Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Art for Nature: National Badger Day Paintings

Today is National Badger Day and so I thought I would share my paintings and my passion for these gentle creatures in the hope that I can convince people that they really are worth protecting.

Although badgers are not endangered - like most of the species I've am raising awareness for  through my campaign #artsavingnature - they have been persecuted for centuries. In 2011, I found myself helping to convict some badger baiters after stumbling across them attacking badgers with dogs. To read more on that story click here

Badgers are really such lovable creatures. I've been captivated by them since the day when, as a youngster and at just 14 years old, I stumbled, quite literally, into a sett. A storm was blowing my scent away and since badgers have such poor eyesight they didn’t notice me as I stood among them watching the cubs tumble about my boots. It was quite magical to see the way in which they interacted. The experience had me hooked and all these years later, I’m still watching them. There is always something to learn about their complex social structure and nocturnal wanderings.

But getting close to badgers has never been easy. They are naturally very wary of humans – rightly so since they have been persecuted for centuries. Perhaps if more people got to watch them in the wild there would be more of a general incentive to protect them. But badgers have a particularly keen sense of smell and if they get the slightest whiff of human scent they remain underground. 

Over the years I’ve perched in some very uncomfortable, and usually unreliable, places to try to watch them. But six years ago I built a deluxe hide five metres up a tree overlooking a sett. I have watched the clan at this sett every night since and I've painted quite a few of their portraits. In time the badgers have become so accustomed to me that I can walk amongst them. They are curious about what I am up to - on one occasion Humbug, my favourite, decided she wanted to see if she approved of the pictures I had taken!

Below is the portrait I painted of her when she was just a year old. 

The clan always appear at dusk or just before and as night falls they gain confidence. They emerge like clockwork each evening and always disappear off in the same direction. Over the years I have got to know each member of the clan well and have watched as cubs grow. This painting is of Tufty, one of my favourites. 

Although badgers are largely nocturnal, in the spring and summer the nights are too short to forage and they often venture out at sunset.They usually spend some time at the sett playing and grooming before heading off. This time is important for them socially as it helps them to cement their bonds. It also makes great badger watching, especially if there are playful cubs around.

When I sit down to paint their portraits I always feel that I have to make sure I get their characters right to do them justice. In November I am staging a major new exhibition featuring paintings of species around the world that need protecting. The exhibition opens here in my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire between November 7-29th and will focus on a number of UK species that are in trouble and offer you advice on what you can do to help.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Paintings for Red Squirrel Week

It's Red Squirrel Week this week and I'm doing my bit to raise awareness by posting my latest collection of paintings of red squirrels here.

I painted this one after a visit to Formby, in Merseyside, where the National Trust protects an isolated colony of reds. Red squirrels are in serious trouble. The latest estimated population is just 120,000 , of which 75% or more are in Scotland. The main problems are disease, specifically squirrel pox, the loss and fragmentation of their woodland habitat, and competition from the more robust grey squirrel.
There are only a handful of refuges left for red squirrels in the UK, of which Formby is one.

Earlier this year I visited another, in Angelsey, where conservationists have concentrated on controlling the red squirrel's biggest competitors; greys. Whilst there, I met Dr Craig Shuttleworth of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales who gave me a leaflet about red squirrels with a map of Welsh populations and their distribution that dated back to 2000. The paper showed that this endangered species remain in just a few small pockets across the region and that these pockets have remained unchanged for 15 years. That is apart from on the Island of Anglesey, where there are more than 500 red squirrels –representing the largest population in Wales. This boom is despite the fact that red squirrels were nearly extinct on Anglesey in 1997.

The success is directly due to a focus on the systematic eradication of grey squirrels. Grey squirrels are a major factor in the decline of our native squirrel due to the fact that they carry the disease, squirrel pox, which is lethal to red squirrels. Grey squirrels that dare to cross the bridge off the mainland are relentlessly trapped. The island has now become such a safe haven for the reds that recently these indigenous species have begun crossing onto the mainland. In response the Trust has also begun to control populations of greys on the mainland and is successfully encouraging this steady spread of the red squirrel population. At the same time the Trust concentrates on breeding red squirrels in captivity for release and in the enhancement of woodland habitats. 

