Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Paintings for Red Squirrel Week

It's Red Squirrel Week this week and I'm doing my bit to raise awareness by posting my latest collection of paintings of red squirrels here.

I painted this one after a visit to Formby, in Merseyside, where the National Trust protects an isolated colony of reds. Red squirrels are in serious trouble. The latest estimated population is just 120,000 , of which 75% or more are in Scotland. The main problems are disease, specifically squirrel pox, the loss and fragmentation of their woodland habitat, and competition from the more robust grey squirrel.
There are only a handful of refuges left for red squirrels in the UK, of which Formby is one.

Earlier this year I visited another, in Angelsey, where conservationists have concentrated on controlling the red squirrel's biggest competitors; greys. Whilst there, I met Dr Craig Shuttleworth of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales who gave me a leaflet about red squirrels with a map of Welsh populations and their distribution that dated back to 2000. The paper showed that this endangered species remain in just a few small pockets across the region and that these pockets have remained unchanged for 15 years. That is apart from on the Island of Anglesey, where there are more than 500 red squirrels –representing the largest population in Wales. This boom is despite the fact that red squirrels were nearly extinct on Anglesey in 1997.

The success is directly due to a focus on the systematic eradication of grey squirrels. Grey squirrels are a major factor in the decline of our native squirrel due to the fact that they carry the disease, squirrel pox, which is lethal to red squirrels. Grey squirrels that dare to cross the bridge off the mainland are relentlessly trapped. The island has now become such a safe haven for the reds that recently these indigenous species have begun crossing onto the mainland. In response the Trust has also begun to control populations of greys on the mainland and is successfully encouraging this steady spread of the red squirrel population. At the same time the Trust concentrates on breeding red squirrels in captivity for release and in the enhancement of woodland habitats. 

Here in Yorkshire, red squirrels are tragically sparse. However earlier this year, whilst the snow was still on the ground, I met up with wildlife photographer Simon Phillpots to see a thriving colony in the Dales.  Simon is passionate about red squirrel conservation and has spent years getting to know his local population. We set off from Hawes and before long were driving down a track into a hidden valley with larch and fir plantations on one side of the track. It was clear the woodland had also been recently planted with more native species. The landscape was breathtaking. There was a snow covering on all the branches and the tops of the walls were coated in white.

We parked and then headed down a path on foot to Simon’s hide. I love a fresh covering of snow because it shows signs of wildlife so clearly. Roe deer slots and rabbit tracks criss-crossed the path. Then, as we got closer to the hide, the star-shaped prints of red squirrel appeared. Beside the hide were bins full of squirrel and bird feed and as Simon opened the hatches I spotted a welcoming committee. Several squirrels had heard our approach and were sitting there waiting to be fed.

This was very different to most of my wildlife watching experiences. Usually keeping quiet and ‘stealth-like’ is essential. But the more noise we made the more the woodland came alive with squirrels and birds. We decided to photograph the squirrels without using the hide. The hide had been necessary when Simon first began to photograph these squirrels several years ago. But we could now walk amongst them.

The squirrels followed when Simon called them and would even go to a spot to look for hazelnuts if Simon pointed to it – it was like being with the pied piper of squirrels. It was incredible to watch as they ran along dry stone walls, across fallen trees and perched on stumps looking for the hazelnuts Simon had put out for them. Their mouths opened to fit in a hazelnut perfectly and they could crack into their hard shells in seconds to get at the tasty kernel inside. Meanwhile some nuts were stashed away for another day.

Each character was different. Some had a playful nature and were bolder and more mischievous than others. Among them one character stood out. This one had a slightly kinked tail and, Simon explained, was the cheekiest. He had named this one Floppy. Squirrels do not hibernate but grow thick winter coats and prominent ear tufts.

