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I spy with my digital eye

If we?re being honest, none of us really has the time to watch everything that goes on around our shoots. We tend to rush from one job to the next, particularly when rearing starts, and consequently we often miss the subtle signs that something may be amiss ? an old fox earth that might now be occupied, or perhaps a set of boot prints that don?t match our own.

An extra few sets of eyes can be invaluable to a keeper. They can look into those quiet corners that don?t get visited as often as we?d like, and reassure us that all is well on our patch.

Recent advances in technology have resulted in significant reductions in the price of trail cameras, and now they can be picked up for comparatively modest sums. These cameras are movement activated by means of a passive infrared detector ? or PIR ? that works on body heat emitted from live objects to trigger the camera to take a picture at distances of up to 20m in cold conditions.

I originally started using trail cameras for monitoring fallow and roe deer numbers. However, I quickly found that not only was I getting lots of photographs of animals I had seen while out stalking, I was also capturing images of animals I had no idea were on the ground, an example being a recent picture of the first muntjac seen in the area for more than 10 years. An additional benefit was that those fleeting glimpses through the undergrowth, in the half-light of evening, were now resolved into crystal clear pictures, giving me an accurate idea of the quality of my deer stock.

The usefulness of these cameras was brought home to me this spring, following the fortuitous removal of a territory-holding dog and vixen within a few days of each other, while out stalking. As the vixen was heavily pregnant at the time, it gave me a certain satisfaction that I?d done a good job for the headkeeper. Complacency about local fox activity was quickly dispelled, when a couple of days later I photographed another fox, brazenly going about its business mid-morning, in the area from which I had just taken the territory-holding pair.

Illuminating the subject

Not only do trail cameras provide you with a good idea of what?s going on in daylight hours, they also produce some remarkably good black-and-white images at night. We have plenty of badgers resident on the grounds and most nights the cameras record pictures of these, as well as significant amounts of deer activity. The trail camera I use does not employ an incandescent flash typical of the sort most hand-held cameras use. Instead, it uses infrared LEDs to illuminate the subject. They are invisible to animals and therefore do not cause them any disturbance. These LEDs provide good illumination of subjects out to about 5m or 6m from the camera.

The cameras are available in a variety of disruptive patterns and blend well into the general scenery of the shoot. They can be secured either to a solid object such as a tree or gate post using a purpose-built cable to prevent theft, or a green bungee elastic can be used. The camera will sit patiently, snapping away for months on end on one set of batteries, recording your pictures on a small memory card of the type used by most digital cameras. For the budding David Attenboroughs out there, many trail cameras now have a video facility, allowing you to switch from stills photography to movie mode. The pictures the camera generates are time and date-stamped, allowing you to get a good understanding of what is going on during any 24-hour period.

There are many obvious applications of trail cameras for gamekeepers, which might be the monitoring of nest sites, or keeping an eye on any Larsen traps that perhaps are being tampered with. A gentle reminder to any dog walkers straying from footpaths can be issued if they?re filmed on camera, as well as alerting you to the time of day of such ingressions that might be disturbing your covers or roosting woods. Recording the illegal activity of poachers may help the police to secure a conviction in the case of more serious offences. A couple of our local keepers are profitably deploying several trail cameras to monitor their shoots for fox activity.

While it?s definitely no replacement for good fieldcraft, the camera patiently observing on your behalf, both day and night, certainly allows you more time to devote to other tasks at the busiest times of the keepering year.