Legendary Safari Guides – by Susie Casenove

The never-ending pandemic has become rather frustrating to a large number of us, especially to those of us who love to travel, explore and watch wildlife in their natural habitat. To fill the lockdowns and times of unemployment due to this dire situation, reading has become somewhat of a relaxing escape to imaginary worlds. One of the books I read during this time was “Legendary Safari Guides” by Susie Casenove. 

This book focuses on the lives and achievements of some of the most outstanding safari guides in Africa. The stories of each of these guides seems somewhat unreal and, in some cases, rather Indiana Jones like, but at the same time, you can just picture the scenery and the adventures that these guides found themselves in. 

Not only did Susie describe in great detail all of the guides she has been so fortunate to meet, but she also does a great job of describing the countries, the reserves and the camps themselves to really set the scene and send your imagination wild just picturing all of these places. The descriptions of each place were so well written that it has inspired some future travel ideas for my own journeys to Africa. Africa is a land of adventure, and these safari guides were some of the very first in the industry and set up a number of the guide training camps now found in many different areas throughout Southern Africa. 

While reading the accounts of each of the guides, I was quite aware of how lacking the health and safety appeared to be in the early days of the guiding industry and makes some of my “scary” moments in the bush seem rather tame in comparison. Some of these guide’s stories are inspiring and endearing, it only makes me want to get back to the bush more, however the imaginary land in my head will have to do for now and with a book so well written, it is really not difficult at all to picture yourself there. 

The chapters are segmented into countries and regions, with the sub-chapters then being each of the guides that Susie meets in those areas. The first chapter is called “The World of Safari Travel”, something I feel can help the unexperienced bush goer prepare themselves for what’s to come. 

The Chapters each start with a quote that prepare you for what you’re about to read, but also are words to really digest and think about before your next adventure to the African bush. The chapters are set out really well and gives the book a really good flow. A few of the guides that Susie writes about are interconnected and have sometimes crossed paths and it’s nice to see what a community the safari guiding industry is. 

Not only are the guides safari guides, but a number of them were pioneering conservationists, helping to set up, run and manage different reserves, projects, wildlife populations and so on. Guides really are guardians of the wilderness and to read about where it all came from and started, really starts to emphasise what it means to be a guide. 

Having wanted to go into safari guiding since my teenage years, I’m all the more for reading anything and everything about people who have lived this life before me. Due to personal reasons, it looks like I might never go and do it myself, but living the experience through the lives of others helps to fill in the space of what I feel I’m missing out on. Susie has portrayed every single guide she met in such a respectful, fun and imaginative way, so that after reading about each one of the people she mentions, you feel like you know them as well as you know an old friend. The guides in this book were so passionate for their work that the phrase “if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life” comes to mind. But how could you not love waking up to the sounds and sights of the bush every day and educate new clients and old clients about the environment you call home.

I think the feelings I gained through reading this book could be summed up as fortunate and envy. I feel fortunate because of all the experiences I’ve had myself out in the bush, and reading this book brought up some of my old memories of guides I’ve met and the things I got up to, but also envy for the lives that these guides have lived. 

To anyone who is missing being out in the wilds, exploring and watching wildlife, I strongly recommend you purchasing this book as being able to escape into an imaginary, but familiar world might just lift your spirits a little. This book will also give you so many ideas for future travel plans, and perhaps the idea of preparing for a big adventure in the future will help to get you through these hard times, it is certainly one of the things that has kept me going. 

To purchase the book, click here: Legendary Safari Guides (I do not earn anything from you using this link)

In-situ Conservation

In-situ conservation summed up in basic terms, is just conservation on the ground in the natural environment of the species you’re saving. There is a large variety of different types of in-situ project that contributes towards the conservation of a species, sometimes helping to conserve multiple species at the same time. 

Types of in-situ conservation projects 

When it comes to conserving species, one of the biggest and most upfront methods that comes to mind is anti-poaching rangers. These rangers are there to stop the needless and unnecessary killing of endangered animals, either by means of arrest or sometimes having to resorting to killing the poachers if met with aggression. Anti-poaching, however, is not the only type of in-situ conservation, it comes in many forms and functions, so here is a small list of the types of work and projects that would be considered in-situ:

Helping with the babysitting of an orphaned rhino 6 years ago
  • Wildlife Rehabilitation and release
  • Wildlife veterinary
  • Wildlife research
  • Habitat protection
  • Habitat restoration 
  • Wildlife management (i.e. restoring populations in areas where there are low numbers, by taking animals from areas with very high numbers) 
  • Wildlife monitoring (can be using GPS trackers etc.)
  • Education for the local community – one of the most important and effective forms of saving the wild places. 
  • Preserving traditional knowledge and practices of native cultures 
  • Creating legislation for the species within their natural environment to keep them better protected as there will be high sanctions for anyone caught harming them. 

Do we really need ex-situ conservation work if we have effective in-situ conservation?

The short answer is yes. Unfortunately, a large number of the critically endangered and endangered species are found in developing countries; these countries have high unemployment rates and the money to poach an animal is tempting when you’re trying to feed your family. These countries also fairly often lack the funds to put back into their wildlife, and therefore, countries that are able to provide support, need to. 

Sumatran Orangutan at Chester Zoo – used for a breeding programme to have a good range of genetics and a back-up population

Have a read of last week’s blog, The Importance of Zoos, and find out why keeping zoos open and functioning is so incredibly important. 

But yes, if we are to have an impactful effect on the outcomes of the conservation projects, keeping ex-situ conservation efforts is incredibly important. If we were to mess up and not get the support of the locals, or the rangers in place in time to save a species, a back-up needs to be held somewhere, and good zoos and wildlife sanctuaries are the places to do this. Projects can be formed in ex-situ places such as in zoos, and work towards creating in-situ efforts, this is because zoos are able to raise funding for these projects which they can then use to provide equipment, qualified teachers for the locals and specialists to work with the locals to help run the projects. 

Can I get involved in projects to help save wildlife?

Absolutely you can, I have been on many different projects, specifically to Africa and have worked first-hand with some of the wildlife at a rehabilitation centre and saw some of the residents be released back to the wild. 

A better picture of baby rhino – go get involved, it’s great fun, great experience and you get to work hands on with amazing species like this.

The projects that are set up with reputable organisations do amazing work. Not only do they help with the efforts of on-hand conservation, such as wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife research and wildlife relocation, but to name a few; they also do important work at going to local schools to educate children, and also, most importantly, create new jobs for the locals to help drive down unemployment rates, paying them good salaries so that they are not tempted to illegally poach animals just to feed their families. 

Is there anything I can do at home that will positively impact conservation efforts?

Yes. There are always things you can be doing at home. Two big things come to mind for me, something which I haven’t perfected yet, but am slowly working towards. Reduce the amount of plastic you buy and use. Reduce the number of products you buy that contain palm oil. 

Plastic is one of the biggest killers to the biggest number of species out of any other danger to wildlife. Plastic is found in ocean dwelling wildlife, river wildlife, terrestrial wildlife and almost any other type of wildlife you can think of. It is killing species left, right and centre because they aren’t aware of the dangers they face when they consume it, nor are they able to tell it apart from other food they would eat, especially plastic bags as they look quite a lot like jellyfish in the water. As well as consuming plastic, animals get tangled up in it and suffer horrific injuries, often taking a long time for them to die and so they experience an immense amount of suffering at the end of a short-lived life because of man. There are so many eco-friendly, sustainable, plastic free businesses popping up all over the world, and it’s time we really start to push these businesses to the top and get the plastic situation under control. 

The problem with palm oil is that it can be found in almost everything. It is used in a whole range of food products, skincare and haircare products and a number of things I can’t even think of. Not only are these foods and products pre-packaged and contribute towards the plastic crisis, but they are also driving the destruction of habitats for endangered animals, one of the most famous species affected is the Orangutan. There are two ways to go about dealing with this problem, either go completely off all packaged food and only make things from scratch and use natural cleaning solutions like shampoo bars etc. Or you can look for products that contain sustainably sourced palm oil. 

My first order from Peace With The Wild that came this week – a wooden hairbrush, natural deodorant in cardboard packaging, biodegradable floss in a reusable container – you can buy refills in sustainable packaging for many items, and a stainless steel tongue scraper.

