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Garden camera-trapping: the new COVID-19 lockdown therapy

If you’re like me you enjoy getting out and searching for wildlife, especially mammals, in all the varied and beautiful habitats that Worcestershire has to offer.

Even though being as mobile as we might like is not possible at the moment, I have loved taking the time to really find out what my wild neighbours are up to. Are they making their homes in my small garden, regularly using it to forage, or are they just passing through?

While sitting in a comfortable chair under the apple tree watching a greenfinch feed her young and being kept company by hoverflies supervising the writing of this post, I wonder whether it is my imagination, or is biodiversity being given a boost in this modest corner and beyond during these strange times? Is wildlife becoming a little bolder with less human activity, or is it that some of us are able to find more space and time to be more observant and connect with nature? I expect it’s a little of both.

For all of us mammal enthusiasts, discovering what animals are sharing our greenspaces can be a little more challenging. However, the opportunity to hone those detection skills is part of the appeal of mammal recording. It’s what keeps us scrambling down river banks, watching a bat roost at 4 am and looking for tracks in the mud, even in a cold February drizzle.

Although in the current situation our movements may be limited, if you’re lucky enough to have your own patch of the outdoors, you may be surprised at how much fun, and illuminating, it can be to record at home. British land mammals are primarily nocturnal or crepuscular, active around dawn and dusk. Therefore, unless you plan to stay up through the night to keep watch (interesting, but not entirely practical for most), you need to find other methods of observation.

Using a trail camera, also known as a camera trap, is an ideal solution. It is a non-intrusive way to record not only what animals are sharing your garden, particularly at night, but their behaviours as well. Take a look at the videos.

The anticipation before checking the camera feels a little bit like the morning of your birthday. If you place a camera out regularly, it’s possible to create a digital diary of which species are active at what times and in different conditions throughout the season(s).

Trail cameras are easy to use and there are a wide variety to fit individual needs and budgets. They can be left out overnight or for much longer periods. I will not get into tech specs here as there are many more who are better qualified to give detailed advice in that area. The WMG Facebook page is a great place to start if you have questions or you can contact us through this website. Members are usually happy to exchange ideas and suggestions. The following are a few tips that work well for me. Please share your suggestions and, of course, videos!

  1. Take note of the different vegetation and possible habitats on your property. Look for spaces under buildings, in logs, potential passages under hedges, holes in trees, etc.
  2. Create additional habitat. Stack branches in a quiet corner and let part of your garden grow ‘wild’ if you can. Not only will this help mammals and other wildlife, but will also likely improve video opportunities.
  3. Look for signs. If you are wondering about those unusual droppings on that rock that don’t belong to your dog or what made those holes in your grass, do a little research into UK mammals and think about where you might like to aim the camera to investigate further. I highly recommend investing in a copy of How to Find and Identify Mammals by Gillie Muir and Pat Morris https://www.nhbs.com/title?slug=how-to-find-and-identify-mammals-revised-edition-book and the Mammal Society has excellent online resources: https://www.mammal.org.uk/species-hub/full-species-hub/discover-mammals/
  4. Offer some food to ‘trap’ the animals. You don’t have to do this, but I have found a mixture of different seeds and fruit works well, as a guide at least 2 metres away from the camera for the best images. Be sure to provide water in a shallow dish, essential if you’re feeding dry food to hedgehogs https://www.hedgehogstreet.org/help-hedgehogs/feed-hedgehogs/.
    Badgers can’t seem to resist peanuts (In spring, scatter on the ground after sunset as they are a choking hazard for young birds) and a three-legged fox that has been visiting my garden for well over a year appears to have a particular liking for seed! Too much meat is likely to attract the neighbourhood cats.
  5. Set the date and time before you start recording and decide whether you would prefer still or video images, or a mixture. If you opt for video, determine how long you would like recordings to last. At least 15 seconds gives you enough time to observe behaviours. Less time can be frustrating. This is personal preference and takes trial and error.
  6. Secure the camera to a tree or other object with a strap that often comes with it, or place the camera as unobtrusively as possible on a mini-tripod to capture small mammals and those lower to the ground [camera placement example photo]. Ensure that there are no obstructions, such as branches or tall grass. The advantage of camera trapping in your own space is that you don’t have to get permission or worry about securing your gear against theft.
  7. Do a few test runs before leaving the camera to be sure it’s working and that you’re not pointing it at the rubbish bins or your car tyre, unless that’s your intention. At that point set the camera to ‘on’ and you’re good to go.

Finally, start small. Leave the camera out overnight to begin. The short timeframe gives you the chance to work on your placement, ideal distances for optimal clarity, etc. without having to go through days of images that you had hoped would have shown that elusive otter whose tracks you found on the stream bank, only to discover the camera had been tripped repeatedly by a fern close to the lens blowing in the breeze. Yes, I speak from embarrassing experience. Check the SD card the next morning and get in the habit of immediately filing video you would like to keep and deleting those photo bomb shots of woodpigeons. Take a screenshot of the best footage for ID and remember to submit your records!

Even if you’re not able to set up a camera trap you can still enjoy yourself and learn a great deal by looking for signs and documenting your observations. You may even find that you continue recording mammals in your space long after COVID-19 restrictions have eased. At the very least, it will give you great practice for future expeditions, camera trapping and otherwise, when our worlds widen once again.

Jen Loyd-Pain
28 April 2020

1 Comment

  1. Jeanette Koenig

    Now I’m thinking about setting up a camera trap in my yard! (Unfortunately it’s illegal in Arizona to leave out food for anything but birds, so I won’t be able to entice anything to come.)

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