by Steve Westerman

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

THE ‘raw’ side of nature is a topic that has been raised by some of the excellent speakers at recent Wharfedale Naturalists meetings. In the context of wildlife photography this is something that resonates with me. It is possible to adopt a rather ‘blinkered’ view, attempting to capture only the ‘beauty of nature’. However, when watching animals for any length of time it becomes apparent that this is just part of the story. At its core nature is functional and pragmatic. It gravitates towards working solutions, and sometimes this seems brutal.

When water levels aren’t too high, grey herons are a familiar sight along the river Wharfe. There is often one close to the Old Bridge, looking to take passing fish. However, herons are actually very eclectic in their diet. This pragmatic approach makes them resilient; their survival is less dependent on a particular food source. When hunting at the edge of the river, it is not unusual for them to face the bank rather than the water – looking for small mammals, such as voles. Indeed, they sometimes abandon the water altogether to search for prey in nearby fields.

A few years ago, a juvenile heron seemed to spend all its time in fields upstream of the town, digging for worms! Perhaps it had not yet developed aquatic hunting skills.

Much to the alarm of anyone watching, ducklings are on the herons’ menu. In the spring, a mother duck can sometimes be seen, desperately, but usually unsuccessfully, trying to protect her offspring from this predator. Last year, a brood of ducklings on the moor’s Upper Tarn soon drew the attention of a passing heron. I don’t think they survived.

Rarely, herons will take other birds. Early one morning I arrived at the river to find an unexpected commotion. A heron was in the river with a dead songbird in its bill. I can’t be sure whether it caught it or ‘acquired’ it. In any event, it was under attack from a crow that seemed to be trying to drive it away. The heron won out.

My point is that grey herons epitomise the naked pragmatism of nature. Should we be shocked and revulsed by behaviours that enable their survival? Behaviour that is unfortunate for ducklings, songbirds, and voles is important for the grey heron. How this side of nature should be reflected in nature photography is another matter. These can be difficult photographs to get, they make for less comfortable viewing, and perhaps require placing in context.