It does take a huge amount of effort from all of us to make these changes, but if we lead the way by making choices that negatively affect the businesses who don’t want to cooperate (i.e. making their profits shrink because we’re not buying from them) they will eventually have to change their ways to gain customers again. We as the consumer have the most power in making companies change their ways, and if a lot of us make it noticeable that we will not buy packaged fruit and veg (that really doesn’t need it) or unsustainably sourced palm oil products, we will drive the change. Through our actions, and our actions alone, we will make a difference and help with the fight to save the earth. If you’re going to be making any changes this year, I urge you to really try and use as many eco-friendly products as you possibly can, even if you are only able to change to a re-usable water bottle, you will be saving so much money and plastic in the long run. 

Two companies I am using this year are: 

  • Smol – for my laundry pods and dishwasher tabs – no plastic wrapping on individual pods/tabs and the outside container is cardboard making it fully recyclable. 
  • Peace With The Wild – an eco-friendly company providing a range of products for the kitchen, bathroom, going out and a whole array of other items. 

By making these changes to living with less plastic in your home, more natural products and products that use less palm oil, your actions are making it easier for the people working out in the field trying to save the wildlife.

The Importance of Zoos in Conservation

As I mentioned briefly in my last blog post, zoos are one of the most underappreciated and underestimated forces of the conservation world. Without zoos, there would be an even larger number of extinct animals than there already is. 

Not only do zoos keep animals to show off to the public and to use them for education, every single animal kept in zoos (good zoos that is), are used in breeding programmes to secure the genetics of different species so that there is no interbreeding of related individuals and to help increase the population at the same time. 

Zoos are especially important in this day and age where the plight of animals’ extinction is primarily human-caused. Humans have caused so much habitat destruction and persecution of animals that they wouldn’t be able to recover unless humans completely disappeared from the planet. We are able to help keep healthy populations of animals within the zoos care and to make sure that all individuals are viable, should populations be needed to be released back into the wild. 

Conservation doesn’t just happen in the zoo

Not only do zoos physically hold backups of animals, should the devastating day come where they are declared extinct in the wild and so the captive populations would be needed for recovery programmes, but zoos all over the world also run large numbers of in-situ conservation programmes, funded by the zoos. 

My local zoo, Chester Zoo, has many in-situ conservation projects that it’s involved with, I think in the region of 60-70 projects around the world. These projects work with a variety of animal species from small passerine birds, to lemurs, to tigers. 

For example, the tiger project run by Chester Zoo “Living with Tigers” works with the local community in Nepal in the surrounding areas of the tiger’s habitat to help prevent human-tiger conflict. It works with around 1200 households across eight communities in the surrounding areas; working to improve the safety of humans and livestock. 

With all conservation projects, it is of utmost importance for the local communities to be involved, as without their help, the problems the animals are facing still continue. It is all well and good to plan a project and to always see the best outcomes in your mind, but unless those ideas and goals are introduced to the local communities, with education such as the importance of those animals, or techniques to keep themselves and their livestock safe, there won’t be much, if any improvement of the wildlife populations. 

Reintroductions to the wild using zoo animals 

As I have mentioned, zoos are often the last remaining sources of species when they have gone extinct in the wild. Some zoos have had great success at reintroducing species that have been wiped out in their native habits, one of which is the reintroduction of two species of snail to French Polynesia. Chester Zoo alongside ZSL Whipsnade Zoo had breeding programmes to recover populations of Partula rosea and Partula varia which were then taken back to French Polynesia to be released over 25 years after a human-introduced invasive species wiped them out. Some of the most successful reintroductions are from invertebrate and lower invertebrate groups as the logistics and breeding times of these species is often dramatically less than large mammals and birds. 

There are reintroduction programmes that have involved large mammals and I’m sure birds as well. One of the most well-known was when 5 black rhinos from zoos across Europe were taken to be reintroduced to a reserve in Rwanda. These rhinos endured a long translocation and the aim of getting them to Rwanda was to help increase the genetic diversity of the rhinos in the national park. 

As a success story, the black rhino reintroduction programme gives hope for other species that are endangered due to human actions. The rhino population is in dire need of saving after humans are responsible for a 95% decline of the black rhino.

Without the programmes run by zoos, and the hard work of the keepers caring for them, the veterinary teams, the conservation officers, geneticists and a whole host of other people behind the scenes of the enormous efforts that are made, some of our animals would be gone forever. If humans are still going to persecute animals, zoos have to stay. We cannot let our animals that belong in the natural world go extinct because of greedy, selfish humans that only see wildlife with big price tags on their heads. The day that humans are no longer a threat to animals, is the day that we would no longer need to have zoos. 

I am aware of people who don’t support zoos, these are usually people who, through no fault of their own, are fairly ignorant to what goes on behind the scenes of zoos. Humungous efforts from keepers, nutritionists, animal behaviour experts, vets, other researchers and experts all work to make sure that the animals receive the highest standard of care and welfare. No, a zoo enclosure will never be like it is in the wild, however, almost all animals that are in zoos now have been born there and know nothing else, therefore, if all zoos were forced to shut, the animals couldn’t be returned to the wild as they have never developed the survival skills they would need to live there. 

A final note – please look into supporting your local zoo if you can, many have set up just giving pages as they are in desperate need of money to be able to feed and look after their animals. The government has made it almost impossible for zoos to access funding and they keep being forced to shut during lockdown periods. The work that the zoos are involved with is paramount in keeping a large number of species from going extinct, not only that but a lot of healthy animals may need to be euthanised if they are unable to care for them in their zoo homes.

Wildlife Conservation

What exactly is wildlife conservation?

Wildlife conservation is primarily working to protect plant and animal species, and their natural habitats. 

Elephants are one of the most well-known animals that have huge protection and conservation actions in place.

Who is involved in wildlife conservation?

There are many organisations and individuals involved in conservation; from environmental law makers, to wildlife rehabilitators, to wildlife veterinarians, safari guides, game rangers, ecologists among many others. Some big, well known conservation bodies include WWF (World Wildlife Fund), Wildlife Conservation Network, National Audubon Society, World Land Trust, and hundreds of others.

One important group of people, who are often forgotten about or shunned, are zookeepers and zoo staff. Zoos offer the absolute last resort of backup genetics for any species that is close to extinction or has gone extinct. There are a number of species that would be completely gone without zoos, and some species have even been put back into the wild, so we definitely need zoos, mostly because of the acts of humans who selfishly take and take without thinking of the consequences. I will be going into depth on the work of zoos in an upcoming blog, so make sure you look out for that.

When we think of conservation, we mostly think of animals, maybe the plight of the rhinos comes to mind, or the piles of burning elephant tusks shocked you so you want to protect the elephants now, but have you ever considered that plants need specialist conservation in certain parts of the world? 

There are species of plant which have become incredibly rare; usually caused by habitat destruction, such as illegal logging in the Amazon Rainforest, and replanting the land with an oil palm plantation. There are projects all over the world trying to create backup seed banks of these plants so that if the devasting day comes where these plants can’t be found in the wild, there is still a pool of seeds that can be used to regrow them. One such project in the UK is the infamous Eden Project in Cornwall, although I’m yet to visit myself still. 

Why is conservation such a big deal?

Conservation is a big deal because the main reason animals and plants are becoming so greatly endangered is due to humans. There are some pretty nasty people in the world that for whatever reason think that their bank balance is worth more than an animals’ life. In other cases, there are people trying to feed their families that get lured in to do the dirty work for the rich people who want more. 

If we don’t try and conserve the natural world, the earth will be thrown out of balance, and issues like the Coronavirus pandemic will become more frequent. The continuous removing of the world’s rainforests will drive climate change to uncontrollable heights, with extreme weather becoming increasingly frequent and unpredictable. The reduction of invertebrates, especially the pollinators, won’t just mean reduced food sources for wildlife, but reduced food sources for us. A lot of our food is produced with plant products, without the pollinators, our food abundance will dwindle. 

Vultures. Not everyone likes them, but I think they’re kinda cool. I think these ones are White-backs.

