Be a more ethical wildlife photographer
June 6, 2019
Wildlife photography has changed dramatically in the past two decades, with the main drivers being the advent of digital and social media. This new approach to wildlife photography means we not only need to look at established ethics (our sense of what is right and wrong), but we also need to consider them in light of these changes. Our established wildlife photography ethics are set via the Royal Photographic Society’s The Nature Photographers’ Code of Practice and two main laws, The Wildlife and Countryside Act and The Animal Welfare Act. All wildlife photographers should familiarise themselves with the relevant sections and adopt the mantra ‘the welfare of the subject is more important than the image.’
Impact of social media
If we take it for granted that it’s a good thing that more people are engaged with wildlife photography we need to consider if this creates new ethical dilemmas. Many now use social media, and when we view images regularly we might not realise just how this skews our view of the world and our ambitions. If we repeatedly see amazing images of mountain hares in winter and red deer during a rut we might think: ‘I love that image and want to take it myself.’ Since it’s easy to find out exactly where the images were taken, it’s not difficult to imagine what might come next – site overload. But does this actually cause problems? In a few situations, yes. At Donna Nook in Lincolnshire the pressure caused by photographers saw the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust ask for a voluntary ban on walking out to the seal colony at the sea’s edge. Thankfully (for the seals’ sake) this ban is now largely adhered to. Another situation arose a few years ago when too many photographers targeted one specific dipper site in the Peak District, particularly in the morning when the light was at its best. This disturbance saw the dippers failing to rear young for a number of years. The problem was solved by Natural England producing an advice lea et (which I wrote). It took a while to get the message across but eventually the number of photographers declined and the birds’ breeding success rose again.
What you can do to help
So, what is the answer to this ethical dilemma of site overload? The simplest one is not to go if you believe you may become part of the problem and create stress for the animals. This is not always easy to resist, but there are alternatives. You could try to find places where the animals live that are not overcrowded, or go at different times of the year. Most of our iconic animals can be found in a number of different sites: for example, mountain hares live across many of the upland ranges in Scotland. With a little research and planning it shouldn’t be hard to discover sites where you can enjoy working with these iconic animals and still experience the wildness of such fantastic places.
Some species can be quite site-specific, such as red deer during the rutting season. Many of these are incredibly popular with photographers because it’s very easy to do an internet search and find out where they are. However, there are other sites and deer parks that can o er the same experience without having to jostle with large numbers of photographers crowding around a few deer. A few years ago I did this and found a small red deer rut near where I live. The photography was a lot more challenging, but the rewards were far greater.
Break the mould
One factor that contributes to site overload is our tendency to target some animals at specific times of the year, such as mountain hares or ptarmigan during the winter months when they are white.Perhaps we have to debate with ourselves whether mountain hares are just as beautiful when their fur is brown. Then, as photographers, we could spread ourselves over a greater period of the year and solve the conundrum that way. Another alternative is to ask yourself do you really need these images? Could you study a different, less popular animal? There are powerful arguments for this – photographers who break the mould tend to stand out more.
How close is too close?
Wideangle images may create dramatic images but can the animal be stressed by your close proximity, even if it doesn’t run away? These questions are difficult to answer and it’s often very hard to decide if an animal is actually stressed by our close presence or not. If the animal moves away as you get closer that is a good clue, but some animals and birds will try to stay put and rely on their camouflage. The best advice is to take the help of someone who has experience working with your chosen species, and this might mean spending money on a one-to-one or workshop. Learning good field skills, such as stalking, and being able to read an animal’s body language should be your starting point, and always, if you’re not sure, stay further away and use a longer lens.
Using food to attract animals is a tried-and-tested photographic technique, yet it has started to become a highly contentious ethical issue. It’s not always straightforward, and views may change over time and as you mature as a photographer, but luckily there are a lot of knowledgeable articles (back issues of AP) and experienced wildlife photographers around who can help.
Food must be nutritionally balanced and not cause any short- or long-term problems. While badgers love Sugar Puffs, the breakfast cereal is not good for their teeth! Recently I have been working with a group of urban badgers in Sheffield. I feed them a handful of peanuts, which are a healthy food choice.
What if the food is a live animal? What does the law state on this? Does it make a difference if the bait animal is an invertebrate or vertebrate? In the instance of redstarts, feeding them live mealworms is legal and many people happily feed garden birds with live and dead mealworms.
Animals that are fed regularly may become habituated to the feeding which may cause problems for them. So only leave small amounts of food out. For example, I only feed the badgers a few peanuts when I photograph them; they spend over 90% of each night foraging naturally.
Leftover food and waste can attract other animals such as predators, which may create conflict for the animal you are trying to photograph. It may also attract pests such as mice and rats, which may cause issues to house or landowners. If in doubt, take uneaten food away with you.
If you feed animals to create wildlife images, should you declare this to an audience or in an image caption? I believe I am always honest about how I took an image but be warned, sometimes an audience can feel let down when they find out the truth, particularly if the animal was baited.
Gardening – Is it ethical?
Ethical questions within wildlife photography are not just restricted to the animal kingdom. There is a similar issue that affects plant photographers too, and that is gardening to tidy up a scene. In a way it goes to the heart of wildlife photography. Do you always photograph exactly what is there without any interference or do you ‘doctor’ a situation? Intruding, white grass stems running across a gorgeous early purple orchid are unsightly, so do you remove them? This is what plant photographers call gardening.
The next question is, if you decide that losing a few grass stems isn’t a problem, just how far do you go? I have seen extreme gardening, such as mown rings around butterfly orchids, in the past! Be careful as removing too much vegetation can weaken the plant because it may rely on other plants for physical support and you may even change the subtle micro-climate around the plant (it could become drier). The main thought that should be at the front of your mind when you take the photograph is: ‘Is the plant as safe and natural after I have taken the photograph as when I first encountered it?’