By Matt Livesey
For many photographers, the car is as vital a piece of equipment as the camera. Since January 2020, however, I have consciously made a transition away from travelling by car and towards engaging with nature on a much more local scale on foot. The primary reason for this is the obvious and yet often deliberately overlooked contradiction between enjoying and benefitting from the natural world and doing so in a way that damages its future. Secondly, I genuinely think that a more local engagement with nature brings far more satisfaction than relying on the car as a gateway to experiencing wildlife. Finally, from a photographer’s perspective I believe that working at the local scale leads to more photographic opportunities and those photos that I do take being better quality.
I am not trying to over-simplify the matter; for example, although I have made every effort to reduce my reliance on the car for photography over the last year, to get to the other side of the village from where I start many of my long walks, it is necessary to drive five minutes to save lugging my heavy camera bag forty minutes uphill through a busy high-street. Additionally, there are species that simply cannot be found and photographed in Hertfordshire and require occasional travel to other parts of the country. But these are exceptions rather than the rule. I am lucky in that foreign holidays have never really appealed to me, and I am far more enthused about British wildlife than distant rainforests and savannahs. This means that I have been able to painlessly give up flying. But low-carbon birding, as I understand it, is about changing your birding in the overall direction of a lower-carbon future, rather than an all-or-nothing blanket removal of any polluting travel.
Reducing my carbon footprint, however, has been only one of the incentives to change the way I photograph and watch wildlife. While studying as an undergraduate in Durham, I had no access to a car. This meant that for three years, all the exploring, wildlife watching and photographing I did had to be by foot. As Durham is a small city, it is only a ten-minute walk along the River Wear before the landscape opens out into rolling countryside. It was during my three years of spending hours exploring the Wear Valley that I first (albeit unknowingly at the time) engaged in low-carbon birding.
A few haunts quickly formed my local patch. One was a flooded former coal pit. To reach this required a 45 minute walk which also provided ample birdwatching opportunities. Indeed, it was in one of the fields on the way back from the pond that I came across a Barn Owl hunting over a field, the first time I had ever seen this in the area. On another occasion I discovered a field where a flock of around twenty Curlews fed in the winter. That same winter I also happened upon a Scaup, bobbing along in the river. Had I simply driven straight to my destination I would have missed all of this. This is why I like to think of birding on foot as exploring the “spaces between spaces”. In the UK, the vast majority of wildlife is found outside of nature reserves – but how many people specifically visit a random area in the middle of the countryside to watch wildlife? Staying local and exploring on foot allows you to incorporate both specific and known wildlife destinations, with the spaces and corridors in between. The fact that you are also likely to be surveying areas that are seldom birded by others adds to the feeling that on any given day, you could discover something new which adds to the scientific, and personal value of these records. The species does not even have to be particularly rare – just discovering something that no one else knew was there feels like a reward. Channelling this information into your local Bird Club is a great feeling, as it helps to build up a more informed picture of how species are variously distributed.
Despite the rich experiences of patch birding during my time in Durham, when I graduated and had access to a car again I was thrilled at the thought of unlimited travel for photography. I could travel anywhere and at any time. However, it only took a few months of monotonously driving from place to place before I started to feel dissatisfied with the way I was spending my time. As I was simply driving to locations, I was planning my photography projects based on known species in each area, and therefore relying on previously reported sightings and information. This meant that I was taking a lower volume of photos and struggling to come up with new project ideas. The three-hour walking round trips to photograph Goosander ducklings required a certain level of dedication and craft to find. Conversely, driving from place to place in a car meant that I would rarely penetrate below this “surface wildlife” that was easily located and reliable. These days, I am rarely stuck for new project ideas as instead of having to try to generate them from scratch, I can choose from among the unplanned encounters that occur by virtue of walking. The beauty of local exploration also means that the line between walking and birding is relaxingly blurred. Often, I walk out into the countryside for a break from work, and take my binoculars just in case. Systemically driving from place to place to photograph pre-planned species leaves no space for this leisurely low-maintenance type of birding and scouting.
With no idea of the global upheavals that were to come, in January 2020 I made a definitive decision to conduct as much of my scouting and photography on foot as possible. Since then, the year has been rather eventful, but my photography and birding has remained largely resilient in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. Even in the depths of lockdown, I was able use my daily walk to discover two pairs of nesting Tawny Owls less than a 20-minute walk from home, which I photographed once restrictions had been eased slightly. Similarly, I was able to photograph Yellow Wagtails in a field I would otherwise never have checked. A helpful tip-off from my next-door neighbours also led me to a Little Owl nest a 25-minute walk away. I was able to submit all of these new discoveries to the Hertfordshire Bird Club. As autumn approaches I am looking forward to the change in seasons, and being able to discover new species and projects in the same local area all over again as seasonal migrants start to return.
My transition to local-patch birding means that I have the peace of mind of making a reasonable effort to ensure the way in which I enjoy the natural world is not harmful to it. But in addition, giving up the expanded geographical boundaries that a car can bring has ironically produced in me a richer enjoyment of birding and a greater photographic productivity than ever before.
Photo at the top: Yellowhammer coming down to drink in a cattle field, July, County Durham. Photo by Matt Livesey.