Andy is a stalker at heart and is never happier than when his face is in the dirt. Some say it improves his looks, judge for yourself in this tale of getting down and dirty with wild boar...
I love a challenge and there is no doubt that the one presented to me by Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean was one of my toughest. I was tasked by the 2020Vision project to explore the life of the wild boar, both in terms of the animal itself and the ecosystem that it called home. It would be a tough challenge, perhaps one of the toughest I have ever attempted, as wild boar are notoriously shy. But I truly believe that these animals have a place here in our countryside and in order to live alongside them they need some good PR. That was my job.
I was going to need local help. After a few emails I found an expert who was willing to help straight away. Robin Ward, a true woodsman, a man of the forest, who knows his patch of woodland like the back of his hand. I arranged to meet and excitedly drove down early one morning. He took me out in the woodland and showed me fresh signs of wild boar activity and some "hotspots” for them. He taught me everything I ever wanted to know about Wild Boar, and a lot more besides. I'm lucky to have had some great help in my life and I always appreciate every second that someone gives to me from their busy lives.
To succeed I needed to find which of the "hotspots" were being used regularly and needed eyes on the ground 24 hours a day. So I bought a Bushnell remote sensing field camera. These have become very popular in the past year or so as people are using them to see what visits their gardens at night, I even had a client leave one out on safari to try to get the leopard that walked by her tent every night. Inceasingly they are being used by wildlife photographers to save us months of fieldwork waiting for something that is simply not there!
So I attached the Bushnell to the side of a tree - as you can see in the photo on the left - that overlooked an area where it looked like boar spent a fair amount of time. Robin was a great help here, identifying all the tell tale signs of boar activity and giving us the best chance of getting a good result.
I set it to record video every time movement was detected, and hoped that it was well disguised enough to avoid detection by the boar; as it turns out detection by the boar was the least of my worries. Scent was an important consideration as wild boar have incredibly sensitive noses, so to minimise mine I wore gloves when handling the camera and left it for a few days between checks to avoid spreading my smell locally. The camera was totally silent and the night vision was provided by an invisible infra red flash, so I was confident that the boar would go about their business undisturbed by it. The question was, had we chosen the right area and would we get lucky. When I checked the results I could not believe it, bingo, we had boar!!!!! Check the video below..
Amazing huh! The boar were so inquisitive and on the footage Robin identified several different females and a couple of young males. The area looked promising and we continued to put the camera out at night, building up a pattern of the area. Then one morning disaster struck. Robin called me and asked if I had moved the camera, I replied no as I'd been away and immediately drove to the site. As I walked around I could see human footprints in the area, when I checked the tree my heart sank as it was devoid of any camera. Chuffing hell the camera had been nicked, pilfered, pinched, lifted, damn it! Of course I should have expected it having lost countless hides over the years, but none the less it was still a shock. Momentarily I thought about buying another, then quickly decided that the tea leaf (cockney speak for thief, although I prefer to know them purely as thieving toe rags) might return looking for something else. Dark thoughts entered my head at that point about a surprise nocturnal ambush with pointed sticks but I quickly decided to move on and forget it....robbing so and so....At least we knew that there were many boar in the area and that was a great start.
Down and dirty
At this time of the year boar become more visible because the females give birth. Young piglets are hungry little things and so mum needs to be active all hours of the day and night with them, something that I hoped to capitalise on. I spent the first few days crawling through the forest following wild boar paths, getting filthy without much sign of a boar apart from their droppings (of which there seemed to be plenty, either there were a lot of boar or one had a problem). It was fun, totally camouflaged up and with a dodgy netting hat; I looked the part at least. But I was boar less...until a text message from Robin changed all that. He'd found a sow with piglets in that area....two hours later I was onsite, after a 30-minute yomp through the woods I got to the area.
I knew the area well and there was no doubt that the sow would see my approach and be off. One mistake is all it takes. After checking the wind direction my suspicions were confirmed so I decided to approach her directly from the forest; hopefully the darkness of the canopy would keep me masked until I was close enough. After 20 minutes painstakingly slow stalking I edged up behind a tree and there, in a clearing some 200m in front of me, was a wild boar with about 8 adorable stripey little piglets. The wind was perfect so I quietly slipped off my rucksack, pulled on my ghillie suit and crawled slowly out of the forest. For those of you who are interested in the fieldcraft and thinking behind this strange looking suit, click on the info button on the image and all will be revealed!