Here in Yorkshire, red squirrels are tragically sparse. However earlier this year, whilst the snow was still on the ground, I met up with wildlife photographer Simon Phillpots to see a thriving colony in the Dales.  Simon is passionate about red squirrel conservation and has spent years getting to know his local population. We set off from Hawes and before long were driving down a track into a hidden valley with larch and fir plantations on one side of the track. It was clear the woodland had also been recently planted with more native species. The landscape was breathtaking. There was a snow covering on all the branches and the tops of the walls were coated in white.

We parked and then headed down a path on foot to Simon’s hide. I love a fresh covering of snow because it shows signs of wildlife so clearly. Roe deer slots and rabbit tracks criss-crossed the path. Then, as we got closer to the hide, the star-shaped prints of red squirrel appeared. Beside the hide were bins full of squirrel and bird feed and as Simon opened the hatches I spotted a welcoming committee. Several squirrels had heard our approach and were sitting there waiting to be fed.

This was very different to most of my wildlife watching experiences. Usually keeping quiet and ‘stealth-like’ is essential. But the more noise we made the more the woodland came alive with squirrels and birds. We decided to photograph the squirrels without using the hide. The hide had been necessary when Simon first began to photograph these squirrels several years ago. But we could now walk amongst them.

The squirrels followed when Simon called them and would even go to a spot to look for hazelnuts if Simon pointed to it – it was like being with the pied piper of squirrels. It was incredible to watch as they ran along dry stone walls, across fallen trees and perched on stumps looking for the hazelnuts Simon had put out for them. Their mouths opened to fit in a hazelnut perfectly and they could crack into their hard shells in seconds to get at the tasty kernel inside. Meanwhile some nuts were stashed away for another day.

Each character was different. Some had a playful nature and were bolder and more mischievous than others. Among them one character stood out. This one had a slightly kinked tail and, Simon explained, was the cheekiest. He had named this one Floppy. Squirrels do not hibernate but grow thick winter coats and prominent ear tufts.

Watching these squirrels was so engaging. It would be tragic if we lost these fun creatures. And yet a report published this month by the World Wildlife Fund suggests that the world has already lost 52% of its animals. This Christmas I hope to do what I can to raise awareness for Britain's endangered species by staging a major exhibition at my gallery in Thixendale, North Yorkshire, featuring my paintings of threatened UK species with advice on how to help them. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Black Fox

I’ve always got an ear to the ground for interesting wildlife sightings. So when I had a call from a customer saying he had seen a jet-black fox near his flat, my ears pricked up.

There are only thought to be a handful of such creatures in the country. Although black in colour, they are technically known as ‘silver foxes’ since the fur is tipped with white. The coloration is all down to genetics. Historically, silver foxes were among the most valued for their fur. Their silver-black skins were worn by nobles in Russia, Western Europe, and China and their pelts were considered to be of a higher quality even than that of a pine marten, beaver or otter.
But whilst they are virtually unheard of in Britain, I’ve read that silver foxes make up to 8% of Canada’s red fox population.
I gasped audibly down the phone as my customer told me he had seen the male black-coloured fox early in the morning on the opposite side of a steep valley from his flat.
He was so enthusiastic about his sighting it was hard not to get caught up by his stories of ‘Black Fox’, as he named it.
Soon after our telephone conversation, this customer came across to my gallery in Thixendale to show me his video footage.
He was quite a character. He arrived wearing a smart green tweed suit, tie and top hat. Jayne, who works in my gallery, welcomed him in by saying. “You’re looking really smart are you going somewhere nice?” To which he replied: “Yes: Here!”

His real name was Robert Burns, but he introduced himself as ‘Black Fox Bob’, which made me chuckle. I couldn’t wait to see his footage so we went through to the house and plugged his camera in to my widescreen TV.
As the video played, I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I was expecting the fox to be dark, but this fox was as black as a Labrador, with just the hint of silver highlights along its body. It had a beautiful white tip to its tail, just like a red fox.