Not only will the poaching and killing of animals upset the natural balance of the world, it could be a cause for major disease outbreaks that would otherwise be under control. For instance, vultures have an incredibly strong stomach acid, capable of killing some very horrible diseases such as anthrax. Vultures are prosecuted and poached for traditional beliefs and medicines; some ridiculous notions including that if you eat the brain of a vulture, you will be able to see into the future and others pertaining the smoking of certain body parts, sleeping with the skull next to your pillow etc. Vultures are being killed in mass numbers caused by purposefully poisoned carcasses, seriously affecting the numbers left in the wild. Just a few months after I left Africa, at the start of 2015, there was a mass poisoning, killing 65 vultures in one fell swoop; but not only did the poisoned carcass kill the vultures, two jackals were found dead, as well as a number of other animals as the poison had run into a nearby water source. Vultures, jackals and other predators especially are incredibly important to keep disease from spreading through the eco-system from old rotting carcasses. 

Other animals are also killed for “traditional medicine” with notions such as curing cancer, improving sexual health, reducing headaches and other such things. With scientific evidence and studies, we know these things are simply not true and it is unbelievable that the killing of animals still goes on to drive this industry. 

How does conservation work then with so many different issues?

Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania is a protected area, meaning it is illegal to hunt or poach any animal that resides in this area.

A lot of conservation efforts start way before thinking about working in the field to make protection plans. One of the most effective ways to drive out the traditional medicines, and other beliefs that may be carried, is to educate the local people, especially the children in the local schools. Children often become very passionate when they are exposed to some of these issues and it allows them to go home and tell their parents about it. Of course, there are going to be people who refuse to change and that is why on the ground protection and research is needed. 

Conservation projects will first send a group of specialist researchers into the area of interest to find out more about the animal’s ecology, behaviour, range and other such things. From this information, a plan of action can be developed, such as creating protected areas where it is then illegal to enter or hunt, and then to put anti-poaching units on patrol in those areas. There are other steps that will need to be taken due to funding distribution needs etc which is normally the determining factor sadly. There are many other things that happen in conservation, perhaps more steps that I am not aware of as of yet, but these are the basic considerations for setting up and running a conservation project. 

There are many other projects set up, such as Animals Asia, who work to rescue Sun Bears in Asia that have been trapped for the bear bile farming industry, an absolutely horrific thing to see. 

There are many different aspects of conservation, some are office jobs pertaining to management and coordination of projects, some jobs are physical and in the field, researching, protecting and so on. 

What isn’t lacking in any area of these jobs is the passion to protect the natural world, something which sadly the humans shouldn’t be involved with as we don’t know how to care for it properly. No other animal seeks out to destroy another animals home deliberately, no matter the costs.  

Wildlife conservation support ideas

  • Your local zoo – a lot of zoos run many different in-situ projects, helping to protect the habitat for the cousins of the animals you see in their care (make sure it’s a reputable zoo where the animals have high welfare standards). 
  • WWF – they have many different projects all over the world protecting habitats and protecting the animals within those habitats.
  • In-situ volunteering projects – these projects will employ locals (helping with many developing countries and their high unemployment rates) – these projects will also give you experience to put on your CV to help you further your career.
  • Any charity that piques your interest – maybe you have a favourite animal, or group of animals – look for charities that work with those species and support them. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of wildlife conservation charities out there, and if you’re here reading this blog, you have the internet so you will be able to find them if you look hard enough. One example would be the Urban Caracal Project in South Africa, working to conserve Caracals in Cape Town. 
  • Becoming an advocate to protect a certain species. No, you don’t need a big name like David Attenborough or Jane Goodall to campaign to save animals. You could start your own blog about your passion, helping to educate others and driving passion in them. This could either help you raise funds to support an already existing charity, or you could work to create your own in the future. 
  • Promote conservation education, encourage people to watch nature documentaries, read nature books, go on nature walks and become mindful of their impact on the world. 

Wildlife we Associate with Christmas

There are a number of different animals that we associate with Christmas, whether it’s to do with the wildlife we see at this time of year, or because we know they live in a cold place, or an example like Reindeer that live in a cold place, but are also very much associate with the Christmas Story. 

The most common animals associated with Christmas include Robins, Reindeers, Polar Bears, Penguins (Emperor), and Donkeys. Some of these animals, especially the Artic and Antarctic living wildlife might be associated with Christmas purely because they live in cold, snowy places, something that a lot of people in the Northern Hemisphere associate with the Christmas holiday. I do however wonder how different people’s ideas of Christmas might be in the Southern Hemisphere, someone who has never experienced the winter in the north and has only ever had Christmas in 40°C. 

Christmas cards, wrapping paper, gift boxes etc. celebrate these animals that we associate with Christmas because it is a sales point for them, but how much do most of these companies actually care about these animals? How much do these companies, profiting off of their cute little designs, based on our wildlife of the world, some of which are particularly endangered, donate to charity to save these animals? And how many of these companies are working towards reducing plastic waste, carbon waste etc? I already have some wrapping paper from previous years that I’m still needing to use up before needing to get more, but as a lot of these papers due to the printing are unrecyclable, I’ve now bought a huge roll of brown craft paper. Boring, plain, no fun designs craft-paper; however this is much more easily recycled, it’s cheaper to get more, and I’ve seen a number of art stores supplying it without plastic wrapping on the tubes. 

A lot of wildlife charities have their own shops and may sell their own gift wrap with designs of the animals they work with. It would be better to purchase your gift wrap from these places as the profits go directly to the charities so that they can continue their efforts in conservation and keeping these animals from going extinct. 

What do you think, do you think as a moral issue that companies who are using designs of endangered, or vulnerable species and profiting from this, have an obligation to give back to the charities who are working to save these species?

Some Christmas Wildlife Facts: 

European Robin Erithacus rubecula

The European Robin is an incredibly common sight on Christmas cards and wrapping paper (at least in the UK it is). They can be seen all over the UK all year round, so you are highly likely to find robins when wondering around on a nature walk. 

The European Robin has an IUCN status of Least Concern with an increasing population trend. There are estimated to be between 130,000,000-200,999,999 mature individuals, one of the most abundant numbers of animals I’ve ever seen. Robins are everywhere in the UK, from being common in gardens to nature reserves, and I even see them in zoo enclosures on my visits there. 

The robins diet consists of worms, seeds, fruits, insects and other invertebrates. Robins are incredibly curious creatures and are one of the easiest wild birds to get up close to. I have tempted wild robins to perch on my hands before when I’ve had bird seed on me. Make sure if you are feeding these birds that you use proper bird feed so that you don’t make them sick. 

A robin is around 14cm in length from head to tail and they have a wingspan of 20-22cm. They are very small birds, only weighing between 14-21 grams. 

Reindeer Rangifer tarandus 

It would be very silly if I missed out reindeer, considering the overtly popular character that is Rudolph and his friends that help Santa bring your presents to you. 

Reindeer are however in a spot of bother, with an IUCN Red List Status of Vulnerable and a decreasing population trend. As well as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen. Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen, and of course Rudolph, there are another 2,890,391 mature individuals. 

Reindeer can be found in Canada, Finland, Greenland, Mongolia, Norway, Russia and the United States. They were introduced and have now become resident in the Falkland Islands, Iceland, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. 

The reindeers preferred habitat is Forest and Grassland. 

Reindeer are also known as Caribou and they are a member of the deer family. They only tend to be called Caribou in North America, and is a term they use for wild animals, whereas they refer to them as reindeer if they are domesticated. 

Both males and females grow antlers, whereas in other deer species it is just the males that have them. Reindeer have the largest and heaviest antlers compared to body size of all extant deer species, with males’ antlers reaching around 51 inches long and a female’s reaching up to 20 inches long. 

Similar to the wildebeest that migrate through the Serengeti and Masaai Mara in search of food sources, reindeer have a similar style of migration to find better sources of food when it becomes hard to find during the winter. 

Polar Bear Ursus maritimus 

Polar bears are a common feature of wrapping paper and cards at this time of year, however they are one of the most hard hit animals by the action of climate change. They currently have an IUCN Red List status of Vulnerable, however the population trend is unknown and there isn’t much information on their population numbers.

Polar bears are one of the biggest examples as to the damages climate change is causing; from their desiccated hunting due to the level of sea ice melting, reducing the areas they can reach to hunt, to the complete disappearance of sea ice in the summer during recent years. There have been images online of polar bears as skeletons with a bit of skin and fur covering them and it is one of the most upsetting sights. 

They are most commonly found in the high arctic circle, which allows them to hunt in their own unique environment. 

Polar bears are the largest bear species in the world and they are the Arctic’s top predator. Their scientific name (Ursus maritimus) translates from Latin to mean “sea bear”; a very appropriate name for an animal that spends the majority of its life in or around the ocean, and as mentioned previously, on sea ice. 

