Wildlife photographer David Plummer and his love for Sussex
PUBLISHED: 10:28 11 October 2016 | UPDATED: 10:28 11 October 2016
Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2009, top wildlife photographer David Plummer is still travelling the world. But there's nowhere he'd rather call home than Sussex, as he tells Amanda Riley
“Observing and photographing nature is an obsession, always has been. It’s the reason I get up in the morning. I feel very lucky to live at the foot of the South Downs – my garden fence is literally on the National Park boundary,” smiles David Plummer as we chat in his conservatory at home in Henfield. The sliding door is open to his woodland garden – visited by birds, foxes and badgers – and his desk is a hive of activity with cameras, binoculars, a field guide to spiders, a book on kingfishers and a biography of Che Guevara.
“My earliest memory is aged two, bringing peabugs (woodlice) in from the garden and rolling them into balls across Mum’s coffee table,” he says as summer rain starts drumming on the roof. “Look at that green woodpecker on the tree,” he interjects. Interviewing him is a bit like being on a walking safari.
When David was seven, his carpenter father built him a bird table and, from the moment a female sparrow came down, he was hooked. The following year, he bought a second-hand SLR camera and, by 14, he was bunking off school to cycle to the north Kent marshes near his home in the Medway Towns to photograph wading birds on the mudflats.
David left school with 10 O levels, not daring to believe he could have a career in wildlife. He ended up joining the Metropolitan police force and remembers “At the top of a tower block, looking out for criminals, I’d be watching the kestrels!” When the police transferred him to Grand Cayman, he spent every lunch hour scuba diving amongst the Caribbean fish, turtles and stingrays.
Working back in London, David often spent his weekends in Sussex and honed his skills photographing flowers and butterflies. “I used to stay at a campsite at the end of the road where I live now,” he adds. “Sussex has everything – the Downs, the sea. It’s less intensively farmed than other counties in the south east and it’s one of the most wooded counties in the UK,” he says.
Ten years into his working life, David took the leap to try to become a wildlife photographer. “I moved to Hove and did various odd jobs – including cleaning and care work – while I built up my contacts and work experience. Becoming a volunteer photographer for the Sussex Wildlife Trust in 2002 was a turning point,” he says.
He still works closely with the Trust – taking photographs in their reserves and running courses for them at their Wood Mills centre and also from Scrag Copse – 11 acres of ancient woodland near Gatwick which he bought in 2006. “It’s not been managed for 70 years. It’s an almost wild wood, fantastic for wildlife and photographic opportunities,” he says. He sometimes stays there all night, observing owls. It’s also the location of his popular evening badger watches.
“Many people have only ever seen one of these beautiful creatures dead at the side of the road,” says David. “It’s great to see the reactions of children who come to badger-watch here. Allowing children to get up close to our native wildlife is the best way of instilling a love of their own countryside.”
Since 2005, David has been leading tours overseas to photograph the world’s most stunning – but often endangered – wildlife. He returns regularly to Kenya’s Masai Mara, Hungary, Ecuador and Brazil’s Pantanal – a vast tropical wetland. David also advises internationally on eco-tourism and leads tours to the Galapagos, Uganda, India and Rwanda for Steppes Travel.
“Despite working abroad about a third of the year, I love my time in the UK. The native wildlife in my home country fires my passion just as much,” says David who runs the BN5 owl project in Sussex and sits on the committee of Henfield Bird Watch.
He studies relentlessly to get in tune with his subjects’ habits and habitats before heading into the field. “There’s nothing serendipitous about the perfect wildlife photo. Photography is only 15 per cent of the task. Eighty five per cent is researching the animal’s behaviour – so you can get inside its fear circle – setting up and waiting,” he says.
“On my courses, some people are a bit taken aback when I say ‘There’s a sparrow hawk coming’ and one appears a few seconds later! But, from listening to the birds, I know what they are doing and what is heading our way.”
Other skills include endless patience and tenacity. “When I wanted to get close-up to little grebes at Wood Mills nature reserve, I was getting up at four o’clock every morning and getting into a wetsuit – normally still cold and damp from the day before – to slide into a floating hide I’d made. Over about a month, I became part of the environment to a pair of little grebes. I was only two metres from them and saw them on the nest as the young popped their heads out from under their mother’s wing.”
Another favourite place in Sussex is Knepp Wildlands, part of the Knepp Castle Estate near Horsham. “The wildlife is nothing short of incredible,” says David, who’s the resident photographer and runs hides for owls, birds of prey and kingfishers there. “It’s a fantastic example of rewilding – how Britain would have been before agriculture and development.” At 3,500 acres it’s one of the largest re-wilding project in lowland Europe, with herds of wild ponies, cattle, pigs and deer.
In 2009, life threw David his greatest challenge so far. After having tremors in his left arm, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease – a progressive, incurable neurological condition which causes tremor, rigidity and slowness of movement.
David remembers “Hearing the diagnosis was like an axe coming down. I had days of pure panic where I was walking around day and night. I only told close family and friends. It was such a relief to get guidance and support from a Parkinson’s UK volunteer.”
Gradually he regained his equilibrium. “All my life I’ve been strong-willed and chosen positivity. Disability is a hindrance and I know I will lose function in time. But I made the choice to grab life by the horns,” he says.
Whether he’s photographing jaguars in Brazil or teaching macro photography from his garden, his mind is completely focused on work. “I don’t think about the disability while I’m working. I don’t care if I’m stiff and aching, I’ll do whatever it takes to get the shot,” he says.
For the last three years, he’s been taking medication to help keep symptoms under control. “Some days they don’t work. I did a course a few months ago and I was completely ‘off’, tremoring severely and walking slowly.”
Nevertheless, David’s only concessions to Parkinson’s are using faster shutter speeds to counteract camera shake. With long-haul trips he flies one day ahead of the group so he can have a night in a hotel before the tour starts. To cut down on typing, he uses voice recognition software on his computer and he has hired a retired local man to help with business admin.
David remains resolutely philosophical. “I feel lucky to be here and have a career I love. I’m just another organism like that robin out there,” he says, gesturing to his garden.
David has decided to go public about his health condition, firstly because his symptoms are getting harder to hide and secondly to promote his forthcoming book, Seven Years of Camera Shake, which features hundreds of photographs David has taken since the diagnosis. “It’s a showcase of what I hope is world-class work and I just happen to have Parkinson’s. I want to tell other people facing health challenges not to limit their ambitions and to stay positive.”
“A few months ago, the Parkinson’s volunteer who helped me turned up on one of my courses. He said ‘You were in a bad place but you’re doing okay now.’” David has become a peer support volunteer himself. “I mentor people who are struggling with the psychological aspects of Parkinson’s,” he says.
He’s about to leave for trips to Romania and Brazil but can’t imagine living anywhere but Sussex. “I love it when I’m driving back from Gatwick or Heathrow, down the M23 and over Bolney Hill. When I see the Downs I think ‘I’m coming home.’”
Seven Years of Camera Shake
Seven Years of Camera Shake by David Plummer will be published next year by Penguin or Random House. Fifty per cent of the profits will go to Parkinson’s UK.
For information on his book, courses and tours, see www.davidplummerimages.co.uk
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