When does getting a good nature photo become a hassle for wildlife?

PUBLISHED: 17:06 31 May 2019 | UPDATED: 00:07 01 June 2019

A picture of an otter captured from a safe distance on the Little Ouse Picture: Julie Potter

A picture of an otter captured from a safe distance on the Little Ouse Picture: Julie Potter


A growing number of people love nothing better than going out and photographing the region’s wildlife. But how close is too close?

Otters on the Little Ouse Picture: Julie PotterOtters on the Little Ouse Picture: Julie Potter

Getting out and viewing wildlife is one of the joys of living in Suffolk but, it would seem, sometimes the most unpredictable creatures out there are the nature enthusiasts themselves.

This was the experience of Julie Potter as she photographed otters in the Little Ouse river near Thetford earlier this year alongside a small group of people who, she says, had congregated a safe distance away from a female otter and her pup.

"There were about five of us and we were there for a good hour - the pup was coming up out of the water and playing on the bank while the mother was hunting for fish," said Ms Potter.

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Crossing a line

"There was also this man who was lying down on a tree that had fallen across the river and taking shots with his camera. Suddenly, I looked around and he had his waders on and he had gone into the water to get closer and had his camera on a tripod in the river.

"I was shocked that he was actually going into an animal's habitat like that - others were saying so too.

This man was seen getting too close to otters  - even  climbing into the river - in an attempt to get a photograph of an otter.This man was seen getting too close to otters - even climbing into the river - in an attempt to get a photograph of an otter.

"He had a much bigger camera than me and I had got some good shots, so there was no need for him to get so close."

Ms Potter, who moved up to Little Stonham in Suffolk from south Essex 18 months ago to be closer to the nature she loves, said she feels this person had "crossed a line" where he risked scaring and stressing the creatures.

She added: "We are privileged to see otters like this and we should respect their space."


Social media may be part of the problem. As a growing number of amateur photographers post their wildlife images online, so people are tempted to edge nearer to their wild subjects in a bid to get that stand-out shot.

"It's part of human nature that a rivalry develops and people want to bag a shot no-one else has," said Christopher Courtney, vice-chair of the Suffolk Bird Group, who says while the vast majority of nature watchers instinctively know where the boundaries are, there are always going to be people who are less self-aware and want to get that little bit closer.

"It's selfish on two levels - it shows a disregard for other people if you ruin their view and flush the bird out, and it shows a lack of respect for the animal. The animal's welfare should be paramount."

The welfare of the animal should be the priority of photographers at all times  Picture: Julie PotterThe welfare of the animal should be the priority of photographers at all times Picture: Julie Potter

Frayed tempers

Mr Courtney recalls several occasions where "tempers have got frayed" because people have acted irresponsibly on nature reserves

"One time on the Languard Nature reserve in Felixstowe, a group of us were watching several red-backed shrikes. This one man insisted on getting closer and he kept pushing the birds on. There were people who complained to him but he didn't care."

So how close is too close? Mr Courtney says if there are a group of people watching a bird, the etiquette is to stay at the distance they already are. If you encounter a bird when you are by yourself, the rules are less rigid.

"Different birds will act differently at different times," he said. "Some might come right up to your feet - you can feel it out and build up a little bit of trust with the animal."

READ MORE: 13 wildlife species in danger of disappearing from East Anglia

Natural behaviour

Young otter on the Little Ouse Picture: Julie PotterYoung otter on the Little Ouse Picture: Julie Potter

Conservationist Philip Charles from Ipswich, who conducts wildlife photography outings through his business Spirit of Suffolk, has gone as far drawing up a set of ethical guidelines for people watching or photographing wildlife. These include leaving a site exactly as people find it, limiting the sharing of exact locations where rare wildlife can be found and keeping groups sizes down to minimise any impact on wildlife.

Mr Charles also emphasises the need to cause as little disturbance to wildlife as possible and believes photographers should never leave out food in order to entice an animal to come nearer. As well as running the risk of the animal becoming reliant on titbits - a problem if people then move or go on holiday - this approach means the photographer won't capture wildlife being wild, he says.


"As soon as you put food out you can predict what will happen with the animal. It will come straight to the food, it will probably eat quickly and then leave. If you are not putting food out you get to watch their natural behaviour - you will see them foraging and investigating their habitat."

He added: "You actually get a little longer with the species. Sometimes they can be further away but they can also come in close. You just have to be patient."

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