A Photographers Guide to Photographing Red Squirrels at Forest How
You may have noticed one of my favourite places to photograph Red Squirrels isn't a well known 'pay and display' hide or forest in Northumberland or Scotland, but a place called Forest How. Forest How is a guest house in Eskdale in the Lake District. Its a great place to watch and photograph Red Squirrels, a place I find much more enjoyable than the various 'pay and display' hides around the UK.
Special thanks has to go to Peter Trimming who has taken the time to show me the various locations he and the B&B owners have set up in the grounds of Forest How over the years. Peter is a regular visitor to Forest How and has documented the local Red Squirrel population for a number of years. He is also the author of a soon to be published book based on the lives of the Red Squirrel population at Forest How. Without Peter's knowledge and assistance, this guide and many of the images I have taken would likely have not been possible. Peter completes a daily log during his visits, you can read these daily logs about the Forest How Red Squirrels on Facebook.
In this guide I've written a little about the various locations and also shown some images I have taken at each location to give an idea for anyone who hasn't stayed at Forest How.
The Terrace is where most guests are introduced to the Red Squirrels, mainly as a surprise during breakfast when one appears on the other side of the window. The conservatory has recently been replaced with a lovely new green one so its a little different to the one shown in the photo above. There are various perches and feeding positions around the conservatory to allow all guests to get a great view of the Red Squirrels. The Red Squirrels will happily sit eating the Hazlenuts left out for them even with guests only feet away on the other side of the glass. The terrace is great place to view the Red Squirrels, photographically its hard to get a natural looking setting but there are several perches where you can leave nuts out to give a variety of environments. There is also a variety of garden birds that visit the seed feeders here too. Some of the garden birds are quite tame and will happily pose for photographs, it can even be possible to use a macro lens!
The Hollow Logs and Plant Bed
The hollow logs and the plant beds are in front of the front door and just around the corner from the Terrace. The Red Squirrels often use this area to travel between the Old Gate and The Terrace. I like to leave a few nuts on top of the large hollow log and inside the smaller hollow tree. The Red Squirrels often check these locations for food. With a little thought you can get great images at both of these locations.
The Perches and the Fell Side
Peter has set up various perches that range from tree branches, a moss covered stone and a weathered log. Nuts can be hidden in the various perches and the Red Squirrels often check each location for food so if you set up in centre in can cover two or three of these locations without moving. They often climb the nearby trees so it can be a case of waiting patiently for them to come down. This is the one location where I lay on the grass to get the low perspective as it allows for eye level images rather than shooting down on them. One thing to watch with these perches is backgrounds, it can be easy to get the wire fence in the background. A small movement left or right can soon sort out this issue.
Beyond the wire fence is what is known as the Fell Side. The Red Squirrels are often spotted in this area, either on route from their drey or burying nuts in the Fell Side. The fell side is not an area I have tried for photography as access is limited by only one gate and often I need to follow the Red Squirrels as they move around. One word of warning, cows are sometimes present in this area so make sure you securely close the gate if you do venture onto the fell side otherwise you may get a surprise.
The Old Gate has been set up between two trees the Red Squirrels do climb. You can hide nuts at either end of the gate. The Red Squirrels will happily pose for you at either end of the gate or you could try to capture an image as they run along the top of the gate. The Old Gate is in shadow most of the morning but as the sun light moves around its can be nicely side lit, this means in the early morning you need to bump up the ISO to keep shutter speed high enough to freeze the movement of the Red Squirrel. I'm often at ISO1600 or ISO3200 as its better to get a noisy image than a blurred one!
The Stone Wall
The stone wall is next to the bridle path gate at the far end of the garden is probably my favourite location at Forest How. The stone wall is a very natural setting, its covered in moss and litchen and makes a great setting with the diffused backgrounds I love. The Red Squirrels use it as a 'highway' between the Fell Side and Forest How Wood. If you hide nuts on top of the stone wall the Red Squirrels will look for them as they pass. In spring the yellow of the Gorse Bush behind the wall makes a colourful background. In early morning the sun can make for some interesting back lighting.
The Fallen Tree in Forest How Wood
The Fallen Tree is a location that Peter has set up. The tree fell over duering a storm but it makes a great moss cover perch that the Red Squirrels do visit. Its best to leave a few nuts on the Tree Stump and visit this location if you see any Red Squirrels disappear into the wood. Its also a location where you may see Roe Deer, but they are easily spooked so they many run away. To get to this location follow the sleeper path into the wood from the corner of the orchard. Please be careful as the sleepers can be slippery when wet and the area is usually waterlogged.
One of the best things about Forest How is the Red Squirrels are approachable if you let them settle and only approach on their terms. If there are any signs of them becoming unsettled or nervous stop and let them settle again. If needed back away to distance they are happy with. As they are approachable there is no need for long lens like 500mm or 600mm lenses, a zoom lens like a 80-400mm or 70-200mm is perfect for Forest How. I personally use a 70-200mm f2.8 as I find a zoom lens to be very useful, 200mm is plenty and the fast f2.8 is great for dull or wet days. A 300mm lens is great to isolate the Squirrel and diffuse the background. Peter prefers a 135mm lens and has been know to get some great images with a 50mm lens!
Hazlenuts, hazelnuts and more hazelnuts. Bringing an endless supply of hazelnuts helps as the Red Squirrels will soon work out you have nuts for them and often pose nicely for you. I always bring a supply of Whole Hazlenuts and Hazlenut Kernels. Hazlenut Kernels can be purchased from Heath shops like Holland and Barrett or supermarkets. Booths Supermarkets in Keswick and Kendal are one of the cheapest places for shop bought Hazlenut Kernels. Oakhurst Garden Centre in Cockermouth is good place to purchase Red Squirrel food if you are driving past. Its cheaper to buy there than at supermarkets as you can purchase larger 1kg and 2kg bags. If you crush a hazlenut kernel up the Red Squirrels will sit and pose in front of you for longer, it gives you more time to get a photo. Whole Hazelnuts and Hazelnut Kernels are great to give to the Red Squirrels, sometimes they will cache them or eat them in front of you. If they go off to cache them its likely they will quickly return to eat the other nuts. My choice of nuts is usually 1-2 whole hazelnuts, 1-2 Hazelnut Kernels and 2-3 crushed Hazelnut Kernels. This seems to give a variety of action and behaviour.