Polar bears are powerful swimmers and are able to maintain a speed of around 6mph in the water by paddling with their front paws and using their hind legs like a rudder. The polar spends about 50% of its time hunting, with successes reaching only 10-20% of their seal hunts. The main species of seals they hunt are ringed and bearded seals, due to these species having a higher fat content which is what the polar bears need to survive. 

Some weird and wonderful facts about polar bears include: 

  • They have 3 eye lids, the 3rd being used to protect their eyes from the elements
  • 4 inches of fat under their skin to keep them warm
  • Polar bears have black skin
  • The fur of polar bears is actually transparent

Penguin (Emperor) Aptenodytes forsteri

Emperor Penguin photographed at Bird World in the Cotswolds in 2015.

Emperor penguins, although just one of many species are one of the most famous species of penguin and so that’s why I’ve chosen this species for the Christmas wildlife facts list. 

Emperor Penguins have an IUCN Red List Status of Near Threatened with a decreasing population trend. There is an estimated 595,000 mature Emperor Penguins in Antarctica, however  there is so much research still needing to be done on this species. 

Emperor Penguins are only found in Antarctica in the wild; they raise their chicks on something known as “fast ice”, which is described as a floating platform of frozen ocean which is connected to land or ice shelves. They spend their entire lives around the Antarctic Ice, although there have been some rare sightings of this species showing up in New Zealand. 

Of the 18 extant penguin species, Emperor Penguins are the largest, and are one of the largest birds in the world. They are around 120cm tall, and weigh around 40kg, however their weight does fluctuate a lot throughout the year. 

The incubation of this species eggs is between 65-75 days where the male will keep the egg balanced on his feet in a warm and specially adapted brood pouch to keep the egg warm. 

Emperor Penguins are one of the most readily adapted animals to cope with freezing cold temperatures. In the Antarctic, it can drop to -50°C and have winds of up to 200km/hr. To cope with the horrendous weather, they have special adaptations including two layers of feathers and a good reserve of fat, they also have smaller beaks and flippers compared to other penguins to prevent heat loss. They also have feathers on their legs, helping to prevent extra heat loss. Their feet are even adapted to the freezing cold conditions by containing special fats that prevent them from freezing and also strong claws that help them to grip the ice. 

The most famous behaviour penguins use is the penguin huddle. This is colonies of adults and chicks, numbering 5,000 or more, tightly packing together, switching places frequently so that no penguin is on the outside of the huddle for too long. 

Emperor penguins are amazing divers, and are some of the best in the bird world. One of the deepest recorded dives of an Emperor penguin was 564m, with the longest dive reaching nearly 28 minutes. 

The penguins main diet consists of fish, mostly Antarctic silverfish, along with some other species of fish, krill and some squid. On average they eat about 2-3kg of fish a day, however there are times where they can eat double this amount to build up fat stores for the winter, or for feeding their chicks.

Donkey (New Forest)

Donkeys are associated to Christmas because of the story involving Mary and Joseph and them making their way to the Inn that was full. 

Donkeys in the New Forest are actually quite rare, although we have a small group right near where my parents live that have an affection to the village shop. There are only around 200 donkeys on the forest, compared with the 3,000 New Forest ponies. All animals on the forest are owned by the Commoners, these are people who live on the New Forest and have rights to graze their animals on the forest. 

The male donkeys (Jacks) are allowed on the forest all year round, unlike the male ponies (stallions), the only time a Jack would be removed is if it was being badly behaved, where it would then have to go back and live on its commoners property. 

Donkeys aren’t native to the UK, they were brought here by the Romans, meaning that there isn’t a particular New Forest breed of donkey like there is pony, although we call them New Forest donkeys as it mostly refers to where you find them. 

You must remember that if you visit the New Forest, it is an offence to feed the animals. So many tourists do this which creates behavioural problems with the animals, such as aggression near people, and them coming to the roads looking for food. The problem with them coming to the road is that they are darkly coloured and you really struggle to see them at night, causing many fatalities every year. 

Using Nature to Manage Mental Health

Disclaimer*

I am in no way a trained mental health specialist, psychologist or psychiatrist; however, I am a sufferer of extreme anxiety, which also causes depressive episodes and I also have slight SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

The calming effects of nature

Living with anxiety sucks, anyone who has lived with it in the past, or lives with it currently knows that. Online advise always mentions setting a routine, eating healthy and getting regular exercise, but very few sources mention the effects that being in nature can have on you. Well, I’m here to tell you that being out in nature can make a difference, in fact, such a strong difference that your attacks may have a reduced severity when you experience them.

Squirrels scurrying around is fun to watch and often puts a smile on my face.

This year in particular I have suffered some extreme attacks that have lasted for over a week in a couple of cases. I go through phases where I don’t sleep for days on end, which starts to have quite an impact on the rest of your everyday life. I have been a sufferer of insomnia since the day I was born, in fact my mum tells me stories of my childhood where no matter what my nanny tried while my mum was at work, I just would not go to sleep. I never had phases where I wouldn’t sleep at all though, I would maybe have very insufficient sleep of 2-4 hours in a night, but never none at all. My recent most severe insomnia attack kept me awake for 9 days straight with maybe an hour of sleep on a couple of the days. During these phases I didn’t feel like going out, I couldn’t eat because I was also suffering from a different syndrome-based condition that it caused, and I was trapped in an endless cycle.

Since that attack, I have tried my hardest to go out every single day, rain or shine, cold, mild, or freezing and blowing a gale. That attack was only maybe a month ago; I have suffered another attack since then, but nowhere near as severe. Walking every single day, being out breathing the fresh air, feeling the breeze on my face, getting some exercise and seeing some wildlife has saved me in ways I can’t understand. Walking in nature is such a simple thing, but it really can change your mindset and mood when you’re having a bad day. There are techniques used to control anxiety known as “grounding techniques” which makes you really concentrate on things activating all of your senses, rather than what’s going on inside. I find going out in nature especially helpful after I’ve had to do something I find stressful because stressful things make me all jittery, shaky and just a little out of sorts for the rest of the day. 

I first started using nature as an escape from my anxiety almost four years ago. After I quit uni in December 2016, I went 3 months where I didn’t leave the house at all except for going food shopping once a week because the outside world felt “dangerous”. It was especially “dangerous” for me in areas where there were lots of people around because I sometimes find crowds of people hard to navigate. My boyfriend decided one freezing February morning that enough was enough and we were going exploring, even if it was just for 10 minutes, I was leaving the house. I think the first day I managed a 20-30 minute walk; although it was only 20-30 minutes, it was a life-saving walk, I had finally left my four-walled prison, and I finally had a smile on my face! 

A Blue Tit photographed in South Wales a couple of years ago. Their sweet singing is nice to hear compared to man-made sounds.

Having gone back to a tremendously bad state this year, nature is working wonders; yes, I’m still having trouble sleeping for reasons I don’t know, but I’m getting some sleep. Yes, I still get anxiety, but in recent weeks, the attacks haven’t been all that bad. Yes, the miserable weather is still getting me down because of SAD. But no, I’m not nearly half as bad as I was even a couple months ago. Okay, so I’ve started receiving counselling to really start to dig and get to the bottom of my triggers, troubles and everything else that has been affecting me for years, but the only other things that have changed is a better going to bed and waking up routine and going out in nature EVERY SINGLE DAY! 

Nature is essential in my recovery; it helps to bring me back to the present moment when my head spirals out of control. Nature provides sights, sounds, smells, textures to touch, but maybe don’t taste anything unless you know what you’re doing. Using the senses really helps to calm an anxious mind, so why not use nature. Reducing the affects from anxiety can also be done using distractions, so if you love nature, why not use it as a distraction? Why not go and try and find a new bird species to add to the list, or try and identify a new bird call? Maybe you can go and crunch some autumn leaves with your boots in the last of the autumn weather, or go and crunch some icy puddles now that the colder weather is going to start setting in? 

Juvenile Mute Swan photographed a few years ago in winter. I didn’t expect to see anything on this particular walk, or get any good photos, but you just never know.

Even if you don’t suffer from mental health issues, nature is a great way to get away from life’s problems. Being humans, we’re not supposed to be cooped up in offices behind screens all day long or locked in our houses for the next 6 months while winter rolls around. 