I watched entranced as Robert flicked through the footage. It was amazing how relaxed the silver fox seemed given that there was a busy dual carriageway just 20 yards further up the steep bank. This behaviour was very different to that of country foxes that I see here in Thixendale which are very wary.
The footage was a little shaky but nevertheless ‘Black Fox Bob’ had caught some fantastic sequences of two foxes, a black one and a common red one.
One of my favourite of his clips was of Black Fox flirting with a young red vixen. The vixen was sitting beneath him on the steep bank. He slid on his belly down the incline to join her, pulling himself along with his front legs and trailing his back legs and tail behind him. As he slipped alongside her, he stopped and stood up, then walked round her to regain the high ground.
He tried to be tender, sniffing around her face, but she rebuffed him with such a sharp snap that he slid down the bank. He got up to try again. This time, he wasn’t so charming and grabbed at her tail with his teeth as he slid past. But then a few minutes later he sidled over to her and licked her round the muzzle. She sat upright and they both looked down the valley together. Then she curled up into a ball and put her head down to rest and started cleaning and grooming herself.
‘Black Fox’ rushed towards her, excited by his success. Next, he jumped over her and bounded away into some trees. Then he ran back and pounced on her. He misjudged and his front legs landed heavily on to her body. She looked less than impressed by these boyish antics and skulked off to sleep in some undergrowth.

I asked Black Fox Bob to keep me up to date with his sightings. I was impressed with his diligence. I started to receive a stream of highly-detailed letters and late night phone calls with all the latest news. He was becoming as ‘fox-obsessed’ as I can be when I’m watching a wildlife subject. Black Fox Bob was so hooked he had even designed his own black fox logo.
 I decided I had to see this unusual fox for myself.
The problem was that it usually made an appearance between 4am and 6am. At the time, my summer exhibition was in full swing and I was tied up with filming a weasel family in my garden for BBC’s The One Show.
By the end of June, Black Fox Bob informed me that a larger male fox had come on the scene. Bob called this one ‘Daddy Fox’ and it sounded as though this large male seemed intent on taking over Black Fox’s patch. Judging from appearances, Black Fox was last year’s cub, so his chances weren’t great.
To make the situation worse, the young vixen I had seen footage of Black Fox flirting with had disappeared and an old vixen had come onto the scene. Poor Black Fox appeared to be confused and lost without his mate and sightings had become unreliable.
Then Black Fox Bob reported that Black Fox had got mange on his tail. He was worried it would spread.
Things took a turn for the better in August, when Black Fox Bob reported that Black Fox’s mange had recovered and he now had another vixen mate. Black Fox Bob called this new lady ‘New Red’.
His video footage was still a bit on the shaky side as well as small on the screen and he was keen for my advice on how to get better shots. It turned out that he had been filming the fox from over 200 yards, so I suggested that he either needed to get closer to the foxes or get the foxes closer to him by using food as bait.
Black Fox Bob began a regime of slowly leaving a trail of food that led closer and closer to his flat window. The ploy worked a treat and soon he was getting some much better video footage. He sent me some clips of the two foxes. It looked to me like they had paired up and may well go onto mate in the winter. I wonder if we will get some black cubs next spring.

On one clip, New Red was filmed eating and looking up from time to time, as if she was waiting for something. Then Black Fox appeared out of the undergrowth and she rushed over to meet him. They touched noses by way of a greeting and he gave her an endearing lick on her ear before they began playfully chasing each other across the grass.
Then at the beginning of September, I got further news and another video. This time it featured New Red being attacked by a local feral cat. Black Fox was less intimidated by the cat and protected his girl by sitting directly in between the two; staring fixedly at the cat so that New Red could feed in peace.
This and all the clips and news I had had since I first heard of Black Fox made me feel I knew him well and now the urge to see Black Fox for myself could no longer be ignored. So this month I headed off to Black Fox Bob’s town flat in West Yorkshire.