Painstakingly I pulled myself along a fence line, stopping ever few seconds to check the wind direction, the position of the sow and piglets and to remove branched and other detritous from the ghillie suit! I edged underneath a small barbed wire fence and made it to a forest track, about 40 metres from her. I knew from experience with stalking roe deer that I would not get any closer so decided to wait in the gutter on the edge of the track. It was damp, the thorns were digging into my nether regions and my arms ached from hauling the 200-400mm lens in front of me. But I knew I had a great chance of my first wild boar shot as I was in a very low position, well camouflaged and so far undetected. Nothing was going to disturb me, I was in the stalking zone, totally focussed on the boar ahead. I noticed every single twitch, every movement.
My heart sank as a piglet walked out of the clearing and started working its way down the road towards me; it would surely give me away before I had a chance to do anything. Sure enough, because it was just a matter of time, the piglet looked straight at me. I could see by the raised head and the sniffing nose that it knew something wasn't right, but amazingly it continued coming closer. It wasn't alone either, several of it's brothers and sisters joined it! Squashing my head flat into the dirt I took my first shot, the click sounding like a rifle shot in the forest even though it was muffled by the noise absorbing padding on top....
The lead piglet regarded me with interest for another minute, then with a little squeak in ran to its mother, who became instantly alert from the forest.....I knew that the clock was now ticking and that this encounter would be over very soon. The game was up, or so I thought....
After a few minutes of very intense staring, during which I did not twitch despite a very annoying ant biting me on my private parts, the female moved slightly forward into the open, allowing me to use this tree to create a natural frame to low angle stalking shot
The ant situation became unbearable so I had no choice to use my hand that was on the shutter, as the other was balanced underneath the lens hood. Slowly I reached down and with extreme venom squashed the little blighter just as it was in mid bite again. Now look, Friends of the Ant Appreciation Society, I had no choice. Admittedly I was a little excessive at repeatedly squashing its body into the dirt until just atoms were left, but it had bitten me twice right on the ...
I froze, keeping my eye in the viewfinder and one outstretched arm underneath the lens hood again. Lady luck that day really smiled on me, as the female slowly made her way to the edge of the forest towards me, watching me with keen interest all the time....
She continued walking forwards but my attention was no longer on her. It was the beautiful little bold piglet that followed just behind her. It stared straight at me and I was smiling internally from ear to ear as I took full advantage of the low angle I was in....
Beautiful. Cute. Innocent and a bloody great PR picture for the wild boar. There is nothing better to stop a senseless cull than a picture of a youngster and I knew that this would do just that. Perfect. There was nothing I could do creatively with the image as the mother was slightly obscured at this point, so I pushed the zoom out to the "Maximum Adorable" setting and smiled again.
By now the female was totally confused as I had not behaved like any human she had seen before, nor do I smell or look like one. Wild Boar are very inquisitive, she just had to come and look, she could not help herself. She walked purposely towards me, right into the middle of the road, unable to resist any longer I took a couple of shots....
I didn’t move a muscle, which confused her ever more. Some of you might be thinking that this is dangerous, that she would attack me any moment. Well you would be wrong. Wild Boar are gentle giants unless they are cornered, and I become a mean mother when I am cornered too. She never did anything at all aggressive to me since I never gave her any reason to be afraid; I was just a strange motionless lump in the road that she was determined to investigate. She stood and stared at me for a couple of minutes, I could see that she was intently looking for some tell-tale sign of what this strange creature was and even the ants (which had mounted a fresh onslaught) were not going to force me to give anything away. But I needed to remember the reason I was there, to get Wild Boar pictures, so once I had taken the "safe image" that you see above, I decided to change the composition slightly.
Moving the lens painstakingly slowly, a few cms at a time, I reshot with the boar to the left of the frame, moving the focusing point to keep her nice and sharp. I actually prefer this composition as the curve of the track leads really nicely into the bottom right hand corner and has a much better balance.
Commercially it works better too as there is plenty of room for clients to add some text on the right hand side to get their message across. I know that a lot of photographers hate this commercial approach of mine but I am a professional so my pictures must sell, plus of course I have the yacht in the Med that needs some new taps! By now a few minutes had passed and her inquisitive nature was to be my downfall. She moved off the track and slowly she started to stamp around the forest. I knew that she was going behind me to get my scent. I counted to 20, by 16 it was all over. With a snort, the Rouse was revealed as human by his telltale odour (so many jokes there I bet) and she and walked off with the piglets into the forest. She was wary but not scared and that was a good thing.
I had taken my first wild boar pictures. I lay there for 20 minutes not moving until I was sure she had gone. Then slowly I crawled back to the forest and used the cover to stretch, do a couple of press ups to get the blood flowing and then tend to my ant bites! I had a silent jump for joy too as I live for these kind of encounters, they are so special that they are totally addictive. I sat down and rested for a while, still carrying on with my silent routine as eyes could be watching me. I was going to follow her but right now her suspicions would be raised and I wanted to let her calm down and forget about me.
