Stoats, Slapton Ley NNR, Cirl Buntings and Turning a Photography Hobby into a Career

December 02, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Greetings from Dartmoor

Whilst at work this week, week ending 5th November, I had to instruct on a practical lesson so I took the class outside. We were situated in an open area about 80 meters opposite a gate to a field. During the lesson we all heard a loud scream coming from the other side of the gate. We looked at the gate and suddenly a large rabbit ran under it coming towards us followed closely behind by a small stoat mustela erminea, larger than a weasel mustela but smaller than an adult stoat. The stoat kept on jumping on the rabbit’s back biting the back of the rabbit’s neck. The rabbit would roll over, the stoat would fall off and the rabbit would run and the chase would begin again. You could tell the rabbit had a problem running away because it would stop every now and then letting the stoat catch up; the thought was in my mind that it was suffering from myxomatosis, a horrible disease that never seems to go away. Again and again the stoat would bite the rabbit’s neck and the rabbit would scream out. This scream alerted a magpie which came over to investigate. Once the stoat had killed the rabbit, about 40 meters away from us, it sat back catching its breath. This gave the magpie time for a closer look and the stoat then started attacking the magpie. It got close but the magpie would fly off just in time. Once it had got its breath back and because of the constant harassment of the magpie, the stoat decided it would drag the rabbit into the tall grass. The magpie sat on the fence watching the stoat really struggle with the rabbit. I walked over to give it a hand and put the rabbit nearer the tall grass, the myxomatosis was confirmed. The stoat took a few paces away from me and watched. As soon as I walked away it returned and dragged it about a meter into the grass, out of our view. We knew where it was because the magpie was still watching it whilst sitting on the fence. I can really agree with Chris Packham’s view of these tenacious creatures, they are fantastic. Where was my camera? Sat at home because I was at work, what a missed opportunity but I will always treasure the memory.

On the Friday I went, with my camera, to the area where I had seen all the Redwings, Fieldfare and Ring Ouzels and stayed for about 5 hours. There are now more fieldfare, more than 200, in this area than redwings, about 50, and no sight of the ring ouzel. I will return to try and get photos of this bird early next year when they return. A Greater Grey Backed Shrike and Crossbills have been sighted in this area, so I went to look for them. I located the crossbills, about 20 of them, in the tall fir trees sitting right at the top. Although you could tell they were crossbills by binoculars and the sound I did not get any photos because I did not like the image it would have given, looking up at a bird in a tall tree. There are smaller trees around so I waited for them to move to a better photographic position. After a few minutes they did move, but only to fly away to a more inaccessible, for me, area of the wood.


Once again I was at work during the week, week ending 12th November, and I had to take a similar practical lesson as last week so I used the same area. When I checked out the area to see if it was alright I noticed a stoat going in and out of holes on a small mound of earth. I wondered if it was the same stoat as last week because it looked about the same size. As time was pressing I had to move on and left the stoat to its own devices. The area was ok so I called up the students for them to attend the location. Whilst waiting for them I saw another rabbit being attacked by a stoat. This stoat was much larger than the one I had previously seen. This was happening about 30 metres from me. This time the rabbit was giving as good as it got, oh for a camera, but in the end the stoat killed its prey. The stoat started dragging the rabbit towards a disused building when the students arrived. I pointed to the “action” and nearly all of them got their mobile phones out and started filming it, oh for a mobile phone with a camera! THREE sightings of stoats in a week and two kills, what memories, but no photos.


On Friday 11th I went to the National Nature Reserve at Slapton Ley near Kingsbridge in Devon. It is the largest natural freshwater lake in south west England. There are several viewing platforms and a couple of bird hides one of which is reasonable for photography either at the beginning or end of the day, which is unusual as I find most bird hides are built for birders rather than photographers. There are a lot of different habitats here including: - the Ley (lake), reeds, wet meadow, hazel coppice, the beach and farmland all looked after for nature. There is a family of Otters here, Reed warblers, Great Crested Grebes, Hazel Dormice and most importantly Cirl Buntings which were nearly wiped out by the 1960’s because farming practice had changed. Farmers started sowing for cereal crops in autumn which meant the cirl buntings, which fed on the dropped seed on stubble fields, had no food over the winter. Along with this the increased use of herbicides and destruction of hedges they used for nesting amplified the cirls downfall. Because there were only about 100 pairs left in Devon in 1989 the RSPB launched the Cirl Bunting Recovery Programme with the help of DEFRA. This recovery programme included subsidies to farmers to leave standing stubble fields over winter, leaving bigger field margins and the restoration of hedgerows. Doing this helped boost the cirl buntings to nearly 1,000 pairs in 2015. During my 2 hour walk around this nature reserve I never spotted any cirl buntings or otters but the area shows a lot of promise and I will be back. Slapton Ley also has a field centre which runs free events and courses for individuals and schools for more information visit or or telephone 01548580685. Upon leaving at 3:15pm, driving out of the village towards Kingsbridge, I had the glorious sight of a Tawny Owl flying in front of my car. I presumed it was a female because it was the largest tawny owl I have ever seen and females are larger than males. My camera was on the front seat but I was driving, albeit slowly, at time and did not get the chance to get a photo.