I encourage everyone to get out and experience and enjoy nature as much as you possibly can, you never know what you may find, and although you might get cold and a little damp (especially in Britain), what’s the worst that could happen, other than the benefits which are proven such as reduced stress, better sleep, and as important as ever in the current world climate, a stronger immune system. 

Gift Ideas for the Wildlife and Travel Lover

This year, finding that perfect gift seems an ultimate challenge when the option to peruse the shops is rather limited. It took me a long time to come up with ideas to add to my own wish list because I like to look at things in person, rather than online before I choose what I would like to ask for. I did however manage to come up with a list and I have a varying list of ideas to suit a number of different budgets and interests within the wildlife and travelling sector. Wildlife lovers are often travel lovers and so all of these gift ideas cover both areas. 

As helpful as Amazon is, I’m trying to avoid using them so much for the reason that supporting smaller businesses and independent businesses need the support more than Jeff Bezos. 

Gift Idea 1

A very simple, yet amazing idea for that wildlife lover in your life is wildlife books. There are so many available, covering the whole range of wildlife interests from butterflies, to birds, to mammals, to fish and even reptiles. There are so many different books to suit everyone’s interest that it is rather difficult to go wrong (unless they already own the book you have gifted them, so maybe sneak a peak at their bookshelf before you buy). 

Some websites that I can recommend include: 

My trusty binoculars, purchased from The Safari Store around 6 years ago now. Absolutely brilliant pair, although they could use a bit of a clean. Some Southern African Bird Books too, one was a gift and the other was ordered on Amazon, but please check your local book stores or even charity stores first if you can.

Gift Idea 2

Optics! Any wildlife lover could always do with a good pair of binoculars, or an optic scope. Yes, these can be expensive depending on the brand, but there are some really good ones that you don’t have to fork out hundreds of pounds for. Camera stores quite often sell binoculars and scopes as well as camera gear. Binoculars come in a variety of different optic abilities, for example 8×42, 10×42, 10×21 etc. The first number, so 8 or 10 are the magnification of the lenses, the second number i.e. 42, is the diameter of the end lens. To make binoculars worthwhile, the best recommended optics are 8×42, these can usually be found for slightly less than higher magnification binoculars. Mine are 10×42, I’ve had them for about 6 years and they still work perfectly. 

Some website recommendations to find binoculars:

Gift Idea 3 

I’ve already brushed over it slightly, but camera gear is a great gift if you have the budget for it. There are multiple options for a range of different budgets, and wildlife lovers are often passionate about capturing photos of wildlife to either hang on their walls, or to print and sell for others to have. Some tips for camera gear: find out what they already own, find out if they prefer telephoto lenses or wide-angle lenses, find out which brand they use (Canon, Nikon, Sony), remember second-hand kit is just as good as brand new – provided you get it from a reputable place. 

Camera gear website recommendations:

My current camera gear consists of only 1 camera body and one lens, but if I add more to my kit I’m sure going to check mpb first to see if I can save myself a bit of money.

Gift Idea 4

Camera bags can also be great presents. Maybe the photographer in your life needs a bag upgrade to fit more kit in, maybe they’re sizing down and need a good quality, but smaller bag. I’ve asked for a smaller camera bag this year, mainly because I’m looking into travelling carry-on only in the future and my current camera bag would cause issues with that. 

Camera bag brands and places to shop

My Mindshift Gear camera bag, although it’s a little big, so depending on what I find under the tree this year, this bag might be going up on eBay at some point after Christmas.

Gift Idea 5

The wildlife lover and traveller in your life might appreciate a new travel bag. Maybe they want a more luxury safari style bag, maybe they’re downsizing and starting to travel more minimally, or maybe their current travel bag is just trashed and they could really use a new one. I’m asking for a travel bag this year to fit with my new love of minimalist travel; the bag I’m hoping for is the Osprey Fairview 40 litre backpack. 

Brands and places to shop for travel bags:

My Tom Bihn Synapse 25 backpack. An absolutely awesome bag, although a little on the pricey side, the quality and design of this bag is perfect for travellers to stay organised.

Gift Idea 6

There is nothing more annoying (at least to me personally) than having a disorganised travel bag. One of the easiest ways to fix the chaos is by using packing cubes. Packing cubes would be an awesome present for that travel lover you know, and are fairly cheap to buy as well. There is such a variety out there that you will be able to find one to suit the person’s needs. I got mine from Amazon a few years ago, but there are multiple brands out there that make them. 

Places to buy packing cubes: 

I managed to get all my clothes for a 10 day holiday in just this 1 medium sized packing cube. It came with a set of 7 so I have more should I need them.

Gift Idea 7

Eco-friendly toiletries. As boring as that sounds, there are people who basically live out of their backpacks and so it is unfeasible to buy them large presents because they might not have anywhere to keep it. Eco-friendly toiletries means that you’re being kind to the earth, as well as purchasing your travelling friend something that they will be able to use wherever they are, you can always use toiletries and you never know, they might be in need of a top-up. A lot of eco-friendly products also come in bar form which is accounted for as a solid, making it easier if they are travelling carry-on only. 

Eco-friendly shops for travel toiletries:

Some of my eco-friendly products, the face masks are now especially important as you will have to where them on any public transport that you take.

Gift Idea 8

Wildlife art or photos. A lot of wildlife lovers like having pictures of their favourite wildlife hung up somewhere in their house. Sometimes these pictures and artworks can just add a bit of a cheery atmosphere to a home when it’s dark and dreary, or remind someone of an amazing wildlife encounter they just had. An even better idea is if they are a photographer themselves and they’ve taken an amazing photo, sneakily getting it printed for them because you love it as much as they do would be an amazing surprise. There will hopefully be wildlife photos available to purchase from my Etsy store next year, so next year I’ll be recommending myself in the list. 

The list of recommendations for this year includes:

Gift Idea 9

Anybody who works with wildlife, watches wildlife or is just simply passionate about it will need a nice field notebook to record their findings. List making is very important to some of us in the community so that we can remember everything we have seen, whether it’s just a day out at your local nature reserve, or a big adventure abroad. 

Notebook shopping recommendations:

Gift Idea 10

Well, if you used the previous idea and bought them a wildlife themed notebook, don’t you think it would be a good idea to buy them some wildlife themed stationary to go with it? Sometimes it’s fun to decorate your notebook to make it more your own, so wildlife themed stationary such as washi tapes, sticky notes, and other things are great ideas (especially stocking fillers if you still do that).

Stationary shopping recommendations:

Gift Idea 11

Experience days. Although this year might make it difficult to arrange experience days, quite a lot of places have very long waiting times to actually book these anyways. You can always gift an experience day voucher which often is able to be used up to 12 months after it’s purchased. There are so many different experience days, for example, keeper for a day experiences, falconry experiences and many others. If this pandemic is sorted out, I would love an experience day in falconry, but I’m waiting it out for now. Experience days are also great to gift people who might be down-sizing their lives to live more minimally or people who just don’t like actual things as gifts. 

  • Local zoos
  • Falconry centres

Gift Idea 12

Animal adoptions. Animal adoptions are great presents for wildlife lovers, usually they require a very small donation, maybe £20 for the year or something like that. These adoptions then usually have gift packages that come with them such as a plushie animal, photos and updates about that animal. The money you spend to adopt the animal then goes towards conservation efforts or care efforts to look after those animals in the wild or in captivity. 

  • Local zoos 
  • WWF
  • The Wildlife Trusts
  • Born Free

Gift Idea 13

Wildlife clothing. There are many new brands appearing that design clothing with animals as the main feature, and a lot of these companies also give back to conservation. A lot of these wildlife clothing providers and charities now stock reusable, wildlife themed face masks in their stores, so if you’re in need of more, go check them out.

Gift Idea 14 

On the subject of clothing, outdoor clothing and gear makes a good present. Maybe you’ve heard the person you’re shopping for talk about wanting safari clothing, or a good winter coat, maybe they want packable jackets which are easier to travel with. There is all sorts of outdoor clothing and gear available these days to suit everyone’s travel needs, whether it’s to somewhere cold, hot, travelling minimally or not.  