He was amazed when I arrived and opened the boot of my car. Inside I had packed boxes and bags full of lights, flashes, infrared cameras, dimmer switches, wires, tripods, clamps, SLR cameras and lenses.
We loaded all this gear into his flat and Bob took me on a tour of the fox’s territory. Bob’s flat overlooks a steep valley which I jokingly referred to as ‘Black Fox Canyon’. He showed me where the foxes run through the undergrowth and where they slept too. 
But we were conscious of the time and soon returned to his flat to set my equipment up. As dusk started to fall we were ready. I had linked an infrared camera to the TV in his living room so we wouldn’t miss a single movement outside.
The hours passed as we chatted about Black Fox, but by 11.00pm we had seen nothing – just the feral cat that had unsettled New Red. We decided to name this character ‘Scarface Claw’, after the children’s classic Slinky Malinki.
Then five minutes later, Bob said in a relieved voice: ‘He’s here’. We tiptoed into Bob’s bedroom to get a better view out of the window. I’d rigged his garden with security lights earlier that day and I gradually turned them on with a dimmer switch.
The black fox didn’t seem overly upset by this new development, although was less sure of the flash when I took a photograph. Thankfully after a few shots he relaxed and settled down to eat the food that Black Fox Bob had put out for him. I got a final shot before he trotted off on his rounds of his territory, melting into the darkness of the city.

·        If you know of very unusual wildlife living near you I would like to hear about it. I can be contacted at my gallery on 01759 368355 or by email mail@robertefuller.com.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Warrior Fashion

I've really enjoyed watching BBC2's new series on elephant expert Saba Douglas Hamilton's safari camp in Kenya - especially after noticing in last week's episode that the warriors were wearing the Christmas presents I sent them.

I have led two wildlife tours to stay at Elephant Watch Camp, the remote Kenyan eco-lodge featured in the series, and after the last trip I sent the warriors a gift of pheasant feathers for their headdresses. Apparently pheasant feathers are all the rage amongst fashionable Samburu. I was particularly impressed by the tribesmen who help Saba Douglas-Hamilton to run the lodge during my stay. They feature in the series helping her to look after her young children and running wildlife tours for guests. They really were as helpful and knowledgeable as they appear in the documentary and so after my first trip there I wanted to say thank you.

So at my next visit I took along a print of a painting I had done of an elephant to present to them as a thank you gift. But whilst they accepted this gracefully, they also confessed that if I was going to be returning from England again what they would really like was pheasant feathers.
So the following year I took along a dozen pheasant feathers. I was surprised at how delighted they were with my gift and noticed that I hadn’t quite brought enough to go round.
So last year I began collecting feathers earlier. I picked up 50 in total and sent them in the post in time for Christmas. According to Saba Douglas-Hamilton, pheasant plumage is all the rage in Samburu and the warriors were delighted with my gift.

If you haven't seen the series it's not too late to catch up. This Wild Life is on BBC2 on Mondays and Tuesdays at 7pm. Below is some of the wildlife that I saw when I went there.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sparring Sparrowhawks

This week I won 'highly commended'  in the 2015 British Wildlife Photography Awards for this photograph of two sparring sparrowhawks.


I travelled down to London to collect my award on Wednesday - and took the opportunity to photograph deer in Bushy Park at the same time - perhaps the subject of another blog! The picture, which won highly commended in the animal behaviour category, is now on display alongside the other winning photographs at London's Mall Galleries. It will go on to be published in a book showcasing all of this year's winners. I am pleased at the way I caught the two birds in the frame; their talons locked in deadly combat, their wings outstretched in hostility.


But in fact this photograph was taken as background research for the painting below.

Readers of this blog will remember I spent six months persuading a female sparrowhawk to feed regularly in the garden so that I could photograph it up close. I wanted a model I could rely on to get the kind of photographs I needed for the details in my painting so I had to get it feeding from the same spot every day - where I could be there ready to photograph it. 

This was a particular challenge as sparrowhawks only hunt live prey. But they don’t always finish their meal in one go and will often leave a kill half eaten to come back to.With this in mind, I decided to take a carcass from a sparrowhawk kill and slowly move it a few metres away each day until it was in a convenient place for me to photograph. But first I needed to work out how I could exchange a sparrowhawk kill with offerings of my own -  so that if I did I could get a sparrowhawk to return to the same spot again and again. I decided to try out my plan on the female sparrowhawk that visits my garden. If I was successful it would mean I could photograph her everyday – and at the same time keep her away from the song birds on my bird table!