Week ending the 19th I was again taking a practical lesson in the same area. This time I took my camera and my wife’s 400mm f5.6 lens so that I could go out during my lunch break. Three quarters of an hour sat in the car with high hopes and I was really chancing my arm a bit doing this with wildlife involved but nothing ventured, nothing gained and nothing was gained, not even a sighting of rabbit.

On Sunday I went to Venford reservoir and saw 8 goosanders 2 males and 6 females. They were swimming around the edge of the water. I tried to approach them each time they dived to get closer for a photograph but they seemed to know what I was up to and 7 would dive leaving one on guard duty.

On Friday 18th instead of going for a walk on the moor I decided to go for a walk with Murphy along the river. Whenever I walk along the river, especially early in the morning, I am always hoping to see 5 “bits” of wildlife: 1) An Otter on its last hunt of the night. 2) A Fox because nobody else is around. 3) A Dipper. 4) A Kingfisher and 5) A Grey Wagtail. I have seen 4 out of the 5 and the one I haven’t is the grey wagtail so maybe it gets up later than the others. When I arrived at my normal parking area I noticed that quite a bit of the vegetation and hedge had been cut down and I had no obstructions hiding my view of the swollen river Tavy. I say swollen because it has been raining for the last couple of days (well Dartmoor had to get some sometime). It’s surprising how quickly the river rises with just a couple of days of rain. The good news was it was not raining when I got out of the car; it was snowing, but not laying! What with the hedge, vegetation and the lack of the leaves in the trees, I was amazed with the amount of light getting through to the river; it would be a good time to photograph wildlife on it. On this occasion I saw a dipper quite early on a boulder that was just breaking the surface of the water in the middle of the river.


I quite often see dippers in the same feeding areas and this helps a great deal when trying to photograph them. I take notes using my Dictaphone and return to the same position at a later date with my camera. To us the river looks the same but to wildlife it must have hotspots for food and is better at different times of the day and year. If you think about it fish like to stay in different parts of the river mainly because their food is nearby or they have learned that if they stay in a certain position food will come to them. Years ago, when I used to go beach fishing, I noticed this with Bass hiding under a jetty near Southampton in Hampshire. They would gather under there and food would be delivered to them by the outgoing and incoming tide. During slack water the area would be clear, they are not as silly as people think.

Turning professional

If you do wildlife photography as a hobby and are good at it, because other people have said so or you have won a big competition or two, then at some stage I bet you have thought about turning your hobby into a profession. In life everything thing you do is give and take, in other words whatever you take in life you need to give something for it and wildlife photography is no different. Turning pro can be great because you are turning what you love doing as a hobby into a career and hopefully making money out of it. Before you even think about it you need to have a lot of passion, respect and knowledge about wildlife which will improve your photography and other areas of being a professional. You will need a big portfolio with lots of very good photographs of wildlife. You will also need very good camera equipment that can cope with the stresses and strains of being used every day. At present you might take 10,000 to 20,000 images a year but professionals can take up to 300,000 images in a year. For wildlife photography you will need the top of the range camera. For landscapes it could be the next level down but you will not get away by using the lower end cameras. All professional photographers will state that you do not need a very expensive camera to take a good photo and they are right. But then why do they have one? This is for several reasons which include: - professional cameras are more solidly built to take knocks from being used everyday, they can take more images because the shutter mechanism will last longer, there are more “bells and whistles” on the camera (this is to help speed up changing the settings to take a photograph quicker), the sensor is full frame, better high ISO performance, better waterproofing, faster frame rate etc. You get what you pay for in this game. Your lenses will also have to be really good ones and be sharp. We all enjoy doing something we love but is becoming a professional wildlife photographer all it’s cracked up to be with going to lots of great places, taking photographs all day and getting outstanding shots of wildlife to sell. The down side of talking all those images is that at some stage you will have to find time to look at, and process, them. Let’s face it wildlife photography is not for everyone because to be good at it you have got to be a bit selfish and put everything else on the back burner. This includes your home life, your family, your friends and your pets. Wildlife photography takes up a lot of time and you have got to put the time in to get the rewards. (visit ). I have taken thousands of wildlife photos but I regard my best images are the ones where I took images of really good action and this was as a result of a lot of time spent out in the field waiting, studying my subjects and getting to learn when action is about to happen. (Visit and ) I took these images when I had a lot of spare time. My house was decorated up to my wife’s standard and we did not have a dog. Now don’t get me we all love our dogs to bits but three walks a day, playing ring and ball all take time, at least three hours a day, and this time could be spent out in the field with your camera. It’s these kind of things that you might have to give up at the start of turning professional. The images I took are the more exciting images that people like because nowadays, with digital photography, people with only a little photography knowhow can take “basic” wildlife images. Therefore you will constantly need to take first class “different” or creative images that nobody else has taken to do well as a pro. Apart from having to spend a lot of time out in the field and traveling to get the photos, wildlife photos are extremely hard to sell because people are more interested in having a landscape image on their wall than an image of wildlife. So if it’s hard selling wildlife images you have a dilemma. You can either change your subject, to landscapes for example to broaden your photography, or you can diversify into other areas that are enhanced by your wildlife photography and knowledge.

