Some four years ago I moved house; there were a few surprises along the way, which is often the case during a house move, but what I hadn’t expected was to discover that the mature trees at the bottom of my new garden regularly had beautiful red squirrels visiting.
Who could forget Squirrel Nutkin, made famous by Beatrice Potter? I now had these beautiful creatures visible from my house. The native UK red squirrel is loved by everyone – and for good reason, they are a magical sight when you catch one living wild as they go about their daily business.
I desperately wanted to get some pictures but in the summer time it was nearly impossible to get a clear picture of them while up in the trees due to all the foliage, in the winter it wasn’t much better as there always seemed to be a branch or cluster of twigs in the way of a clear picture.
So, I hatched a plan to get the ginger ninja’s down out the trees into my garden to an area I could get some good photo opportunities. They, of course, had other ideas, which saw several attempts at hand-built rope bridges and climbing frames go unused, ignored and eventually taken down. After several months of trying and countless failed attempts I still had no decent pictures of them.
Then one day I noticed that the squirrels were paying particular attention to a large pot at the bottom of the garden – they were happily sitting on it and seemed very comfortable in that area, so I began leaving some raw hazelnuts on the pot each night for them to enjoy early the next morning.
After a few weeks, the squirrels would play around the pot daily, so each night while they slept, I began to slowly move the pot a small distance towards an area where I could get some photo opportunities. Once the pot was in its final place, I began to build a wooden framework, adding to it over many weeks; the framework eventually consisted of a jumping platform and a number of areas into which I could place props.
We initially had a number of regular jumpers, one being Bobby, named after a famous footballer who had the same characteristic of looking one way while moving the ball another and another named Jagger taking the name from the song title Moves like Jagger due to the acrobatic moves the squirrel made during jumps.
This pair of squirrels went on in 2019 to be featured in national press and attracted enquires from as far away as Germany. The BBC showed a lot of interest and following a feature on the regional BBC TV news, they sent a film crew and reporter to record a segment that was aired on BBC Northwest news channels during the evening and late programmes.
Bobby also featured on the BBC homepage next to Boris Johnson, as well as making several appearances on the BBC iPlayer. Boris has since ranked this as one of his all-time greatest achievements!
Bobby won a Gold award in the Societies’ monthly competition and also won a category in the 20×16 print competition, as well as being shortlisted in the British Photography Awards. He didn’t do too badly for a rodent in my back garden! Very much a case of a ‘local rodent done well’.
During the COVID-19 restrictions I found myself at home a lot more than I usually would be and so I decided to start using props in my red squirrel pictures. This also coincided with a crop of new squirrels starting to visit us, and as one set of squirrels moved in, Bobby and Jagger sadly moved on and are no longer visiting regularly (although the new crop of are very similar in colouring and we suspect they are the offspring of Bobby and Jagger).
THE NEW CREW
The new crop are called Nelson, Cuddles (yep, we have a squirrel called Cuddles), Larry and several kittens called Mouse, and a few as yet unnamed – mainly because we can’t tell them apart. Nelson owns a haulage and groundwork corporation and his family are often seen playing on the vehicles or searching for lost keys.
Nelson is also a member of the local fire service despite being a little scared of heights.
Between them and the occasional bushy-tailed trespasser we are extremely fortunate to have the red squirrels visit our garden.
RED SQUIRREL PLIGHT
Out of all this there is a very serious side to my Garden Red Squirrel Project. Red squirrels are now classed as an endangered and protected species in the UK. They were once a common sight across the UK but since the introduction of the North American grey squirrel in the 19th century the red squirrel population has declined at an alarming rate.
This in part is due to the grey squirrel being larger, stronger and more competitive for food and territory, but mainly due to a virus called squirrel pox, which is carried by the grey squirrel (having little or no effect on them), but devastating consequences on our native red squirrels, with over 90% that catch the disease dying from it.
Organisations such as the National Trust and The Wildlife Trust are working to protect the red squirrel population throughout the UK, which has now dwindled to less than 140,000. In stark contrast to a population of 2.5 million grey squirrels, the disparity in the numbers indicates that unless the red squirrel population is protected, it is estimated they will become extinct in the UK within 10 years, which is unimaginable.
My Garden Red Squirrel project is being used to raise awareness of the red squirrel plight and ultimately to raise support and funding to help protect the UK population from declining further. As photographers we have a social responsibility to make a positive difference wherever we can through our imagery. It is a powerful medium that can deliver messages in a unique way. And if we can, we really should use photography to help others.
It would be remiss of me to not delve into the photography side of capturing pictures of the red squirrels and how a number of innovations in my Sony alpha cameras have made capturing these beautiful animals possible.
Bearing in mind I am shooting in my back garden and have wooden fences along the perimeters and also have neighbouring buildings, I need to shoot at wide apertures to blur the backgrounds and make them unobtrusive, and separate my subjects from the environment. The shallow depth of field places a premium on focusing accuracy and so the a/f performance has to be good.
The animal eye autofocus system on my Sony A9 and A7riii cameras adds another level of performance to the already excellent focusing system, and the cameras recognise the animal’s eye and locks focus on, and tracks the eye during movement extremely well.
In the case of the a9, a/f and exposure values are calculated 60 times per second, even during aggressive continuous tracking. Coupled to this, the silent shutter on the a9 has no noticeable rolling shutter defects, and the camera fires at 20fps in complete silence. This gives me the ability to fire my cameras without disturbing the wildlife at all, particularly if I use the cameras remotely.
I use a combination of focusing options when photographing the squirrels. Ultimately the decision on which option I decide to use will be influenced by whether I am using the cameras remotely or not.
For jump shots when shooting remotely, I will tend to use zonal focusing and predict where the squirrel will jump and lock focus at that point. Red Squirrels leap at breakneck speeds and cover a lot of ground quickly (completing a jump from a standing start of over 2 metres in less than half a second). When shooting remotely I set the camera up and then do not return to the camera again if possible during the session, this minimises disturbance. Locking the camera down in manual exposure and focus means the camera will do exactly as I want it to without further input from me. When I am manning the camera, then I will usually opt for autofocus and tweak the settings as and when I need to during the session. The focusing system on the Sony a9 is highly customisable with options in the focusing zones and how reactive or sticky I want to make the active focusing.
For non-jump shots, the squirrels are moving much slower and the cameras are put into autofocus mode utilising animal eye a/f. When the camera recognises the animal’s eye, focus is locked on to the eye and delivers great results even at wide apertures, using remote or manned cameras.
If you have enjoyed this article then please come and follow my project on Instagram and Facebook. More information about the work of the Wildlife Trust Red Squirrel Project can be found on their website.
We owe it to our future generations to ensure our native Red Squirrel population are around for our future generations to enjoy.
Check out Terry’s Garden Red Squirrel Project in the national press here