Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Mythical Beast that is the Yorkshire Red Squirrel

On Monday the 17th December, a small group of us set off in search of the mythical beast that is the Yorkshire Red Squirrel.  Having photographed these critters in Scotland before, I couldn't resist the invite but could their Yorkshire cousins be found?  You hear so much about grey squirrels being the doomsday for reds in England that I didn't hold out much hope.  Could this underground, post-apocalyptic group of reds surviving in Yorkshire be found?  In short....yes....but almost not!

We set off at 7am and with the weather worsening by every mile north, it wasn't looking good.  3 hours later we were somewhere in the vicinity.  Our goal was to find the Snaizeholme Red Squirrel feeding centre as this was to stand the best chance of catching a glimpse.  Up and down farm tracks we drove, getting stuck once and on the edge of a muddy slope at that...  We eventually ditched the wagon and took to foot, up and down farm tracks we walked....nothing!  If the feeding station was proving elusive, surly the reds would be even more mysterious.  Just as it was looking like the 3 hour journey up north was for nothing, our saviour turned up.  A Yorkshire Dales National Park Ranger with a sack of peanuts!

The red squirrel is the only native squirrel species to the UK with it's American cousin the grey being introduced in the 19th century.  Since then the greys have spread and decimated populations of our native.  Grey squirrels are carriers of a parapox virus better known as squirrel pox.  They themselves are immune, but this then passes on to reds when in close contact which can be fatal.  The invasive greys also outcompete the reds for food.  Grey squirrels are able to feast on acorns, these contain tannins that are toxic to reds and offers a larger food source to greys when times are tough.  Red squirrel survival depends on the eradication of greys and where they have been removed, reds seem to naturally improve their population health such as Anglesey, Brownsea Island, Yorkshire and most of Scotland.

As you can see from the top photo, the weather was never on our side and it drizzled for most of the day!  I initially started using my telephoto lens (400mm f5.6 - top picture) and whilst the photo looks quite good, the low light meant I needed a high ISO to gain any usable shutter speeds with my longer lens.  I do love my camera, but it doesn't handle noise from high ISO's well and so unhappy with the results I chose to ditch the portraits and go wider!  I attached my smaller lens and steadily went in closer, this kind of approach gives a very different feel to the images as you can now add in some of the environment in which your subject presides.  In this case woodland.... afterall this is an important part of the story of the subject and I quite like the different results from using a telephoto to blur out the background.
 I exposed for the trees in the background and used a bit of fill flash to make the foreground subjects pop and stand out.

 After getting a few wide angle images I was happy with, I set myself a new challenge of getting photos of the red squirrels running about.  These guys are FAST!  The low light didn't help on the shutter speed front so I tried to work with what I could get and used the slow shutter speeds to get some movement blur and panning blur with a bit of flash again to help freeze the subject.

Hope you like the results, hopefully there'll be more red squirrels soon to come from my trip to the cairngorms in February.  With any luck, a very snowy cairngorms.  Delicious!