I noticed that she would often perch on top of the swing seat in the garden, so I began by leaving a partially-eaten pigeon there. This didn't interest her at first, but then the wind picked up and moved the wings of the pigeon - she spotted it and went on to feed! It took a long time to gradually persuade her that there would be food every day - and then move the spot to where I could watch, but eventually I had her.  Then one day a new and more aggressive young female sparrowhawk moved in. I was first aware of her presence when I heard the garden birds chattering urgently in alarm.

My sparrowhawk stopped eating and turned to face the direction of the noise. Suddenly she fanned her tail and lowered her head in a defensive posture.

With astonishing speed a second hawk came into the frame. The original hawk flapped her wings up in the air and fanned its tail even wider, to make herself look as large and threatening as possible.

But the second hawk was not going to be put off. She made a grab for the pigeon, tugging on its wing. It then lunged at the other hawk, pushing it off the kill. 

It was an explosive moment. My camera can take up to ten frames a second and captured some astonishing images that were too quick for the human eye.

As I reviewed my photographs I could tell that this intruder was a much younger female, possibly just that year’s chick. My original sparrowhawk was about two or three years old and much more attractive, and in fact became the model for the painting, as above. The younger bird equalled its rival in size but was already at this age more aggressive. I thought that this would be a one off encounter but over the next two weeks the two hawks tussled over ownership of my feeding station. Occasionally I would see them both perched on the hedge just 20 yards apart, almost daring each other to go down first. Eventually the younger bird won and became a daily visitor. I thought I had lost my more attractive model, but as I opened my daughter’s curtains one morning I saw the original female sparrowhawk outside. After a few more battles, the younger hawk disappeared and the older bird resumed its habitual lunchtime feed - and I went on to paint her.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Robert E Fuller: Weasel: I just can't stop itching

The weasel kits continue to entertain me outside my kitchen window. This one is indulging in a really good scratch!

If you've been following this blog you will know that they are among seven young weasel kits I've been filming ever since spotting their mother in my garden this spring. 
Watching the intimate interactions of this species ranks among the most spectacular sightings I’ve had in a life-time of watching wildlife.
Although weasels are common enough mammals in the UK, it is rare to get more than a fleeting glimpse of one before it disappears into the undergrowth.
But thanks a series of cameras hidden in my garden, I have followed the secret behaviour of these tiny predators through the seasons.

I even witnessed their aggressive mating ritual - right outside my kitchen window. This was incredible. The male literally grabbed the female and when, after a short scuffle, she curled up into a submissive ball, he picked her and up carried her off by the scruff of her neck to mate.
I began watching the female in March, after Lara, who works in my gallery, came rushing to find me claiming she had spotted a baby stoat in the garden.

Weasels are often mistaken for stoats. But as they are much smaller and, as it was too early for stoat kits, I knew by her description that she must have actually seen a weasel.
A few days later I saw the weasel for myself from my studio window, which overlooks the same patch of garden.

I dashed downstairs, grabbed my camera and took my first ever photographs of a weasel from the kitchen window. 
Looking back through these photographs, I could tell the weasel was a female since she had very delicate features. I was surprised how small she was: just twice the size of a wood mouse.
I decided I needed to get her to feed regularly in the garden so that I could study her closely for a new painting.
I set about designing four ‘weasel feeders’, special wooden boxes fitted with fine mesh floors and Perspex sliding roofs. I drilled 32mm entrance holes into the sides, big enough for a weasel to get in and out but, importantly, too small for a stoat or rat.
I positioned each box in different locations in my back garden, where I had seen the weasel hunting, and baited them with dead mice or voles every day. Sometimes I dragged the bait over the ground in front of the box to leave a scent trail.
After 10 days of repeating this process I’d had no joy and was starting to get disheartened. Then one morning I heard the birds in the garden calling out in alarm. Interestingly their calls were much more subtle then when a sparrowhawk is on the scene.
As I looked out of the window I could see a weasel going from feeder to feeder diligently taking each rodent.  Success! I reached for my camera and quickly snapped it as it made off down the path. I was off to a good start.