Watching these squirrels was so engaging. It would be tragic if we lost these fun creatures. And yet a report published this month by the World Wildlife Fund suggests that the world has already lost 52% of its animals. This Christmas I hope to do what I can to raise awareness for Britain's endangered species by staging a major exhibition at my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, featuring my paintings of threatened UK species with advice on how to help them. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Black Fox

I’ve always got an ear to the ground for interesting wildlife sightings. So when I had a call from a customer saying he had seen a jet-black fox near his flat, my ears pricked up.

There are only thought to be a handful of such creatures in the country. Although black in colour, they are technically known as ‘silver foxes’ since the fur is tipped with white. The coloration is all down to genetics. Historically, silver foxes were among the most valued for their fur. Their silver-black skins were worn by nobles in Russia, Western Europe, and China and their pelts were considered to be of a higher quality even than that of a pine marten, beaver or otter.
But whilst they are virtually unheard of in Britain, I’ve read that silver foxes make up to 8% of Canada’s red fox population.
I gasped audibly down the phone as my customer told me he had seen the male black-coloured fox early in the morning on the opposite side of a steep valley from his flat.
He was so enthusiastic about his sighting it was hard not to get caught up by his stories of ‘Black Fox’, as he named it.
Soon after our telephone conversation, this customer came across to my gallery in Thixendale to show me his video footage.
He was quite a character. He arrived wearing a smart green tweed suit, tie and top hat. Jayne, who works in my gallery, welcomed him in by saying. “You’re looking really smart are you going somewhere nice?” To which he replied: “Yes: Here!”

His real name was Robert Burns, but he introduced himself as ‘Black Fox Bob’, which made me chuckle. I couldn’t wait to see his footage so we went through to the house and plugged his camera in to my widescreen TV.
As the video played, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I was expecting the fox to be dark, but this fox was as black as a Labrador, with just the hint of silver highlights along its body. It had a beautiful white tip to its tail, just like a red fox.

I watched entranced as Robert flicked through the footage. It was amazing how relaxed the silver fox seemed given that there was a busy dual carriageway just 20 yards further up the steep bank. This behaviour was very different to that of country foxes that I see here in Thixendale which are very wary.
The footage was a little shaky but nevertheless ‘Black Fox Bob’ had caught some fantastic sequences of two foxes, a black one and a common red one.
One of my favourite of his clips was of Black Fox flirting with a young red vixen. The vixen was sitting beneath him on the steep bank. He slid on his belly down the incline to join her, pulling himself along with his front legs and trailing his back legs and tail behind him. As he slipped alongside her, he stopped and stood up, then walked round her to regain the high ground.
He tried to be tender, sniffing around her face, but she rebuffed him with such a sharp snap that he slid down the bank. He got up to try again. This time, he wasn’t so charming and grabbed at her tail with his teeth as he slid past. But then a few minutes later he sidled over to her and licked her round the muzzle. She sat upright and they both looked down the valley together. Then she curled up into a ball and put her head down to rest and started cleaning and grooming herself.
‘Black Fox’ rushed towards her, excited by his success. Next, he jumped over her and bounded away into some trees. Then he ran back and pounced on her. He misjudged and his front legs landed heavily on to her body. She looked less than impressed by these boyish antics and skulked off to sleep in some undergrowth.

