Despite regular culls, it is commonly accepted that Britain’s deer population is the highest it’s ever been. In fact, red deer numbers in Scotland have doubled in the past 50 years. As deer spread throughout the countryside, and even into urban areas, constant grazing means the shoots of the next generation of native woodland trees never survive the deer’s next nibble.
Increasingly, some conservationists and government environment officials are considering the reintroduction of a British predator capable of controlling the growing deer numbers. Such a move, they argue, would restore the natural balance, improve biodiversity and help revive native British woodlands. Cue: the return of the wolf.
Just over 20 years ago a similar situation existed in America’s Yellowstone National Park as growing populations of elk grazed the landscape unhindered. Wolves were reintroduced and the results have been dramatic: not only were elk numbers reduced, but the fear of wolves kept them on the move, allowing young trees to grow and re-establish in areas that had been grazed bare. This included riverbanks where tree roots were able to shore up the banks, slowing the flow of rivers and creating more pools to attract other wildlife species.
Yellowstone’s experience of wolf reintroduction also had a positive effect on tourism: wolf-watching tours were launched and immediately attracted hundreds of visitors each year, keen to photograph these apex predators. With more than 100 wolves established in the park and around 500 in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, this is one of the best places in the world to photograph wild wolves. Yellowstone’s example of a positive, ‘wolf-led’ environmental impact and economic benefit has boosted the position of those arguing for the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland.
As in the UK, Europe’s wolves have been persecuted for centuries, but a more enlightened policy recognising the importance of the wild canines to the health of the ecosystem has seen their numbers quadruple since 1970. From their strongholds in Eastern and Southern Europe, wolf packs are steadily moving west: in 2014 wolves were recorded in Denmark for the first time in 200 years and last year a pack was photographed in woodland just 50km south of Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city. Wolves are protected in Germany and their return was a natural occurrence, first recorded in 1998, when seen wandering across the border from neighbouring Poland.
Unsurprisingly, there have been attacks on livestock, angering farmers, but compensation payments for losses have tempered this reaction. In fact, there have been relatively few reported conflicts between wolves and humans in Germany and other countries so far, but their expansion westward means they are moving into more densely populated areas in Belgium and the Netherlands.
As wolves spread and their numbers increase, wolf watching and photography holidays are now a growing market in many parts of Europe. From northern Spain and Portugal, to the Abruzzi mountains of Italy and the dense forests of eastern Finland, there are now plenty of specialist operators who conduct workshops, operating from well-positioned hides in areas where wolves frequently roam.
Hide photography of any wild species requires great patience and silence, primarily to avoid giving away your presence to creatures that have acute sensory awareness. This is particularly true of the wolf, a master of stealth and the silent approach: they will hear any unusual sound or disturbance long before you realise they are nearby. In their own domain wolves are assured and fearless, the apex predator, and see any other species – humans included – as passing guests. Even a long-established hide won’t go unnoticed, its presence tolerated as part of the landscape by all wildlife, not just wolves.
Although a hide increases your chances of photographing wolves at close proximity, telephoto lenses are still the primary choice. To avoid too many lens changes, and thereby missing a shot or making unwanted noise, a telephoto zoom represents the best option. Major camera brands such as Canon and Nikon manufacture zooms of 80-400mm or similar, but for even longer reach the newer 100-600mm telephoto zooms made by both Sigma and Tamron are quickly becoming a favourite choice with both wildlife pros and enthusiasts.
Time for Wolves
One wildlife photography experience that draws almost universal admiration from peers and contemporaries alike, is locating and tracking wolves in the wild on foot – day after day. Unlike the fixed position of a hide which can result in many similar images to the person seated next to you, tracking on foot can lead to more exciting and truly unique photographic encounters, albeit ones entirely unpredictable and rare.
Last year, the award-winning wildlife photographer Bruno D’Amicis published his book Time for Wolves, the culmination of six years of intensive fieldwork: tracking, finding and photographing the wild wolves of the Abruzzi mountains in his native Italy. Not since Jim Brandenburg’s iconic photographs of the Arctic wolves of Ellesmere Island in the 1980s, has one photographer devoted so much time to documenting the life and behaviour of these formidable animals.
D’Amicis made hundreds of excursions into the mountains, in summer, autumn and winter (but not spring, so as not to disturb newborn cubs), to build up an unmatched anthology of the life, behaviour and social order of these elusive creatures. ‘Finding a wolf is not easy but it is possible,’ he wrote. ‘However, seeing one does not automatically mean an opportunity to photograph it. Only rarely does one bring home a good picture.’