Over the next few weeks, the weasel started to come most days. But its raids were so quick I often missed its visits.
I decided to reduce the number of feeding boxes down to one. With just one box to keep an eye on I would have a much better chance of getting clear sightings.
I fitted the box with a tiny camera so that I could see inside via a TV screen in my studio and a motion sensor with an alarm, which would alert me when it arrived.
Then I artfully placed tree roots in front of this entrance so that any photographs I took would make it look as though the weasel was emerging from a natural setting.

It took a few days to get the weasel to return to this adapted feeder, but one morning she dashed up through the roots and into the box. I watched on my TV monitor as she grabbed the mouse inside. I had tied down the bait with mini cable ties, so that it would slow the weasel down and give me chance to grab my camera.
I had a fascinating month watching the female weasel. Then one day a male arrived and went into the feeding box. He was much bigger and stockier than the female. He became a regular visitor too, although the relationship between them was very tense.
But, spurred on by the possibility that this could be a mate for her, I headed off to the workshop to finish off a nesting chamber I had already started to build.
I made this out of a hollow hawthorn log and again hid a camera in it. It had a six inch hollow middle, which was the perfect size for such a small mammal. I put the whole thing into a small plastic bin and fixed three 32mm pipes leading in to it. I hoped the pipe would be too small for the larger male to get down.
Inside I put two voles’ nests made from dead grass and leaves to add extra scent. The pipes smelt of new plastic so I poured soil and sand through it before pulling a dead vole on a bit of string through too for good measure.

From the outside it looked a bit like a blue Dalek. I buried it in its entirety in the back garden. Then each day I tied a dead mouse with a cable tie onto a dead grass stem and threaded it about six inches down the pipes to attract the female weasel into the nest.
Then one day in late April the female came to the feeding box as usual. She was followed by the male, which ran in to the tree roots and flushed her out.
She fled, but she wasn’t quick enough. The male caught her and rolled her over into a conifer. She was squeaking, hissing and spitting in aggression.  As she rolled on to her back the bush was shaking and I got fleeting glimpses of weasels bobbing up and then disappearing behind the foliage.
I ran upstairs to get a better view. The female scrambled on top of a small shrub and leapt onto the path. But she wasn’t quick enough. The male grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and carried her off out of sight.

I didn’t see either weasel for the next three days which was unusual. I was worried that the male had chased her away, but I hoped that they were just mating. I was pleased to see her back one evening and even more pleased to see her investigating her new, bespoke, nesting chamber.
She checked every nook and cranny. It was like watching Location, Location, Location. Within minutes, she had decided she liked it and fetched one of the dead mice I had pushed down the pipe. She pulled this inside with her.
Then, incredibly, she set about neatly building a nest out of the old vole nest that I had put in earlier. She soon built a dome structure out of dry grasses and leaves and pulled her mouse into it. She ate some of her mouse and then the nest fell quiet as she fell asleep.
As the weeks passed I noticed that she was getting plump. Typically the gestation period for a weasel is 35 days. But she now couldn’t fit down the pipe into the nesting chamber and instead she began sleeping and making a nest in the feeding box.
But the male could fit into this too. And for two nights just before she was due to give birth, he slept in it himself. It was clear she wouldn’t give birth there now and shortly afterwards she gave birth to kits in a hole in the wall of my back shed.

A week later she brought her five kits into the original nesting chamber one at a time. She was now slim enough to fit into it again. The kits were just over one inch long. They were blind and hairless. They couldn’t walk but could squirm and wriggle about. Once the last of the kits was brought into this safe haven, the female scurried out to the feeding box to retrieve a dead mouse. She dragged it into the nesting chamber with the kits. And I was amazed to see how the seemingly helpless kits quickly wriggled towards this new food source and started to suck on it. Who would have thought that such young creatures would already have the taste for meat at such an early stage?
I can now watch her and her growing family live on screens from inside my gallery. And visitors are being treated to an extremely rare sight too.

Robert E Fuller: Two weasel kits feeding in my secret underground box