Gift Idea 15

This one may be a little out of reach for most peoples’ budgets, but there might be a rare few who read this who are capable of this one. The best gift of all, in my opinion, would be a surprise holiday to their favourite wildlife location. Perhaps a trip to Africa (hint, hint to my bf (one day)), maybe they want to explore the Galapagos or go diving in the Seychelles. The holiday could even be a volunteering experience to go and work with their favourite species; volunteering experiences are often a lot cheaper than a fancy holiday. The budget could also be smaller with a more localised holiday, such as for UK residents, Snowdonia, Yorkshire, the Cairngorms in Scotland, the New Forest, so many places that maybe we don’t think about because they don’t seem like exciting places compared with destinations further afield. This present however is huge and requires a huge budget, so this might need to be saved for a very special occasion, or something that you and your partner could discuss and arrange together. 

Some great wildlife holiday/volunteering companies

I hope that you can gain a range of gift ideas from this list that I’ve tried to create for you guys. The links I’ve provided are a tiny range of what’s out there, but please remember to find and support those small businesses if you can. None of these links are affiliate links and I earn nothing from you using them at all. I have simply provided the links in this blog to try and give you guys some good starting places for a number of the different things I have mentioned. Always remember to be careful when you do your online shopping, and I hope this blog can help you to put a smile on that wildlife/travel lover in your life.

The Basics to Wildlife Photography

Selecting the right kit

The first step of getting into photography is actually choosing your kit; from the many options available it can be rather difficult to decide. Budget is the biggest factor in kit selection and can often be the reason you have to go for something other than what you were hoping to get to start with. Note* this blog is concentrating on DSLR photography as it’s how I photograph and it’s how I started out. 

My first kit consisted of the lower/beginner levels of Canon camera gear; my kit consisted of a Canon 1200D, an EF-S 75-300mm lens, an EF-S 55-250mm lens and an EF-S 18-55mm lens. My camera had an APS-C sensor, or what’s commonly known as a crop sensor; there are two types of sensor, the crop-sensor and the full-frame sensor. Beginner cameras will always be crop-sensor cameras as these are cheaper than full-frames. Canon crop-sensors mean that you are technically getting 1.6x worth of extra “zoom”, the same effect can be made with a full-frame in post-production editing where you would simply crop the image to the same size. A full-frame camera’s sensor is made to be equivalent to the classic 35mm film you would have used in an old camera; the full-frame sensor is reckoned to be about twice the size of the sensors used in crop-sensor cameras. 

My boyfriend started with Nikon as he was used to it from using his dad’s camera. His first Nikon was the D3300, and with that he used 18-55mm lens and a 55-300mm lens, both of which were Nikon lenses. He then swapped both of these for the Sigma 18-300mm lens however the quality of this lens was less than satisfactory. His current kit is now made up of a Nikon D7200 with which he uses a Nikon 18-140mm lens and a Sigma 150-500mm lens, of which he uses both frequently for wildlife and aviation photography. 

Don’t forget as you go along, your skills in photography will grow and so you may outgrow your first photography kit, and hopefully your budget will grow so that you can level up. I’ve changed my kit a couple of times, moving from the 1200D to the 760D, a slightly higher spec camera. The 760D was probably a silly purchase as it wasn’t much above the 1200D, so I would also recommend a 760D for beginners. I now shoot on the 7D mark ii, the highest spec crop-sensor camera in the Canon line-up, I think they now have a mark iii, but I’m very happy with my mark ii and don’t feel the need to change it. I also owned a 5D mark iv at one time, one of the highest spec full-frame cameras and it produced beautiful images, unfortunately I had to sell it due to needing the money, but I hope I can upgrade to a full-frame again in the future. I only use one lens now which is the Canon L series 100-400mm mark ii lens; with this lens I also use a 1.4x extender when I need a bit more reach for my subjects, an important thing to consider when photographing wildlife and animals. 

I have used a variety of different lenses, the biggest I ever used was my 150-600mm Sigma lens, an absolute beast and was my choice of lens for my Tanzania trip, which is how I was able to photograph things so far away. I struggled to hold that lens however and my 100-400mm lens is more appropriately sized for me and I used it in Botswana and my Kruger holiday last year. 

I think if you can, play around with different kit and see what works for you based on your subjects and also your skill level. There are sites where you can rent kit out which might be a good idea so you can try things before splurging out and buying them, or you could look at buying second-hand kit, a good way to find what you want and save a bit of money. When I’m looking for kit to buy, I quite often surf mpb.com to see what they have, and I also use them when I need to sell my kit. 

What kit to use in what situation

Close-up photo using my 100-400mm lens and my 7D mark ii.

So, I already mentioned that with wildlife photography, it’s important to consider how much “reach” you are going to need to get those awesome photos, but you also need to understand when you should be using those big lenses, and when you should use a wider-angle lens. 

Cheetahs photographed in the Serengeti using a 150-600mm Sigma lens on my 7D mark ii.

A big lens with a long focal length should be used in situations where your subject is quite a fair distance away from you; a lot of these big lenses will have a limit as to how close you can be to be able to focus on the subject. My 100-400mm lens can focus subject that are 1 metre or more away, however, 1 metre is rather close for such a big lens, and so if you’re that close, you should really consider using a shorter lens. I forgot to mention it before, but one of my favourite lenses I’ve ever owned was the Canon L series 70-200mm lens. This lens produced some beautiful pet portraits and was great in those up close situations, it’s also the lens I used to photograph the Datoga woman in her very dark hut. I will say that you must also watch the environment when your subject is very far away; in Tanzania, due to the heat there was a lot of heat haze over the ground which made photographing very far away subjects rather tricky as the heat haze affected the lenses’ ability to focus. 

Zooming out and using a shorter focus length to show the elephant in his environment.

Short lenses, such as the Canon 24-105mm or 24-70mm are great for landscape photos, but also for photos where you want to include some of the environment into your wildlife photos. Sometimes rather than just having a close-up portrait of an animal, you want to include its environment to tell a little bit of a story with your photo.

My best advice is to just play around with your different lens options, learn the modes and settings you need to use (coming up in the next sections), and see what images you come up with. Photography being a creative area and a subjective art at that means that you are able to bend and break the rules within reason to add a more creative scope to your images. 

The camera modes you should be using

If you have a DSLR, you should never ever, ever just whack it in auto-mode and take photographs. You have spent hundreds, possibly thousands on this kit and so you shouldn’t be using a mode that any old Joe can use on their phone or point-and-shoot camera, oh no! There are three modes that you should be using and those are full Manual mode, Shutter priority, or, aperture priority. The mode can be changed using that dial on the top of your camera, these modes on Canon will be shown as M = Manual, Tv = Shutter priority, and Av= Aperture priority. On Nikon, these modes are shown as M = Manual, A = Aperture priority, and S = Shutter priority.  

Using manual mode to balance the settings to show how dark the stormy sky was in Tanzania

Selecting which mode to use depends on the situation you’re shooting in, to be able to determine which of these modes is best, you need to understand the settings you’re controlling by using these different modes. Manual mode means you have full control of all the settings and you can adjust each of them yourself to perfect a specific shot; shutter priority means you have control of the shutter speed and the camera will adjust the aperture and ISO settings to match and expose your image properly. The last one is aperture priority, just the opposite of shutter priority really, you have control of your aperture and your camera does the controlling of shutter speed and ISO. So I’ve mentioned 3 different settings here, the shutter speed, aperture and ISO, but maybe you don’t understand quite what these are yet? Keep reading to find out. 

The settings to think about

Shutter speed, aperture and ISO, in my opinion, the only settings you really need to know about to create some amazing images. These are the only settings I adjust, maybe other than white balance, but you learn different things as you go along and to start with, the three settings I’ve mentioned are the only things you need to concentrate on. 

To have a slight understanding as to how to use these settings, you need to understand what each of the different settings do. First of all, when you’re going to change any setting, whether it be ISO, shutter speed of aperture (also known as f/stop), you must consider that the changes you make has an effect on the amount of light reaching your sensor. Selecting the correct settings takes time to learn, however, the combination of the three settings should allow for the photo to be correctly “exposed”. Exposure in itself is pretty much just referring to the amount of light that you have allowed to travel through the lens, bounce off the mirror and onto the sensor. 

Datoga woman, photographed with a 5D mark iv, a 70-200mm lens and using an ISO of 6400.

ISO is a good place to start, by changing this setting, you are changing the camera’s sensitivity to light; this means that when it starts to get dark, if you “push” the ISO, which is how photographers describe it, you are able to brighten those photos so that they’re not under exposed. ISO however is what also causes photos to appear grainy if it is too high. Most beginner cameras will start to show some grain at 400 ISO, but it was still acceptable to about 800 ISO, anything above that just didn’t look good to me. Full-frame cameras have a much bigger scope for pushing the ISO, for example, my photo of the Datoga woman was taken on a Canon 5D mark iv, one of the best full-frames out there and I used an ISO of 6400 to achieve that shot. 

