All creatures great and small
John and Alison Palmer capture the wealth of wildlife of Cranborne Chase
Published in March ’15
Next time you make a noise as you stand up after sitting on the sofa for a while, spare a thought for John Palmer when he stands up, after lying stock still for hours, in all weathers, stomach down in the rocky dirt of the Cranborne Chase. Why does he do this? In order to be ready to capture some of Dorset’s most elusive and painfully shy creatures: hares.
John has been taking digital pictures for about ten years, ever since Alison, his wife, bought him a digital camera to cheer him up after he broke his ankle windsurfing. He first started with landscapes using a wideangle lens, but then he bought a telephoto lens and his attention switched to wildlife in general and hares in particular.
‘We’d been going up to Cranborne Chase for a while and we found a farmer who was prepared to let us wander his fields. He was incredibly nice and very into his conservation strips and just loved the wildlife on his land.’
It’s one thing to have permission to take pictures on someone’s land, but quite another to get to know the wildlife enough to be able to do it.
‘I’ve got really interested in hares in the last couple of years,’ says John. ‘They’re a bit of a passion for me; they have two forms of defence: they lie very flat and hope you’ll not notice them, or they make a bolt for it. If you’re low down, they’ll quite often lie still until you get quite close. If you walk normally into a field then a hare will be a couple of fields away in no time.’
In order to avoid this problem, John gets ready early, before the hares have got up and out into the sunshine. ‘If you get there early and lie still in camouflage gear and then they come out of the hedgerows and dry off, if you lie there quietly they’ll not even know you’re there.’
Quite apart from the stiffness and cold from lying still for a couple of hours in the early morning, there are a couple of problems with this approach. The first is that because he has become so expert at making himself sink into the landscape, sometimes the hares run towards him so quickly that they can get too close for him to photograph, particularly when they’re moving quickly. A few clicks of the shutter and they slow and become inquisitive. The second problem is that John, lying very close to the ground, cannot always see what’s going on around him. Recently, he and Alison have been experimenting with walkie-talkies so she can keep him apprised of what’s going on where.
‘We do it as a team,’ John says, ’I press the button but it’s a team effort. Alison is really important: she contributes in terms of spotting other wildlife, particularly insects, which she has an unerring knack of seeing. I’m quite a fan of macro photography and quite often with the naked eye you’ll have no idea of what [the images] will look like. At the end of a day I might have a couple of hundred images to get through and we’ll decide which ones we’ll keep. I’ve always called her my photo editor as she’ll see the good side of photo, crop it and name it.
‘It’s a fantastic thing and we enjoy doing it together and we’ve both got a passion for wildlife. It’s just an absolute delight to see some amazing things. You’ll be lying still in a field waiting for a hare to appear… and then a roe deer will just walk past you.’
Although they take pictures for the pleasure of being out with the wildlife, John’s images have started doing well in competitions: a Daily Mail finalist, in the top 100 of the British Wildlife Photographer of the Year and amongst the last couple of dozen or so for the Countryfile calendar competition.◗