Stephen Dalton on his nine-acre Sussex Weald woodland and new wildlife book
PUBLISHED: 09:54 31 October 2017 | UPDATED: 09:54 31 October 2017
Twenty years ago, award-winning nature photographer Stephen Dalton bought a nine-acre wood in East Sussex which he lovingly transformed into a magical haven for wildlife and woodland flowers. As a stunning new book showcasing his woodland paradise is published, he tells Angela Wintle about the pioneering high-speed photographic techniques he uses to capture birds and insects in free flight
A fence spider jumping from an acorn to catch a tasty meal. A badger rooting around for food in a bluebell glade at dead of night. And a glorious azure-winged dragonfly hovering over a mysterious woodland pool. These are just some of the magical images captured by award-winning photographer Stephen Dalton in his very own nine-acre woodland, Rookery Wood, near Ardingly, in the heart of the Sussex Weald.
Stephen is a photographer like few others. Often using pioneering high-speed photographic techniques, he has captured the seemingly impossible – the mysterious and largely unrecorded workings of mammals, birds, reptiles, plants and fungi in a woodland setting. And now he has shared his breathtaking pictures in a new book brimming with photographs of the flora and fauna that populate his woodland paradise. “One of the aims of my book was to get a feeling for the wood,” says Stephen. “Life in a wood isn’t just about big mammals and birds. Most woodland creatures are actually quite small things like insects and butterflies. But more than anything I have tried to capture the spirit of the place. A place where nature can live and procreate without the threat of its habitat being destroyed.”
Stephen is something of a legend in the world of nature photography. You may remember the remarkable images he produced for the Royal Mail’s Birds of Prey stamps in 2003 which featured multi-frame images of a barn owl and kestrel taking off and landing. Such was their popularity he co-produced a second series the following year depicting elusive woodland creatures. He started his work on insect photography in the early 1970s, long before infra-red beams or lasers, using specially-designed lenses and mirrors and a custom-made high-speed shutter. After two years of experimentation, he was able to obtain sharp photographs of insects in flight for the first time in the history of photography. “Until then, there was no technique capable of stopping an insect – or moths or birds for that matter – with absolute clarity in free flight,” he says. “Digital photography was decades away, film speeds were limited to ISO 25-32, and flash units were restricted to about one thousandth of a second. Now we have phenomenal digital speeds approaching a millionth.”
But he was so ahead of his time that even the experts couldn’t quite believe their eyes. “National Geographic magazine got wind of my work and summoned me to their offices in Washington,” he recalls. “But when I showed them my pictures of flying insects they thought they were fishy and decided not to publish them. There was actually nothing remotely fishy about them!” Their loss was Reader’s Digest’s gain because in 1975 the magazine produced Stephen’s first full-colour book, Borne on the Wind, which showed insects captured in free flight for the very first time. It garnered rave reviews and he went on to produce many more extraordinary books recording, among others things, the secret life of ants, bees and spiders. One of his photographs of a parasitic wasp was even selected by American astronomer Carl Sagan to board NASA’s Voyagers I and II spacecraft as part of records conveying something of the science and culture of mankind to possible extraterrestrial beings. The image is expected to last one billion years or more, long after life on Earth has expired. “Pity it’s a photograph I’m not very proud of,” sniffs Stephen.
His latest book is a love letter to the woods adjoining his farm which he acquired after a furious bidding war nearly 20 years ago. He’d hankered after his own parcel of woodland for decades, and Rookery Wood didn’t disappoint. Unusually, it boasts three defined habitat zones: a steeply-banked lower area which meets a fast-flowing stream, further distinguished by 200ft high Wellingtonia-like Japanese cedars; a mid region dominated by a thick and overcrowded stand of ash; and a top zone – the nearest thing to ancient woodland – with several large oaks, ash and hazel. It is also home to a small rookery which inspired the name of his wood.
When he first entered the forest, however, he wondered what he’d taken on. The trees, planted more than a century ago for timber extraction, hadn’t been coppiced for decades. Overcrowded ash trees and old, straggly hazel blocked the light and the ground was choked with bramble and a “thuggish weed” called pendulous sedge “with roots that stretched to Australia”.
Rolling up his sleeves, he cut a meandering path to enable him to bring in heavy machinery, then felled ash trees and coppiced hazel to open up the canopy and encourage wildlife and woodland flowers. Sadly, his early efforts were thwarted when the fresh hazel he had so enthusiastically coppiced was demolished by fallow deer. “What started out as a few alluring ‘Bambis’ dotted around the landscape became an increasing plague that wrought havoc almost everywhere,” he says. “Massive holes appeared in hedges and the wide variety of wild flowers that grew around their margins vanished. I failed to appreciate the terrible damage herds of deer can wreak in woodland and their capacity to breed like rats!” In desperation he installed a galvanised wire deer fence around the entire perimeter of the wood. The hazel coppice, wild flowers and brambles duly returned in abundance. Buoyed by his success, Stephen embarked on a more radical programme to attract wildlife by creating more and larger glades. Potentially the most exciting area was the central region, home to dark, peaty bogland surrounded by alder trees. Deciding to transform this into a proper woodland pond, he hired a JCB and with the help of volunteers grubbed out much of the alder to open up the area. “It soon filled with water and pond skaters, water boatmen and dragonflies appeared from nowhere – as though they had been hovering over the area during its construction just waiting to move in.”
A good omen was the arrival of a kingfisher which landed on the bucket of the digger while the operator was having a nap. “I avoided a fancy high-speed shot of the bird diving into the water, preferring to show the kingfisher at ease within the tranquillity of its lovely habitat. As it was such an irregular visitor, I spent many hours over several days to get the picture, camped in a natural hide made from coppiced branches.”
Another favourite is his extraordinary image of a jumping fence spider caught in free flight. Stephen admits to clever trickery to get this shot, recreating the spider’s natural environment in his studio and positioning the acorns in just the right position after calculating the spider’s trajectory. But perhaps the two most memorable images are other-worldly pictures of a roe deer and a badger captured in the woodland gloaming. “One evening, when I was photographing something at ground level, I looked up and saw this delightful roe deer walking up the ride some 30 yards away. Gradually raising my camera, I managed to take a single image before the animal turned away. Wildlife photography rarely works like this for me, but I was lucky. I left a gate open overnight for the deer to escape and it was never seen again.”
The badger image was specially taken for his book, but not before six weeks of frustration. Badgers and foxes had continued to gain access to Rookery Wood after he erected his fencing by burrowing under the heavy-gauge wire. But as soon as he decided to try for a high-quality photograph, they unaccountably disappeared. Finally, his luck changed when the trail cameras he’d dotted around the wood revealed resumed activity. “The only explanation is that the long period of dry weather we’d been enjoying had hardened the ground and the badgers’ favourite prey, slugs and snails, weren’t active. Fortunately, a few days before the publisher’s deadline, I managed to obtain this photograph!”
The woodland and its creatures may occasionally thwart him, but there is no doubting his deep love for this little part of Sussex under his careful custodianship.
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