Inexpensive wildlife cameras mean that creating your own Springwatch is now easier than ever
PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:28 02 March 2017
Tom Marshall from the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust shares some top tips, and discovers if the same lenses can capture the county's rarest resident.
Few of us will have failed to be dazzled by the latest ground breaking series from the BBC’s acclaimed Natural History Unit – Planet Earth II. Sir David Attenborough and his team once again scoured the four corners of the earth and the oceans, in search of breathtaking new wildlife moments.
But while the traditional commitment of hundreds of hours spent in cramped and sweltering hides have again brought us memorable scenes, we are increasingly seeing the use of motion sensor cameras or ‘trail cams’ for those most elusive species. But what is the history behind these pieces of innovative kit, and how is it helping our understanding of nature here in Yorkshire?
Perhaps surprisingly, we have to travel back more than a century to find the early pioneers of a technique that is now at the heart of multi-million pound documentary making, and cutting edge conservation.
Chief among those setting an early benchmark was George Shiras in the United States. As early as the 1890s, Shiras was already honing his approach to what we now might call a ‘trail cam’, albeit with a slightly more Heath Robinson approach than today’s pocket-sized set-ups. Bearing the same black and white look of today’s images – but due to the absence of colour film, and not infra-red light - Shiras’s ground-breaking captures of bears, deer and racoons had made it into the pages of National Geographic by 1906.
With an array of wires, cameras and assorted equipment that could fit in a small tea chest, Shiras’s flash of magnesium powder must surely have scared off just as many animals as it helped to capture on film.
Thankfully today, those explosions are a thing of the past and the dull red glow of a bank of infra-red lights is as much as any unsuspecting creature has to contend with. So with current trail cams as undetectable as possible and little bigger than a box of chocolates, what are they helping us to learn about the wildlife around us?
Firstly, and as their name suggests, they provide a fantastic opportunity to learn more about animals that may have a regular route or trail, but one where sitting in a viewing hide for hours on end would be simply impractical.
The otter is one such example, and although they are our largest river predator they remain intriguingly elusive. Thankfully their size also means they leave tantalizing hints such as ‘runs’ across footpaths and into nearby rivers, and of course the conservationists’ favourite, droppings.
By setting up cameras in these likely spots, groups such as the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust have been able to show that otters are reappearing in the region’s rivers and waterways, and that artificial homes known as ‘holts’ are working in attracting new residents. Indeed, the trust has even been sent videos of an entire family of otters visiting a garden pond just a few hundred metres from the Ouse in York.
With otters experiencing a healthy and welcome resurgence, the most excitement is often reserved for creatures that are bordering on the mythical. If the otter is a tough customer, then the pine marten could be the Houdini of the North York Moors.
These cat-sized mustelids (the same family as stoats and weasels) were historically a feature of many British woodlands, but today – or so it’s believed – remain restricted to the Scottish Highlands and perhaps remnant populations in a tiny handful of English forests. Indeed, the only contemporary image of an English pine marten is from Staffordshire and even in Scotland they remain equally tough to track down.
While an encouraging re-introduction programme is underway in deepest Wales – also making good use of camera traps to track progress – some believe pine martens may still be in Yorkshire’s forests. Although a dead marten was found in the North York Moors during the early 1990s, to date there have been no definitive sightings of a live pine marten.
A crowd-funded project supported by the Forestry Commission and camera supplier NatureSpy has now seen several trail cams installed in pine forests in the north of the county. But despite other apparent sightings and a single tantalising shadowy image, they have yet to trigger one of the cameras to provide indisputable evidence that this iconic high canopy creature is still making a home here.
While few of us can expect a visitor as dramatic as this, other Yorkshire favourites such as hedgehogs, badgers and foxes are well within the reach of any backyard filmmaker, with just a few basic tips needed to make sure you get that Springwatch moment for yourself.
Six pieces of advice to help you get the best footage
1. Consider your angles. For a larger mammal like a deer or fox, keep your camera vertical to give a wide potential field of view. If you’re aiming for something a little more diminutive, tilting your camera slightly downwards should ensure you don’t miss any action.
2. How low can you go. Think carefully about what you’re hoping to capture on film, a camera a couple of inches off the ground may be ideal for a hedgehog, but if they come too close a badger or fox may be head or tailless in your final image.
3. Happy trails. If you think you have an existing trail for a fox or badger for example, position your camera to the side and you stand a great chance of a successful ‘trigger’ as they pass through.
4. Steady as you go. A gust of wind or a wayward tail could really ruin your chances of getting some great images so secure your camera as firmly as possible.
5. Shine on. Trail cams don’t get on well with glaring sunlight – which can set off the trigger accidently or leave you with shadowy footage. Try to position them with the sun behind or to the side.
6. Stay switched on. It sounds silly, but the biggest mistakes are those most avoidable – make sure you have a full set of batteries, a memory card and batteries all inserted correctly and you’ve switched to record before you walk away.
A range of trail cams is now available at Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s brand new Potteric Carr Visitor Centre near Doncaster, more at ywt.org.uk