Photographed at a cat cafe in Cardiff, using a very low f/stop, maybe f/4 or lower to create a very shallow depth of field and some nice bokeh in the background.

The next setting is aperture, or f/stop. This setting will show up on the back of your camera as f/4.5 for example. The aperture setting is what determines the depth of field in your photo, so how much of the photo is in focus. A low number such as f/4.5, means a big aperture which will produce a shallow depth of field. The aperture affects the lens more than the camera; there are blades inside the lens that open and close depending on the aperture you’ve set which makes an internal hole bigger or small, the bigger the hole is, the shallower your depth of field will be. For something like an environmental shot, you want to use a higher f/stop, something like f/10 or higher to get more of the environment in focus around the animal. You must also remember that this setting has an effect on the amount of light reaching the sensor. With a small f/stop, you will be allowing a large amount of light onto the sensor, so you will need to adjust the other settings accordingly.

The last setting to concentrate on is the shutter speed, this is what controls how fast the shutter flicks to capture an image. The cameras that sound like a rapid-fire gun are using a high shutter-speed; the ability for your camera to keep up however will depend on its processing abilities and also set frame-rate. My 7D mark ii has a frame-rate of 10 frames a second I think, and so setting a high shutter speed means I get very nice rapid fire shots, which are especially useful for animals flying or running past. My camera also uses compact flash cards rather than standard SD cards, meaning it’s able to process a run of images faster than a lower level camera than can only take SD cards. To use shutter speed effectively, you should always aim to set it 1/the length of your lens. So, say you’re shooting at 100mm, your shutter speed should be set to 1/100, this will reduce the effects of camera shake, especially when hand-holding a lens. If you’re shooting particularly fast wildlife, really push that shutter speed up, you may need it set to at least 1/1000. Shutter speed also affects how much light reaches the sensor and can be used in really cool ways to create different effects in an image. You can set it slower and pan through an image to create some motion, just remember to try and focus on the animal. If you get yourself a tripod and a shutter remote, you can leave the shutter open for a long time and capture the stars, but night photography is an entirely different topic that I don’t really know much about. 

Where to practice your photography

At the moment, it’s difficult to go abroad to take those epic wildlife shots of lions and cheetahs in their natural habitat, but how do you practice so that you know what you’re doing when the time comes when you can travel again? 

Black rhino of Chester zoo, a great enclosure as there are no fences or glass to photograph through because they’re kept in by using ditches and stone walls.

Zoos! Zoos are great places to go to practice photography; yes, there are challenges such as fences, glass, many people in your way, but they are great places to practice and I have regularly gone photographing at zoos over the last 5 years which has really helped my photography to improve. 

My gorgeous girly enjoying the garden.

Pets are also great subjects to practice on. I can’t tell you how many thousands of photos I have of my dogs and cats, but the reason they’re so useful is because they move and behave like animals. Animals can be unpredictable in most circumstances, you don’t know where they’re going to be looking, what they’re planning to do, or maybe you’ve studied a bit of animal behaviour and you can kind of guess, but pets are amazing to practice on. It will teach you how to focus quickly, you can change your settings to try out different things, you can try different lenses and you can practice as much as you want because they’re right there in your home. 

I was once told that it takes 10,000 terrible images to make a good one, and whoever told me that was absolutely right. I went on a photography trip to Africa 5 years ago and didn’t understand what I was doing wrong the whole time I was there. When I came back home, I went to zoos, photographed my dogs and cats and suddenly the penny dropped, and I started to really understand how to take a good photo. 

I was going to add a section on the basics of editing, but I really don’t know much about it. The only things I adjust are the white balance, warmth (blue and yellow slidey bar) and the contrast really. I use Adobe lightroom to edit my photos, this will show a graph right at the top of the editing tools and the only thing I know is that the graph should be spread out fairly evenly from left to right, the height of the graph doesn’t matter so much. I will also say that you can’t fix a cr*p image so it should come out of camera pretty much as it should be. If it’s not in focus, nah, get rid of it, if the image is incredibly blurry, bin it. The only thing you should really be adjusting to make it look good is the exposure. My last piece of advice is cropping your images; the best crop that seems to fit on Instagram particularly well is a 4×5 crop. 

Minimalism Mini-series 4.

The final part of the minimalism blog series. I’m hoping I’ve given some convincing evidence as to why you should try this lifestyle, but I’ve summed it up in this last blog and also included a little bit on how to get started with your own journey to living with less.

One bag of stuff from my latest declutter. Four years on and I still find things I’m not using or I don’t need anymore.

Why you should consider minimalism

The previous blogs in this series have covered a large range of reasons as to why minimalism is so great an idea, so I think it is definitely worth considering. Who wouldn’t want a lovely, tidy house that’s easy to clean, the ease of picking out your outfits every day, the ease of travelling with one bag or even just the money it saves you over time? Minimalism is also proven in some cases to reduce anxiety because for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, you spend a whole lot less time worrying. Less worry about where things are because you only have your favourite things, a lot less worry about your finances because you’re not spending money on useless stuff, and when it comes to travelling, a whole lot less worry about your bags not making connecting flights or just getting lost because all your stuff is with you in the cabin. 

Other benefits to minimalism can include better time management, although I’m yet to achieve this. Time management can be greatly improved when distractions are removed from your life, especially distractions that don’t add value to your life. Minimalism, when practiced to its full potential can teach you self-discipline so that you are able to use your time and space more effectively. A minimalist desk set-up (only having the things you need in sight) can really help to diminish distractions. While you’re working, do you really need your phone nearby with constant notifications and distractions popping up, or could you leave your phone somewhere else or upside down and on silent so that it doesn’t disturb you? If your work requires your phone, by all means it needs to be there with you, however, for me I find it incredibly distracting, so at times when I’m working, such as writing the blogs, I will leave my phone on silent and put the screen face down so that I can’t see the notifications popping up, therefore distracting me less. 

You don’t have to be restrictive as I’ve said before but be more mindful and intentional about what you have and bring into your life. Even if you don’t stick to living this lifestyle, in my opinion I think you should at least give it a little go to see how you feel. Whether it’s in an extreme form where you only give yourself access to a few things for a week or something, or if you follow the process to truly minimising your possessions. There are many different ways to be a minimalist and it never has to be extreme or make you uncomfortable; I am in no way an extreme minimalist, I have way more than 100 possessions still, however, it’s my consumerist mindset that’s changed and I hardly ever purchase things unless I absolutely need them in my life (unless it’s wildlife books, but then I’ll still only buy 1 or 2 at a time). 

How to start/ The process

Starting your decluttering journey can be tough, especially if you don’t know where to start or how to make the process easier on yourself. There are a number of different techniques out there on the internet, the two most famous being the kon-marie method, or the 30-day minimalist game. The kon-marie method focuses on different categories, rather than different areas and was developed by a Japanese woman called Marie Kondo. There is a book you can pick up which goes through Marie Kondo’s method called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying”. The book goes through the categories to tidy, the thought process during decluttering, which in Marie’s case concentrates on the idea of your items “sparking joy”, and also organisation ideas for when you’ve finished decluttering. There are so many topics covered in this book that I think it’s definitely a good idea to pick up for yourself if you’re unsure of where to start in your minimalism journey. 

The 30-day minimalism game was designed by two best friends Joshua Fields-Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, otherwise known as “The Minimalists”. This process doesn’t require you to start in any specific area, or with any specific category, but just the number of items you’re decluttering. The game works like this, on day 1, you declutter 1 item, on day 2, you declutter 2 items, and so on and so forth. So at the end on day 30, you declutter 30 items in that day, making this a good challenge to start on the first day of a new month. You then declutter the appropriate number of items each day, you could even go to 31 days on a longer month, meaning by the end you will have decluttered 465 items by the end of a 30-day month, or 496 by the end of a 31-day month. This could be a good thing to do if you kind of know the items you want to get rid of, but they’re all from different categories. 

