Sticking our necks out for World Giraffe Day

AMHG365 Rothschild's giraffe male
Curious male posing for our World Giraffe Day photo call

If we ever needed reminding just how awesome, and amusing giraffes can be, then our visit last week to photograph the rare Rothschild’s giraffes at Woburn Safari Park, Bedfordshire, here in the UK, for today’s first ever World Giraffe Day, wasn’t a bad way to do it.

Crouched uncomfortably on the back of an open pick-up in their large enclosure with keeper Lindsay Banks, researcher Dominique Rhoades and a prickly pile of fresh browse for them to eat, we were soon being nudged and bumped by half a dozen big bony heads as their long necks craned in to reach the choicest bits of food.

BCF09 Rothschild's giraffe feeding at Woburn Safari Park
No shortage of willing subjects when there’s a free buffet!

All teeth and purple tongues, these huge and breath-taking animals had us surrounded as they gently nibbled from the impromptu buffet at our feet. It didn’t take long for either photographers or subjects to lose their inhibitions and we were all soon deftly negotiating our way around each other to get exactly what we wanted!

BCF02 Rothschild's giraffes feeding at Woburn Safari Park
Wide angle lenses at the ready – these guys aren’t shy

We’ve photographed giraffes umpteen times on our African adventures in the past, but have never been close enough to feel their breath before (or be dribbled on!) It was a real treat sitting among a swaying forest of necks with a privileged view of them quietly and intently feeding. Thanks to all the keepers and crew at Woburn who helped make it happen on the day.

The reason for our up close and personal giraffe encounter? Today’s the first-ever annual giraffe day, launched by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) wildlife charity to raise awareness about the plight of giraffe. Despite being an iconic African animal, and the tallest mammal on the planet, the giraffe’s conservation needs have been sadly overlooked. There are now fewer than 80,000 giraffe in the wild, less than a fifth the number of elephants.

BCF05 Rothschild's giraffes at Woburn Safari Park
Rothschild’s giraffes at home at Woburn Safari Park in the UK

Woburn Safari Park, with a herd of 17 Rothschild’s giraffes, is one of 50 wild animal collections celebrating World Giraffe Day today with a series of special events. We wanted to do something to help flag up this first ever global giraffe day so we arranged the special photo-call through our links with the GCF. Having just done a book on giraffes we’ve become even more aware of just how special these creatures are and of the real need for conservation initiatives like those supported by the foundation.

BCF08 Senior keeper Lindsay Banks feeding Rothschild's giraffe a
Keep Lindsay Banks with some of her charges

For example there are only 1,000 or so Rothschild’s giraffes in the wild and Woburn’s successful breeding herd of this rare sub-species, managed by keeper Lindsay to promote natural social structure within the herd, is helping bolster genetic variation in the wild population. Two more calves are expected to be born there any day.

‘Giraffe play an important part in the African eco-system, opening up areas for new growth and dispersing seeds,’ says former keeper and giraffe conservationist Dominique. ‘The misconception that giraffe are abundant is the reason why World Giraffe Day is so important in order to raise awareness of their needs in Africa and to ensure their future survival,’ she says.

BCF12 Rothschild's giraffe feeding at Woburn Safari Park
Let’s hear it for giraffes on June 21, 2014

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation was set up to promote and support giraffe conservation, particularly in parts of Africa where giraffe populations are in trouble. Its chairman, leading giraffe expert Dr Julian Fennessey, is hoping this first dedicated day for giraffes will throw a much-needed spotlight on these amazing animals. ‘The need to increase education and awareness about giraffes is critical at a time when their numbers are plummeting. They truly are the forgotten megafauna,’ he says.

Not anymore!

You can find our Giraffe ebook on the iTunes store. For more info about giraffes, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation website is well worth a look.

Discovering Scotland’s Secret South West

Bluebells in ancient woodland, Galloway
Bluebells in ancient woodland, Galloway

Managed to make the most of the last days of our British spring, definitely the best season here in the UK, with a visit to Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, just a short distance over the border from where we live.

The place has a fair bit of of fine flora and fauna, but is a lot less well-known than other Scottish wildlife hotspots, and is way handier than the distant Highlands for us. It was meant to be a bit of R&R, a break from work after a rather hectic few months slogging away in the office following our latest South Africa trip, but we packed the cameras, just in case, as you do…

The bluebells were in their final flourish but still pretty impressive
The bluebells were in their final flourish but still impressive

Bowled over by what must be one of the most beguiling bluebell displays for some seasons we were glad we’d lugged the gear with us on our walks in the woods while we were there. Admittedly a few days too late for the very best images we still couldn’t resist photographing the final flush of these heady, hyacinth-scented wild-flowers rippling across the woodland floor in waves of intense indigo.

So having unzipped the camera backpacks and blown away the cobwebs we decided to pay a call on the area’s famous and impressively aerobatic red kites. We’ve never visited the kite feeding station in Dumfries and Galloway before, although we’ve photographed a couple of times at the one at Gigrin Farm in Rhyader, Wales, which attracts huge numbers of these birds, and flocks of keen photographers, in the winter. It’s a bit odd really given the D&G site’s reasonable proximity to our home in Northumberland, but there you go…

Red kite flying in to the feedling station
Red kite flying in to the feedling station

Suffice to say we were quite impressed given it wasn’t the best time of year and the lighting/weather conditions weren’t ideal for tip-top flight shots. We had plenty of birds wheeling and careening over our heads to make for a challenging and fun afternoon’s photography and, thankfully, not all the birds had wing tags on.

Dumfries and Galloway is just one of several locations in the UK where red kites have been successfully re-introduced. Supplementary feeding in one or two of these spots by private, commercial operations (usually farmers diversifying to help make ends meet) provides enough food to attract the birds for the delight of tourists and photo-fiends, but not enough to make the birds dependant.

Tiny transmitters are attached to the kite's tail feathers
Tiny transmitters are attached to the kite’s tail feathers

A couple of years back we photographed Forestry Commission conservationists attaching transmitters to the tail feathers of  a number of red kites in one of these reintroduction schemes in Grizedale Forest, Cumbria.  This would enable the experts to keep tabs on where the birds where and how far they travelled form the release site. The guys were seated at a table, just like a sewing circle, chatting to us about the project as they painstakingly stitched way.  It was fascinating to see how these beautiful birds of prey, covered  by a cloth, remained docile throughout the whole procedure.

Seeing the success of such an initiative for ourselves in D&G in the last few days certainly whetted our appetites for a return photography visit later this year in the autumn or winter when even more birds should be visiting in softer light or even falling snow.

Aerial acrobats, the kites are a big hit with tourists
Aerial acrobats, the kites are a big hit with tourists

We particularly enjoyed photographing in the open (there are no photography hides here) enjoying wide, almost all-round views, and the freedom of movement to photograph the birds approaching from different directions as well as those whisking right over our heads.