The deer do divide opinion. Some visitors love them whilst others are not so keen. One family has even put an electric fence around the grave of a loved one to protect the flowers. The council have looked at various different options to try to find a workable solution to the problem, including erecting a taller fence and even culling the deer. After a public outcry though they have decided to let them live there in peace.

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One afternoon I watched as a very nice lady spent some time tendering a grave, making a beautiful floral display. I wasn’t the only one watching though. As soon as she went back to her car, a couple of happy slapping ringtone hoodie Roe teenagers emerged from the shadows and started eating the roses. Despite the poor lady’s best attempts to shoo them away, they were having none of it. I spoke to her afterwards and she was remake ably gracious about the whole thing. I couldn’t help feeling very sorry for her though.

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One of the kids was a little buck. He was one of my favourites to photograph and his natural curiosity helped me get some really nice images.

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Using the light wasn’t easy at this location but I did manage to make some more backlit images of this beautiful doe.

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In late autumn Roe develop a much thicker coat of browny grey, their dense pelage making them appear fat and dumpy in appearance. They also display a beautiful white patch on their necks.

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Roe bucks shed their antlers at the end of autumn. The antler cycle of the buck, is phased differently from other deer species.

The antler of a mature buck consists of a forward facing brow tine and two rearward points at the top of the beam. Additional points sometimes form if the soil and geology is favourable.

A new pair of antlers grows during the winter covered in velvet. Re growth is complete by the end of March when the velvet of the antler is frayed.

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In Spring their shedding of their winter coat makes them look tatty and moth eaten in appearance. Into early summer you can still see the occasional grey fleck amongst some individuals, the last vestiges of their winter pelage.

Roe deer are very in tune with the seasons and I found these marked changes in appearance very interesting to observe.

The project also presented a wonderful opportunity to observe some fascinating behavioural interactions.

Dominant bucks aren’t particularly tolerant of other males, even their own offspring and I watched them lock antlers on at least a couple of occasions, as the adult male made it clear to the young pretender that it might be time to move out of home and establish his own territory.

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Cemeteries and churchyards provide a perfect habitat for nature. The deer share this peaceful sanctuary with a variety of other wildlife. I also regularly spotted a resident Sparrow hawk that would prey on the resident Wood pigeons and corvids. As the nights started to draw in during the winter I would also hear the tell- tale ‘Too-wit too-woo’ of a Tawny Owl and even found a few pellet son top of one of the headstones.

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Red foxes also make churchyards and cemeteries their home. Whilst they are known to take young Roe kids, they are more likely to be found scavenging through rubbish bins for the things people leave behind.

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The shots of the Fox capture during the day time like those of the Jays and Squirrels are all taken in London cemeteries.

I took a bit of a detour last winter and spent some time photographing a family of urban foxes living in an old Victorian garden of rest just a couple of minutes from my house in the centre of Brighton. These foxes are pretty much nocturnal. It was my first attempt at camera trap photography and a bit of a steep learning curve. Fortunately I had masters of camera trap photography Jamie Hall and Terry Whittaker’s numbers on speed dial. I am really helpful for the advice, encouragement and support. Checking camera traps after dark at a location frequented by drug users and other undesirables certainly added a fresh challenge to the experience. Given the location it was inevitable that my gear would go walk about at some point (which it did – or at least the flashes and remote trigger. The camera was attached to an 8metre chain and wasn’t going anywhere). Fortunately the thieves weren’t the brightest and I was re united with my flash units and other gear before the day was out!

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Photographing these other species helps to tell a much bigger story of nature quickly adapting to an urban environment.

Returning to the Roe deer, the arrival of winter brought with it a hard frost as can be seen in the following series of images. The next shot received a Highly Commended in this year’s British Wildlife Photography Awards.

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As you can see my little buck was by this stage growing up fast…

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This was not something lost on the mature buck (now freshly sans antlers). Even so he remained duly wary of his (presumably) father …

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With the arrival of Spring came new life. The arrival of a new addition to the family was lovely to see. Roe mothers are very protective of their young and this tender age and it took me a while to earn their trust to allow me to get these portraits of the new arrival.

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The last time I visited this location was in late summer, I hadn’t seen one of the adult female does for a number of months. Speaking to the manager of the cemetery my worse fears were confirmed. She had died in the winter finally succumbing to a nasty foot injury I had noticed when I first photographed her. Sadly also I didn’t see the mature buck at all during the summer. I like to think that he may have moved on. It’s a shame though as I was looking forward to seeing his new set of antlers. It just goes to show though that these sort of opportunities don’t last forever and it’s important to make the most of them whilst they last.

To be honest though I think I have spent enough time photographing in cemeteries for now at least..time to move on to the next challenge.

 You can read more about the project in my article ‘Roe Deer: personal lives of Britain’s native species’ in the January 2016 issue of Practical Photography available from all good news agents from 26th November.

I would like to thank Ben Hawkins and his team at Practical Photography for producing such a good looking article and continuing to support my work. Take a bow gentlemen!

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