Tails of the Unexpected

BMV33 Harvest mice
‘What are those odd humans doing do you reckon?’

It’s a funny old game being wildlife photographers. We never know what to expect next…One day we’re photographing the planet’s tallest mammals from the back of a pick-up in bright, Bedfordshire sunshine for World Giraffe Day, the next Britain’s smallest (and wriggliest) rodents in an impromptu studio in dodgy light for a ‘creature feature’ we’ve been commissioned to write about harvest mice. We needed that classic, if cliched, summertime shot of said mini-mouse clinging to an ear of wheat – a scene few people can ever have witnessed in the wild. That’s because these diminutive creatures are so secretive even conservation experts can’t be sure if their numbers are going up or down. So what do you do if you suddenly need to capture that iconic image on camera?

It was never going to be the easiest of photo shoots. Captive bred though our tiny subjects were, the setting dressed just as we’d envisaged and the creative control firmly in our own hands, no-one had thought to tell our unsuspecting ‘models’ that we, not they, were in charge.

It’s tough setting out to make appealing images of a hyperactive, highly intelligent creature just five to eight centimetres long and lighter than a British 2p coin when you’re more accustomed to photographing Africa’s big game. Out of our comfort zone we were hoping the mice, adept climbers, would take to our set-up and have fun scaling and clinging on to the props we’d so thoughtfully provided for them.

BMV28 Harvest mice
Our subjects explore their new ‘jungle gym’

They certainly did – tearing up and down the long stems of wheat faster than Hamilton and Rosberg on race day. They’re the only British species with a prehensile tail, which they use like an extra limb to cling on safely to long grasses. All very well, but the problem for us was the fact they would only stay still for a nano-second when they reached  the top of the ears of wheat in their specially-created jungle gym. If we were not ready to fire the shutter in that split second we had to wait patiently for the race to restart with reflexes ready for their next momentary pitstop.

BMV21 Harvest mice
Tipping point? It’s a delicate balance getting shots right

Getting sharp, well-composed shots with just one mouse was hard enough, but when we introduced further mice to the wheat stalk scene it proved to be a real nightmare! Getting enough speed to freeze movement, and enough depth of field for sharpness across several subjects without bringing the background into focus was a constant juggling act. Success generally meant waiting for the split second all the busy little mice were more or less in the same plane.

BMV27 Harvest mice
‘Have those odd humans gone yet?’

It was more exhausting than we’d imagined firing the shutter at the fleeting ‘right’ moment while trying not to shake with laughter when, from time to time, the wheat, weighed down by too many mice would suddenly give way and bend in half sending our cute and comical models, still attached, on a great big fairground ride through the air!

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