The art of fieldcraft

Wren

Matthew Capper, keen birdwatcher, photographer and our Head of Public Engagement & Communications, on the importance of fieldcraft to improve your chances of seeing wildlife and decrease the possibility of causing any disturbance

I don’t know about you, but wherever I go, I am always watching out for wildlife. Nature is a constant backdrop to my life and I find it hard to comprehend living in a world where I am not constantly scanning or listening for things. As I walk down a street, I can’t help but notice the ticking call of a wren or the repetitive notes of a song thrush singing. As I walk a footpath, there are the flowers in the verge and even when I’m driving, I notice the buzzard floating above the trees – although maybe I should caveat that one with a ‘don’t try this at home’ message!

I’d like to think that as well as always being on the lookout, watching wildlife is a constant learning process too. My enjoyment comes from seeing both the familiar and the unusual, and the view and the circumstances can be as much part of the experience as the species itself. And as you learn, you want to see more and experience more. With that comes a need for fieldcraft.

Fieldcraft is the art of knowing how to behave, what to do and watch for, and the knowledge behind what species do when and where. And as much as it is about allowing you to see and experience amazing wildlife, it is also about consideration of the species itself and the habitat in which it lives.

a good pair of binoculars and some sensible clothing are the building blocks that everyone should invest in

Of course, you don’t need any equipment to see and enjoy wildlife. At times, we can be a bit snobby and elitist when it comes to ‘gear’. I have a lot of stuff. From SLR cameras and lenses to bat detectors, and I have apps and field guides coming out of my ears. You don’t need to spend a fortune though. I would argue that a good pair of binoculars and some sensible clothing are the building blocks that everyone should invest in.

Wearing muted colours like greens and browns will mean that you don’t stand out. Choosing natural fabrics such as cotton will mean that you don’t rustle when you move. And if you can stay further from the subject, it will not be disturbed and you will get a more prolonged view. Of course, budget is an issue but for me, buying a pair of good binoculars is a must (I’m slightly obsessed with helping people choose the right optics for them!). Buy the best you can afford – over time it will pay you back in spades. Other equipment is great but very much a personal choice.

As well as that the welfare of the subject needs to come first, one of the most important lessons you can learn as a wildlife enthusiast is that most wildlife has what is known as a fear circle. This is effectively how close it will allow you to approach before it takes flight. Learning to approach quietly isn’t just about stealth and stalking. Even when you are out and about, the right approach can minimise your impact and bring richer experiences.

Moving slowly and carefully is a great start, but often it is better to let the wildlife come to you

Think about the way you move. The first step is to walk softly, placing your feet carefully and slowly. Try not to stand out against the skyline - use tree lines and hedges and only break the line of cover if absolutely necessary. Keep low if you need to. Moving slowly and carefully is a great start, but often it is better to let the wildlife come to you. It is tempting when you see something to want to approach for a better view. But I have had some of my best wildlife encounters by spotting something in the distance and carefully choosing a spot to sit and wait.

In getting to know wildlife, it is not just the species you need to know, but all the other aspects of its life that can help you to maximise your chances of seeing it. Does it hibernate? When is a species in flower? Does it migrate and if so when does it arrive and leave? Some species can be surprising in their movements and knowing when and where is the key. Swifts, for example, move through the Lincolnshire coast in huge numbers in July and early August. Meadow pipits move in September and thrushes like fieldfare and redwing do not arrive until October. Placing yourself in the right place at the right time is key and many wildlife enthusiasts follow a calendar of wildlife spectacles every year.

Similarly, the tracks and signs of species can be learnt and provide a great way to narrow down your search. For example, a badger’s path through the grass or under a fence is fairly easy to recognise and often becomes a mammal super-highway for other species. Waiting for animals to use this path at dusk can be extremely rewarding and will greatly increase your chances. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

there is no such thing as bad weather, but there is certainly better weather

The weather is surprisingly important in watching wildlife. For me, there is no such thing as bad weather, but there is certainly better weather! If I see an easterly wind in the Autumn, there is no place I’d rather be than on the east coast as this means migrating birds are likely to arrive in number. In winter, wildlife is focussing on surviving and finding food. Activity is at a minimum but a warm day will bring things out and you will be more likely to see things.

Similarly, I have walked a summer meadow in cool cloudy conditions and found nothing. But within minutes of the sun coming out, there have been butterflies everywhere! And when there is a good covering of snow, I love to head out and find the tracks of birds and mammals, tracing their movements and trying to work out who has been where.

Enjoying wildlife is a privilege and should not come at the expense of the very thing you want to enjoy

The last and most important thing for me is to come back to the welfare of the subject. Enjoying wildlife is a privilege and should not come at the expense of the very thing you want to enjoy. In cold weather, repeatedly making an animal move burns more calories and you’d be surprised how much time has to be spent feeding just to keep alive. Waders feeding on a beach, if disturbed, lose valuable feeding time before the next tide comes in. You may think that if it is just once it won’t matter. But when the next person walks along and then the next, the constant flushing can truly be the difference between life and death.

This may not be fieldcraft per se, but keeping dogs on leads and away from areas where they are not allowed, sticking to footpaths to avoid trampling vegetation and ensuring that all litter is binned or taken home are three golden rules for any wildlife experience.

As with all things, practice makes perfect and it is the combination of all these elements that come together to grow knowledge and deliver ever more immersive wildlife experiences. For me, that is part of life. A never-ending process that has been a cornerstone of my life and continues to bring me so much pleasure and enjoyment every single day.

Knot

Tom Marshall