Tips For Photographing Wildlife In Cities From 2020VISION

Niall Benvie shows us why cities are important refuges for wildlife and gives his wildlife photography tips.

| Animals / Wildlife
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The importance of cities as wildlife refuges is often underestimated. Niall Benvie sees what is being done to make space for wildness in urban Britain.

To read Niall's tips on photographing wildlife, click this link: Wildlife Photography

Tips For Photographing Wildlife In Cities From 2020VISION: Grey squirrel in Regent's Park
Grey squirrel in Regent's Park taking little notice of people © Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Built-up areas may occupy only 11% of England’s land surface (and much less in the rest of the UK), but their hinterland is much greater: the energy required to sustain them, the food to nourish their inhabitants, the raw materials demanded by industry are drawn from far and wide, normally at a cost unknown to the city’s residents. And if Government’s plans to increase the housing stock by another 4.4 million homes by 2016 are to be realised, the infrastructure to service them - roads, airports, car parks and shopping centres - will further degrade those green areas fringing cities already dismissed as “rurbia”. The traditional view of the "countryside" as the place for wildlife and cities as the place for people will have to be overturned and the fact that given some tolerance and imagination, many species will live amongst us, acted upon. It’s vital too, to recognise that for many people their only contact with wild creatures may be in the city; without that direct connection it is hard to foster empathy with the wider environment.

City wildlife can be a lot more exciting than rats and house sparrows. In Norway, sea eagles have nested within the city limits of Trondheim and a young male wolverine took up residence in the suburb of Bymarka in 2006. Beavers live happily by the golf course there and in Berlin traffic is sometimes stopped by wild piglets crossing busy roads. Black redstarts, a species more familiar from rocky slopes in continental Europe, nest in Britain almost exclusively in urban settings - the first on the original Wembley Empire Exhibition building in 1926. Its fortunes have fluctuated inversely to ours with its London population thriving after the blitz and declining with the regeneration of areas along the South Bank and the Barbican. Red kites, once restricted to a few remote Welsh redoubts now sweep into gardens in the Thames Valley to snatch chicken scraps left out by householders.

Tips For Photographing Wildlife In Cities From 2020VISION: Grey herons
Grey herons are a regular sight in Regent's Park taking little notice of people © Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

But it is another bird of prey, the peregrine, that has caught the public imagination more than most. Rather like the black redstart, their view of buildings (especially very tall ones) as potential nest sites rather than human artifacts to be avoided means that there is no shortage of suitable habitat for them in cities. If that coincides with a reliable food supply (such as feral pigeons) and freedom from persecution then why would they not move into the city? Unlike black redstarts, these predators are a dramatic presence in the skies - appearing even over central London - and watching one hunt in this setting can take the breath away more effectively than any Harvey Nichols window display. They have bred for a decade now in the Capital and are colonising other cities including Derby, Sheffield and Bristol where there is a popular Peregrine Watch Point near the Avon Gorge. There is growing evidence from the UK and other parts of the world that urban peregrines are becoming nocturnal hunters, especially during migration periods, when birds on passage are drawn to the bright lights - and unwittingly into the talons of these adaptable falcons.

Tips For Photographing Wildlife In Cities From 2020VISION: Dark-bellied brent geese
Dark-bellied brent geese at sunset next to London Array Windfarm on shore substation © Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

While some species are winners in the urban environment, others struggle to adapt: many woodland birds have found some sort of substitute in leafy suburban gardens - albeit with a much higher density of predators. In an undisturbed ecosystem the number of predators is determined by the availability of prey, not vice versa, but the urban environment often skews advantage in favour of the predators; the blood lust of well-fed house cats, after all, is undiminished by domestication. Even more worrying is the poor quality of much urban green space in respect of its biodiversity and ability to provide the mix of habitats needed by many species. Planting trees alone does not create a forest.

With these concerns in mind, and recognising that the old model of isolated nature reserves has had its day, the RSPB has embarked on its massively ambitious Futurescapes Programme for the Greater Thames area. Extending over more than 1000 square km from Tower Bridge all the way down to the North Sea, this area has some of the richest wetlands in southern Britain - many of which are also under the greatest risk of destruction. Indeed, two thirds of what remained in 1930 was gone 60 years later. The RSPB is cooperating with a range of authorities, community groups, businesses and regeneration agencies to ensure that not only is this loss halted but reversed and, crucially, that a network of corridors between rich areas is established. While some may question whether any sort of industrial development can be truly sustainable, the RSPB is working within the political and economic environment it finds itself to achieve as many positive outcomes for wildlife as possible. And given its track record in successfully opposing harmful “developments”, big business is sometimes more inclined to work with rather than against an organisation with a million strong membership.

Tips For Photographing Wildlife In Cities From 2020VISION: Marbled white butterflies
Marbled white butterflies and engineers creating wetland habitat at Bowers Marsh RSPOB Reserve © Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

People are at the core of much wildlife conservation planning today; exclusion in all but the most sensitive areas is now viewed as counter-productive and the understanding that people need a stake - economic or emotional - in the landscape before they will really care for it, is gaining a foothold. The challenges of balancing opposing needs are perhaps greater in this particular Futurescape project than any other. If the RSPB can pull it off, then there really is hope for "a wilder Britain."

Top Tips For Photographing Wildlife In Cities

  • Cities offer a rich array of shapes and colours to incorporate into your composition. They are the ideal place to create "environmental portraits" where the subject is portrayed as an element in the landscape.
  • Some birds, especially ducks and geese, become used to people in towns and are much more approachable than their rural counterparts. Take advantage of this to try wideangle pictures.
  • The plants associated people mistakenly call “wasteground” – such as buddleia and red valerian are highly attractive to butterflies and moths in late summer. Seek permission for access ahead of their flowering times.
  • Use local newpapers to send out appeals for information about sites – such as gardens where badgers come to feed or with popular bird tables: people are often actually quite proud to share their experiences with photographers.
  • Cemeteries and botanical gardens can acts as havens for wildlife - berry bearing shrubs are attractive to waxwings and thrushes - but check with the local authority before wandering around with a long lens.
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