Filming water voles

One of the hot topics in wildlife filming and programme production at the moment is ethics.  Wildlife cameramen are in the front line of anything to do with ethics.  If, for example, you search on Google for ‘wildlife cameraman’, there are prominent entries about cameramen faking wildlife shots.  Taken out of context the term ‘faking shots’ is horrible and almost always unjust.  Anyway,  I don’t want to be sidetracked onto a subject that is deeper than deep.  Suffice to say that all reputable wildlife camera people abhor the idea of cheating and faking shots.  Getting to the point, this brings me to something I’m working on at the moment, and how ethical we are!

There is a sequence I am filming in a series about the Brecon Beacons: it is based on a study of water voles at Llangorse Lake, a species that was reintroduced.  This little mammal lives in the ditches near the lake, and at this location they are extremely shy.  The easy thing to do would be to film water voles at, say, Magor Marsh near to home, then edit those shots into the sequence at Llangorse.  Honestly, nobody would know any better.  But that would be in breach of an ethical code that some production companies have the integrity to adhere to.  In this case it’s Aden Productions.  This code now exists, and is a hot topic, because the BBC is under assault for anything deemed to be unethical.  The BBC itself is under scrutiny from many quarters, usually because it dares to challenge a business, political entity or any other body that doesn’t want its laundry washed in public, but that really is another story.  Anyway, the long and the short of it is that if we have a sequence about water voles at Llangorse we WILL film the water voles at Llangorse or not film them at all.

The Llangorse water voles are very shy.  The remote camera traps were showing sporadic activity mostly at night, and just once over a long period in the day.  But camera traps don’t tell the whole story: they can’t hear vegetation being chewed, they can’t see under vegetation and they can’t look everywhere.  We arrived at 5.30 a.m. in order to get in position very early.  The idea was to concentrate on an area where cameras had picked up activity and where apple fragments where being eaten by the voles at night.  At 7.00 a.m. a small area of water out of my sight started to vibrate in the ditch.  A small brown backside and tail appeared for about 5 seconds and disappeared.  We decided to move to a position with a view of this area.  3 hours later and still nothing had reappeared.  At about midday a piece of grass about 3 feet to my left moved, and I could tell that there was a vole feeding beneath the undergrowth.  Just after that I heard a ‘plop’ right beneath me in the ditch – a water vole.  A few minutes later the activity in the grass resumed, but in a totally unfilmable position! Then one of those inexplicable strokes of luck.

Coughing cows and water voles don’t mix

Cows are rarely a wildlife cameraman’s friend, but this time?  A cow in the next field coughed, which startled this vole into darting back to its hole, which happened to be right beneath me at the base of the bank below.  I could see its little nose sticking out, but again, it was impossible to get the lens on it.  Another change of position to the other side of the ditch so that we could look back and see the hole seemed to make sense, though after changing position the hole looked little more than an obscure slit just above the water.  This is where the apples came in: voles love them.  As time was running out we thought we’d see if we could tempt the vole out, and it worked.  For the next ten minutes of so it dashed backwards and forwards between its hole and an apple secured in reeds in the centre of the ditch – job done.

Cow audience for wildlife filming

Being a wildlife cameraman does involve a lot of patience, and we never gave up, despite all our ‘intelligence’ (in the form of remote cameras and hearsay evidence) telling us that we were probably wasting our time.  It’s very satisfying when it comes together.