Unlike the weekend hide photographer focusing on Finland’s well-habituated wolf packs, D’Amicis had to use his longest lenses and a teleconverter to magnify his subject suitably in frame. Typically, he would use a 500mm f/4 lens with a 2x converter for a total focal length of 1,000mm. In the low light of winter, the resulting working maximum aperture of f/8 would require high ISO settings to ensure a fast enough shutter speeds.
More often than not, D’Amicis would have to lie flat on the snow-covered ground, covered by a camouflage sheet, his lens resting on a beanbag to maintain absolute stability. Such dedication to the task was essential for success. As D’Amicis himself put it: ‘There can be no success with wolves without a bit of personal obsession involved.’
Obsessed is a phrase often used to describe Paul Lister, owner of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the far north of Scotland. Nearly ten years ago he expressed his intention to fence in Alladale and reintroduce two wolf packs, as part of his plan to restore a corner of this sparse landscape to the way it might have appeared before the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Back then much of the Scottish Highlands were cleared of people and native forests to make way for sheep. Today, more deer than sheep populate the surrounding land and Lister has already planted more than 800,000 trees to create a habitat that was commonplace in the centuries past when wolves once roamed.
‘Here we are in a part of the world where there are five times as many deer as there probably should be and they are preventing anything from regenerating. My solution is to bring in wolves to do the job properly,’ said Lister in an interview in 2014. ‘We think that we are doing it properly with a rifle, but we’re not. First, we’re not culling enough deer and second wolves will work out which ones need to be taken out. Wolves will manage the land better than humans.’
While Lister has his supporters, most landowners, farmers and gamekeepers in Scotland are fiercely against any moves to re-introduce wolves. However, captive wolves can be seen in Britain at several sanctuaries dotted around the country, including the Highland Wildlife Park in Kingussie, just a couple of hours drive south of Alladale. Here, photographic days let visitors to take snaps of wolves and other extinct British species such as lynx and bear, as well as more exotic fauna including tigers, snow leopards and even a polar bear.
Despite Europe’s willingness to welcome the wolf back to its historic and rightful realm, Britain sadly remains fearful of the big, bad wolf.
Pack food and water if you’re spending a whole day in a hide and enough clothing to stay warm. Most hides are fairly rudimentary, lacking heating and toilets – so, er... bring an empty bottle as well…
Focus on the eyes of the wolf. These animals have the most piercing stare and can hold you with their gaze. Therefore, a portrait of a wolf, eyes sharply focused as it looks down your lens, is an opportunity not to be missed.
Use a beanbag. Some hides are big enough for tripods, others not so much. Either way, be prepared and take a beanbag to support your telephoto lens. It will be essential if you’re shooting from a low position or lying down.
Move around unnecessarily, even in the confines of a hide. Wolves have acute hearing, so sudden sounds and noises that don’t match the surroundings could see the wolf slink back into the distance, out of sight of your lens.
Rely on autofocus and lens image stabilisation systems. They may be silent to your ears, but many animals, not just wolves, can hear these frequencies and cause them to take flight.
Give up. Even in areas where wolf sightings are usually reliable, there is no guarantee they will show. Keep coming back. Try different times of the year, or arrive earlier and/or stay longer. Persistence usually pays off and repeated visits increases your chances of obtaining a variety of images.
Time For Wolves, by Bruno D’Amicis; Orme; €39 (hardback)
The Hidden Life of Wolves, by Jim Dutcher; National Geographic; £16.99 (hardback)
White Wolf: Living with an Arctic Legend, by Jim Brandenburg; Northwood Press; £4.99 (softback)
Accessory option: Backpack
When hiking you need a comfortable and durable backpack. Look for one that is lightweight, spacious and has plenty of padding. The Tenba Shootout LE Medium (£160) has enough room for a pro-model camera body, attached lens and has eight compartments for accessories. There’s also a slot for a 15in laptop. A water-resistant nylon outer shell and separate rain cover will keep your kit bone dry.
Lens option: Telephoto zoom
Photographers are benefiting from Tamron and Sigma producing pro-quality telephoto zooms that are affordable to non-pros. The Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD (£740) is made for Nikon, Canon and Sony full-frame and cropped sensor DSLRs. Optical quality has proven to be outstanding and many wildlife photographers are adding this zoom to their arsenal of lenses.
Camera option: High speed DSLR
You don’t want to miss a frame when a wolf creeps into view, so a high-speed pro DSLR is vital. The D5 (£4,900 body only) from Nikon boasts rapid firing 12fps continuous shooting. Nikon claims the D5 is its fastest ever DSLR and 153 focusing points ensures it keeps up with the fleetest of subjects. Other features include a 20.8 megapixel full-frame sensor, 102,400 ISO and 4K video shooting.
This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.