Encounter with Mrs Sleepy
When she moved from the previous position it was vital that I did not chase her as I did not want her to feel threatened by me. My lack of tusks, fur and body odour meant that she would never accept me on her terms, but if she felt relaxed in my presence that would be good enough. So I gave her time to move and used that time to check exposures, have some food & water and to calm down after the adrenaline rush of the encounter. Stalking is a relaxing way of doing photography as it basically involves lots of sitting, waiting and watching; that's why I like it so much as you see so much more than charging around.
When I decided to try to find her again I didn't just charge off, I assumed that I was being watched and started stalking again from within cover. Slowly, painstakingly and with the wind in my face again I set off, deciding to take a long way round to get ahead of her; it's important when dealing with mothers of any species that you avoid scaring them at all costs. Walking slowly and deliberately I made a huge circle and came out ahead of where I thought she might be. She wasn’t there so I slowly stalked back through the forest. Senses on full alert and eyes straining, a movement of bracken caught my eye. Through my binoculars I could see the tell tale furry ear of a boar. She was lying on her side underneath the bracken, I could hear quiet little mutterings and I knew it must be the female suckling her young. At one point she sat up...It seemed like she had seen me but I knew that was impossible, the ghillie was in a perfect place to conceal me and the wind was right too. She was just being an attentive and protective mother and I loved her for that. I waited for another half an hour until all was quiet, then started my long crawl again as the wind was still in my favour. I pulled myself slowly onto the edge of the bracken so that it hid me but I had a clear view upwards of the sow if she stood up. I decided that I would make too much noise trying to stalk her in the bracken. I have tried repeatedly to levitate myself above the ground but so far it's a skill I have failed to master! She was totally unaware of my presence and soon everything was quiet, to the outside world we were both completely hidden, dozing in the warm afternoon sun. We stayed like this for some time, then I heard increased movement in the bracken, the piglets were awake! First an eye appeared, then a head, the whole body, she stared straight down the lens and I needed no invitation to take some shots. After my experience on the ground previously I had the camera wrapped up completely to mask the noise and she didn’t react to the click once. She stared at me through the bracken then moved closer again for a better look, here's the sequence I shot of her, changing my height between each one to create a very different effect....
It was awesome and again the wind, my position and stalking ability bought me vital seconds as she could not work out what I was. I continued to slowly take pictures, speed was the killer here and not the key, before she gave me my most iconic image of the whole day....
I so love this. It was over in a flash and I only managed to get one image, I was desperate to check the LCD but knew that such movement would end the encounter so I would have to wait. I was hoping for some more shots but the wind changed and that was that, she got my scent and they went into the bushes. Knowing when to leave is a skill and I had no intention of disturbing her anymore. I had treated her with respect, she had rewarded me with some nice images, so I crawled slowly back into the wood, cracked my aching joints and made my way elatedly back to the car.
This set of images has been seen now by a lot of people. Everyone at the 2020 Vision roadshows has shared the experiemce of this day, with my on stage antics and pictures, I have also add it to my Wild About Animals theatre show. They have been used on greetings cards, posters and (very importantly) in childrens magazines highlighting how cute wild boar piglets are. The image below shows yours truly, in the ghillie suit, next to my image at the 2020 Vision launch in Edinburgh. I frightened many people on the street that night but I am also pleased to say that I talked to a lot of poeple and re-educated them about the boar. Yes all the images are a little chocolate box and cute, but anything that convinces people that wild boar are not nasty, violent creatures is fine by me. We just have to learn to live alongside them and if my images help that then I will be soooooo happy.
This was my first real encounter with wild boar and since then I have had many great times with them, some of which you will see shared on here. I know that Wild Boar will always be a controversial species but they are one, in my opinion, that we must live alongside.
In fact I feel so strongly about it that I agreed, along with Chris Packham and Iolo Williams, to be patron of the UK Wild Boar Trust. This organisation, run by Robin Ward and fellow wild boar enthusiast Scott Passmore, aims to work with organisations like the Forestry Commission to find ways where we can live alongside wild boar. The current policy it seems is to cull them when someone complains that they dig up their garden, unfortunately they are culled without knowing if their are any dependant piglets or not. The UKWBT is working on this, and many boar issues, and are a great organisation to support as they work damn hard and really care.
To find out more about them, and to support them, please click here. I realy love wild boar and hope that you do as well!
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