I asked Black Fox Bob to keep me up to date with his sightings. I was impressed with his diligence. I started to receive a stream of highly-detailed letters and late night phone calls with all the latest news. He was becoming as ‘fox-obsessed’ as I can be when I’m watching a wildlife subject. Black Fox Bob was so hooked he had even designed his own black fox logo.
 I decided I had to see this unusual fox for myself.
The problem was that it usually made an appearance between 4am and 6am. At the time, my summer exhibition was in full swing and I was tied up with filming a weasel family in my garden for BBC’s The One Show.
By the end of June, Black Fox Bob informed me that a larger male fox had come on the scene. Bob called this one ‘Daddy Fox’ and it sounded as though this large male seemed intent on taking over Black Fox’s patch. Judging from appearances, Black Fox was last year’s cub, so his chances weren’t great.
To make the situation worse, the young vixen I had seen footage of Black Fox flirting with had disappeared and an old vixen had come onto the scene. Poor Black Fox appeared to be confused and lost without his mate and sightings had become unreliable.
Then Black Fox Bob reported that Black Fox had got mange on his tail. He was worried it would spread.
Things took a turn for the better in August, when Black Fox Bob reported that Black Fox’s mange had recovered and he now had another vixen mate. Black Fox Bob called this new lady ‘New Red’.
His video footage was still a bit on the shaky side as well as small on the screen and he was keen for my advice on how to get better shots. It turned out that he had been filming the fox from over 200 yards, so I suggested that he either needed to get closer to the foxes or get the foxes closer to him by using food as bait.
Black Fox Bob began a regime of slowly leaving a trail of food that led closer and closer to his flat window. The ploy worked a treat and soon he was getting some much better video footage. He sent me some clips of the two foxes. It looked to me like they had paired up and may well go onto mate in the winter. I wonder if we will get some black cubs next spring.

On one clip, New Red was filmed eating and looking up from time to time, as if she was waiting for something. Then Black Fox appeared out of the undergrowth and she rushed over to meet him. They touched noses by way of a greeting and he gave her an endearing lick on her ear before they began playfully chasing each other across the grass.
Then at the beginning of September, I got further news and another video. This time it featured New Red being attacked by a local feral cat. Black Fox was less intimidated by the cat and protected his girl by sitting directly in between the two; staring fixedly at the cat so that New Red could feed in peace.
This and all the clips and news I had had since I first heard of Black Fox made me feel I knew him well and now the urge to see Black Fox for myself could no longer be ignored. So this month I headed off to Black Fox Bob’s town flat in West Yorkshire.

He was amazed when I arrived and opened the boot of my car. Inside I had packed boxes and bags full of lights, flashes, infrared cameras, dimmer switches, wires, tripods, clamps, SLR cameras and lenses.
We loaded all this gear into his flat and Bob took me on a tour of the fox’s territory. Bob’s flat overlooks a steep valley which I jokingly referred to as ‘Black Fox Canyon’. He showed me where the foxes run through the undergrowth and where they slept too. 
But we were conscious of the time and soon returned to his flat to set my equipment up. As dusk started to fall we were ready. I had linked an infrared camera to the TV in his living room so we wouldn’t miss a single movement outside.
The hours passed as we chatted about Black Fox, but by 11.00pm we had seen nothing – just the feral cat that had unsettled New Red. We decided to name this character ‘Scarface Claw’, after the children’s classic Slinky Malinki.
Then five minutes later, Bob said in a relieved voice: ‘He’s here’. We tiptoed into Bob’s bedroom to get a better view out of the window. I’d rigged his garden with security lights earlier that day and I gradually turned them on with a dimmer switch.
The black fox didn’t seem overly upset by this new development, although was less sure of the flash when I took a photograph. Thankfully after a few shots he relaxed and settled down to eat the food that Black Fox Bob had put out for him. I got a final shot before he trotted off on his rounds of his territory, melting into the darkness of the city.

·        If you know of very unusual wildlife living near you I would like to hear about it. I can be contacted at my gallery on 01759 368355 or by email

Friday, September 18, 2015

Warrior Fashion

I've really enjoyed watching BBC2's new series on elephant expert Saba Douglas Hamilton's safari camp in Kenya - especially after noticing in last week's episode that the warriors were wearing the Christmas presents I sent them.

I have led two wildlife tours to stay at Elephant Watch Camp, the remote Kenyan eco-lodge featured in the series, and after the last trip I sent the warriors a gift of pheasant feathers for their headdresses. Apparently pheasant feathers are all the rage amongst fashionable Samburu. I was particularly impressed by the tribesmen who help Saba Douglas-Hamilton to run the lodge during my stay. They feature in the series helping her to look after her young children and running wildlife tours for guests. They really were as helpful and knowledgeable as they appear in the documentary and so after my first trip there I wanted to say thank you.

