Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Do Not Disturb (Unless you have kids)

The parable of the good wildlife photographer:

  • Don't trample the plants
  • Don't disturb nesting birds
  • Keep as far from your subject as you can
  • If you think you're going to do damage going for the shot; don't go for the shot
and above all...
  • Don't touch the animals!
This I maintain is a good set of rules to follow. The internet is awash with photographs I suspect have been staged: maybe an adder has been caught and placed somewhere more photogenic; perhaps that grasshopper has been placed in a refrigerator so that it won't jump away. All of these 'cheats' challenge my cardinal rule and I sniff at this trophy-hunting nature and the disregard for wildlife that can create, let alone the reduction in skill it requires. Naturally then, these rules are never broken.

My son Joe is six and mad about animals. He's acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of hundreds of animals, both extant and not. Each day, he paws through the same volumes and magazines and begs me to take him to see them. 

Dinosaurs were easy; a trip to the NHM and his appetite was sated (at the second time of asking - poor planning on my part meant that a five-hundred mile round trip was wasted due to the dinosaurs being cleaned the first time).

Creepy crawlies are a doddle... a routine search each day under the tiles he's laid out in the garden satisfies his yearning to get close to the woodlice, spiders, beetles and if he's lucky, toads and newts in his Collin's Book of Garden Wildlife.

But I've struggled to fuel his interest in seeing larger animals. He loves them in print and spends hours role-playing imaginary games; collecting snakes with Steve Backshall, or filming predators hunting their prey. But there's something about the reality of watching these animals that doesn't deliver.

We went through an 'owls' phase, so a dusk drive of the local lanes was planned. A barn owl that turned and dived in our headlights had my heart racing... but for him, nothing. 

"Will it come back?" he asked.

A trip onto the moor delivered two beautiful basking adders, just 5 or 6 meters from the footpath.

"I can't really see them, Dad" he complained.

A chance encounter with a fox on a drive home from swimming briefly piqued his interest, but soon lost out to the imaginary fishing game he was playing with a stick and butcher's string. And so it went on.

Then in Dorset last summer we explored a heath together; I expected the paucity of encounters you experience in North Yorkshire, but promised him a reptile safari. Remarkably, I delivered for him and we found hundreds of slow worm and dozens of common lizard, with the odd adder and grass snake thrown in.

"Can I pick one up?" he enquired innocently as we lifted the metal corrugated cover away from a dozen slow-worm. I paused. I looked around for other people; there was nobody in sight. I tried to persuade him that looking was best because they're so rare and fragile.

"They're called anguis fragilis because their tails easily fall off" I explained. 
"But we've seen lots" he argued "so they're not rare, and Steve Backshall picked one up."

Reluctantly I gave in and reached for one, carefully picked it up behind the head and placed it in Joe's hands. What happened next was extraordinary. I could almost make out the neurons connecting in his brain as his eyes sparkled, lit up and his cheeks tightened into a painful smile. Bouts of uncontrollable laughter and excitement flowed from him, bringing me to my knees. I matched his grin and dabbed at the tears he'd brought to my eyes. Before that moment (he was 5) I'd genuinely never seen him so happy.

A grass snake followed that summer; the reaction was even greater. Last week a fishing trip landed a big chub, which he gripped tightly standing proudly for a photo, uncontrollably beaming with delight. After each of these experiences the effect was the same and his love for wildlife set a little firmer.

So now I say... if you're a grown up and you really don't need to touch the animals, don't. But if you have a child, then let them carefully reach out and connect. That connection is fragile if limited to television and books, but strengthens so much when made for real. 

That child will share this experience with their school friends and inspire all of them that wildlife is special, as Joe has.

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