My process of decluttering didn’t really follow either of these methods, but it worked for me. I sort of went room by room, rather than by category as it was easier to re-organise after the declutter rather than moving things to one room, decluttering and then having to re-organise the entire house again. I first started with my clothes, a fairly good base to start for anyone really as clothing tends to have the largest amount of items with the least use or purpose. If you’re anything like me and stopped growing before the age of 13, the clothes just pile up because everything still fits you. In the end, I think I decluttered something like 8 bin-bags of clothes between my house and my parents house. I kept buying clothes that weren’t things I would wear which included dresses, skirts, shorts, frilly and girly tops, pink clothes, purple clothes you name it. If it looked cute and girly, it was somewhere at the back of my wardrobe or chest-of-draws, unworn and unseen for many years. I am now very much aware of what my “style” is, be it lacking in fashionable sense but it’s comfortable and it’s what I like. My style is very much baggy t-shirts and trackies (or cargo trousers), but most definitely my khakis (if only I lived in Africa, I wouldn’t wear anything other than khakis). So knowing my style and what my favourite clothes are made it incredibly easy to declutter, the dresses were gone (I still own 2 or 3 for when absolutely necessary), skirts, crop tops, anything pink or purple, all gone and it’s surprising how much of that cr*p I had. Just think of the money I could have saved by not buying all that stuff I was never going to wear! 

I decluttered my shoes next, I think there’s still a couple pairs I’m probably not in need of anymore, but I wear through my shoes fairly frequently because I only have 5 pairs I wear on a regular basis, plus 2 pairs of high-heels for dressing up (plus I’m 5’2” which makes pictures with the bf easier when I add some height), and a couple extra pairs of shoes. Still quite a few shoes, but nowhere near the 35-40 odd pairs I used to own. 

So I guess my process is going through a category in a specific area, this means you can work at your own speed without getting overwhelmed by the process. Sentimental items are the hardest category to declutter and most minimalists will suggest decluttering these things last as you will have built up some practice on your general decluttering techniques by the time you get to these things. In my mind, I would say that you should declutter these things when you’re ready, no one else can tell you when to get rid of things or what to get rid of, this is your journey and everyone else should respect that. 

Before you start decluttering, remember to set those goals I mentioned in a previous blog in this series, this will really help you to make decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. But now that you’ve decluttered and have massive piles and bags of stuff to get rid of, what do you do with all of it? For clothing that’s in good condition but not new, donate it, there will be someone out there who will greatly appreciate finding it in their local charity shop; if it’s unworn and still has the tags, sell it, make a bit of money back for that useless item you bought but never used. With most things, selling or donating is a good way to get it out of your house, but keeps it out of landfill. If it’s old paper, get them shredded or send to recycling, only really worn out, unusable, and unrecyclable items should be sent to landfill, although there are many ways to repurpose a bunch of different things and I’m sure in this instance google would be a great help. Try and do everything you can to not send things to landfill as it will really help out the environment, but once you’ve decluttered, remember how tough the process was and how difficult it was to clear everything out of your house before going and splashing the cash on things you don’t need again. 

Some YouTube channels I find are really useful and inspiring to watch when it comes to minimalism are:

  • The Minimalists
  • Matt D’Avella 
  • Break the Twitch
  • Clear Your Mindset 
  • Heal Your Living 
  • Simple Victoria
  • Marie Kondo  
Some more things waiting to be donated. So annoying that all the shops are shut, this has been sat in my house for months.

Minimalism Mini-series 3.

Changing a consumerist mindset

The consumerist mindset is a funny one, I think people have misconceived perceptions of what their shopping habits are actually like and they like to pretend like they don’t really go to the shops every weekend. Now, I’m not saying going shopping in all its entirety is bad, but consistent purchases of useless stuff is. You go to somewhere like Primark for instance to get those jeans, or you need a top in that colour or something, once you step into the shop, it’s a battlefield for the mind and eye. You see bargains and sales and reduced items and for whatever reason, you can’t help but pick it up and put it in your trolley or basket. Trust me, I know the feeling, the snack isle of Tesco is especially dangerous if I’m hungry when doing the food shop. You think to yourself, it’s reduced so I’m saving x amount, and you go round the store doing this with every bargain and sale item you find. 

Here’s a fact for you: even if the item is on sale, if you did not need it in the first place, you are not saving money. I’ll let you digest that for a moment, but I’ll explain why. If you have a list of things that you absolutely need, say at a food store and you go and the list is: milk, bread, cereal, fruit, veg and burgers (or something along those lines) which might cost you say £20, you then go down the bakery isle and see the doughnuts are on sale, get 2 boxes of doughnuts for £1, get these choccy-chip biscuits for £1 down from £1.50, you then explore the toiletries isle and pick up this nice smelling shampoo for £3, even though you have 7 unopened bottles at home. You’ve now just spent £5 more than you needed to because you got the “sale” items, it was only a sale if you absolutely needed to get them, and now that’s £5 out of your holiday fund, or wedding fund, or fund for getting that new camera you’ve been wanting. See where I’m going with this? Primark sales, sales on cosmetics, sales on anything, are only saving you money if you needed to get them in the first place. This is the consumerist mindset that you need to change. Let’s go back to our original shopping list, and let’s say the cereal is £2 instead of £4.50 and the burgers are £3 down from £5. You will be saving yourself £4.50, and you are actually saving because you needed those items. Buying what you ACTUALLY need, especially if it’s on sale, will save you money. Look at what you already have, and be very strict with yourself not to be tempted by deals and sales that may try and convince you that you need something when you actually don’t. 

One method that is the most effective of all, in my experience, is just not going to the shops constantly. I used to go to town out of boredom when mum was at work when I was a kid, or I would go into Cardiff as entertainment with my boyfriend. Just being near the shops was temptation enough, going in the shops was fairly devastating to my bank account. I wouldn’t buy masses of stuff, but I was still buying stuff that I didn’t need. As a minimalist on YouTube once said, not buying stuff you don’t need now, saves you from having to declutter it later. 

Purchase allowances

Within minimalism, you are still allowed to buy things; one of the biggest things that scares people away from minimalism I think is that they assume they’re never allowed to buy anything ever again. This is completely untrue. In fact, minimalism doesn’t just come in one form, there are so many people in the community with so many different outlooks on what minimalism looks like, it is pretty inspiring. Some people live with more things than you might think they do, the reason being is that all the things they have serve some kind of purpose in their life. Many minimalists may not have a lot of “stuff” per say, such as clothes, makeup, cooking utensils etc., but they might decide to bring in lots of house plants because having a lot of greenery inside helps to lower their negative thoughts perhaps. 

The current state of my book shelf. Up to the Switch controller on the top shelf from the left are my books, the rest are my boyfriend’s. The second and bottom shelves are entirely my books and I have a few in the bottom of another bookshelf. At least I’m fairly set if the internet suddenly disappears.

For myself, I like to purchase books, not just any books though, they have to have something to do with natural history and mostly wildlife at that. They can be field guides/ID books or textbooks about conservation or ecology or even stories about people’s lives such as David Attenborough or Ben Fogle. No, my bookshelf doesn’t look very minimalist to an outsider, but I curate it with books that bring me a lot of happiness. Being somewhat of a nerd and loving to learn about wildlife, having lots of different books to read and flick through is important to me. However, this is really the only section of my house that is allowed to expand. I hardly ever buy new clothes and if I do it’s usually because I’ve managed to wear out something and need to replace it, or I’ve thought about it for weeks before purchasing the new item to see if I would actually have a use for it. I don’t buy makeup anymore as I haven’t worn it in years, and if I do need some, I don’t need a lot; my makeup routine is limited to foundation, concealer, eyeshadow and mascara if I were to wear any at all. I used to have so much makeup that I would never have been able to use up with how often I wore it, so no wonder most of it was out of date by the time I came to clear it out. 

When setting purchase allowances for yourself, I would suggest identifying the things that really bring you joy that you would struggle to live without. I’m not saying it has to be something you use on a daily basis, but maybe you love looking through wildlife books quite often, or you love art so you need sketchbooks and pencils or maybe you love having a new outfit every so often. Allow yourself these purchases, but be mindful about how often they happen, and also with clothes and makeup, be mindful about where they come from to try and lessen your impact on the environment. 

Minimalism doesn’t have to be restrictive in anyway but can be used as a tool to help you make better purchasing decisions. As well as being mindful of what you purchase and bring into your home, remember the goals that you have set for yourself (refer to the second blog in the minimalism mini-series). Always remember that something you don’t purchase now, saves you from having to declutter it later.