So at my next visit I took along a print of a painting I had done of an elephant to present to them as a thank you gift. But whilst they accepted this gracefully, they also confessed that if I was going to be returning from England again what they would really like was pheasant feathers.
So the following year I took along a dozen pheasant feathers. I was surprised at how delighted they were with my gift and noticed that I hadn’t quite brought enough to go round.
So last year I began collecting feathers earlier. I picked up 50 in total and sent them in the post in time for Christmas. According to Saba Douglas-Hamilton, pheasant plumage is all the rage in Samburu and the warriors were delighted with my gift.

If you haven't seen the series it's not too late to catch up. This Wild Life is on BBC2 on Mondays and Tuesdays at 7pm. Below is some of the wildlife that I saw when I went there.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sparring Sparrowhawks

This week I won 'highly commended'  in the 2015 British Wildlife Photography Awards for this photograph of two sparring sparrowhawks.


I travelled down to London to collect my award on Wednesday - and took the opportunity to photograph deer in Bushy Park at the same time - perhaps the subject of another blog! The picture, which won highly commended in the animal behaviour category, is now on display alongside the other winning photographs at London's Mall Galleries. It will go on to be published in a book showcasing all of this year's winners. I am pleased at the way I caught the two birds in the frame; their talons locked in deadly combat, their wings outstretched in hostility.


But in fact this photograph was taken as background research for the painting below.

Readers of this blog will remember I spent six months persuading a female sparrowhawk to feed regularly in the garden so that I could photograph it up close. I wanted a model I could rely on to get the kind of photographs I needed for the details in my painting so I had to get it feeding from the same spot every day - where I could be there ready to photograph it. 

This was a particular challenge as sparrowhawks only hunt live prey. But they don’t always finish their meal in one go and will often leave a kill half eaten to come back to.With this in mind, I decided to take a carcass from a sparrowhawk kill and slowly move it a few metres away each day until it was in a convenient place for me to photograph. But first I needed to work out how I could exchange a sparrowhawk kill with offerings of my own -  so that if I did I could get a sparrowhawk to return to the same spot again and again. I decided to try out my plan on the female sparrowhawk that visits my garden. If I was successful it would mean I could photograph her everyday – and at the same time keep her away from the song birds on my bird table!

I noticed that she would often perch on top of the swing seat in the garden, so I began by leaving a partially-eaten pigeon there. This didn't interest her at first, but then the wind picked up and moved the wings of the pigeon - she spotted it and went on to feed! It took a long time to gradually persuade her that there would be food every day - and then move the spot to where I could watch, but eventually I had her.  Then one day a new and more aggressive young female sparrowhawk moved in. I was first aware of her presence when I heard the garden birds chattering urgently in alarm.

My sparrowhawk stopped eating and turned to face the direction of the noise. Suddenly she fanned her tail and lowered her head in a defensive posture.

With astonishing speed a second hawk came into the frame. The original hawk flapped her wings up in the air and fanned its tail even wider, to make herself look as large and threatening as possible.

But the second hawk was not going to be put off. She made a grab for the pigeon, tugging on its wing. It then lunged at the other hawk, pushing it off the kill. 

It was an explosive moment. My camera can take up to ten frames a second and captured some astonishing images that were too quick for the human eye.

As I reviewed my photographs I could tell that this intruder was a much younger female, possibly just that year’s chick. My original sparrowhawk was about two or three years old and much more attractive, and in fact became the model for the painting, as above. The younger bird equalled its rival in size but was already at this age more aggressive. I thought that this would be a one off encounter but over the next two weeks the two hawks tussled over ownership of my feeding station. Occasionally I would see them both perched on the hedge just 20 yards apart, almost daring each other to go down first. Eventually the younger bird won and became a daily visitor. I thought I had lost my more attractive model, but as I opened my daughter’s curtains one morning I saw the original female sparrowhawk outside. After a few more battles, the younger hawk disappeared and the older bird resumed its habitual lunchtime feed - and I went on to paint her.