These areas could include: -

Writing a book and using your photos to illustrate it. You could also do a photo book.

Writing articles for magazines and using your photos to illustrate them. This involves quite a lot of work contacting the magazines, finding out who you have to speak and send your work to and finding out exactly what they want or require for future magazines. This is a great way of getting your work noticed by lots of other people, the readers.

Selling your photos to magazines is similar to above but no written article. Only send in your best work. The trouble with this is that there are a lot of people out there “giving” their work away for nothing, just because they want to see their photos in magazines. They do not realise the damage they are doing to the photography industry. By doing this, magazine companies are getting images for free and some would rather use a bad free image than pay for a good image. Also, there are a lot of very good “amateur” (no disrespect intended) photographers out there who take excellent images of wildlife and they do not have to make a living from photography. Because there are so many they will always be in the right place at the right time to get that special shot. (weasel on the woodpecker springs to mind)

You can hire yourself out to clubs as a wildlife photography speaker showing your images. This could include a stall to sell some of your photos, books etc. I know a few photographers do this for no fee at all as long as they are allowed a stall and get to keep all the sales from it. To do this you need a lot of confidence in yourself to be able to stand up in front of an audience and talk about your subject. This is harder than you think especially if it is a big audience or people you do not know. I’ve seen a few speakers just dry up and lose their audience. It’s not a case of just learning some lines because you also have to learn to ad lib and be able to answer most of the questions put to you. One big “no no” is to pretend you know the answer to a question when you do not know it. The person, or someone else, in the audience might know the real answer and if you get it wrong then your creditability will be shot.

You can join a web-based stock photography company, like Alamy, Shutterstock, etc., and let them sell your images albeit for a fee. This used to be a very good way of making money but because of people giving their images away for nothing it has crashed and some images can be sold for as little as 50p but, something is better than nothing. To do this you will need a very good portfolio and once accepted you will need to keep supplying them with very good high quality images.

You have to learn to promote yourself. You need to get your name out there so you have got to advertise, win competitions, get your photos noticed etc. Participating in competitions, winning competitions, getting awards and letters after your name are very good ways of promoting yourself.

You have to utilise all of today’s social media to build a following. Doing this takes time because you have to upload quite a few times a week to build up your followers. You also have to learn how to really work these apps to get the best out of them. 

You can instruct on and take photography workshops. With these you really need to be very knowledgeable on photography, the wildlife and the area you are carrying out the workshop and all this takes time. Again your people skills need to be really good as it is not just about talking to and dealing with people that is required but you also have to learn about reading peoples body language. There are a lot of people that are afraid to ask a question in case they look silly but by reading their body language, non verbal communications (NVC’s), you will notice that something is wrong and you can step in and clear up the ambiguity. This will make them feel good, help with their photography and maybe they will end up booking another workshop with you.

You can lead wildlife photographic tours. (As photography workshops) These could be with other big companies that take photographers abroad. This kind of thing will come later on in your photography career.

You can hire out photography hides. These hides must be your own and not public hides. If you take someone to a public hide to photograph wildlife word will get around, your creditability will drop and this source or revenue will dry up because they will think why did I “pay” to use this hide when I could do it for nothing.

As you can see there is a lot to do and this does not include running your photography as a business and all what that entails. You will need a business frame of mind and it would be well worth enrolling in a business class in your local college. This aspect of the roll puts quite a lot of people off. Once you are a professional it is not all about taking great pictures because you like photography. It becomes a chore because you need enough money to pay the bills, the mortgage etc. You have to earn enough money to pay for all the expenses such as equipment, printing, travel, lodging, etc. and then make a living.

So with all the above to consider I think you should stay as an amateur wildlife photographer and do it alongside your job. That way you have some money coming in and are not just relying on your photography. If possible, try and get a job that brings you as close as possible to wildlife. Not only to spend as much time as possible with wildlife, but also to be able to learn about it. You would be surprised how many jobs are available for outside workers. I am not suggesting that you take photos whilst at work but you can build up your information about certain species and find out when it is best to photograph them when not at work.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog then please do not be afraid to leave me a comment by clicking on the link under the title or by leaving a comment in my guestbook ( ) Thank you.


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