The Challenges of Wildlife Photography at a Gas Storage Site
Wildlife photography is not straightforward at the best of times, but when the location is the largest top-tier COMAH energy storage facility in the country, another set of unique challenges are introduced.
For any nature photography, becoming familiar with a location is hugely important, it allows the photographer to discover what animals are present and that in turn formulates a strategy to get close enough to capture them, which usually involves camouflage gear and a hide. Then it’s a case of being intimately familiar with your camera equipment - the ability to change critical settings without pausing to think about them - and if you’re using 840mm of zoom, finding the subject in the viewfinder takes skill and practice too.
But what if your location is particularly unique? That was the case when I was approached by Storengy UK, a subsidiary of ENGIE, who when it’s fully-completed at the beginning of 2020 will operate the UK’s largest gas storage facility by utilising twenty underground salt caverns located in mid-Cheshire.
When a new storage well is created, the final step is to return the land above to either farming or to wildlife. It’s a remarkable site, practically invisible from the surrounding countryside but absolutely huge at almost one thousand acres and encompassing a wide range of habitats, from farmland to woodland, ponds and small streams.
The site is however, subject to the highest safety standards, so just wandering off with a camera and hide isn’t possible. There are critical requirements; a detailed risk assessment, an in-depth induction that includes what to do should there be an emergency and everyone has to carry a radio and wear a high-visibility vest. Umm… so the wildlife can see and hear you coming…
Overcoming these constraints has been particularly challenging, but many of the on-site team have detailed knowledge of not only the processes and security, but also the facility’s wildlife, which helps greatly. Being able to visit throughout the year has enabled a more diverse range of species to be photographed as behaviours and climate change.
A typical visit, if there is such a thing, involves considerable pre-planning and coordination with Storengy, not just the time of arrival and departure, but paperwork and the locations where I’ll be walking, tracked by multiple security cameras. Then, only when I settle on a location can I shed the high visibility gear, turn the radio down and focus on the wildlife.
And it really is worth all the effort. While modern farming is often blamed for creating mono-cultures in the countryside that aren’t at all wildlife-friendly, Storengy has worked with multiple organisations to increase the biodiversity of the areas under their control. Programs are varied; for example local cub and scout groups have helped build bird boxes and the site plays host to an initiative to breed and house on-site native bee species that are currently in serious decline. Road aprons are planted with a mixture of native broad-leaf trees and a wildflower introduction scheme is hoped to commence in 2020.
In just an hour, it’s possible to see upwards of twenty-five species of bird including top predators such as barn owls and buzzards, and of course there are mammals too, one of the highlights for me being the healthy population of European hares, another species unfortunately declining in the UK with numbers plummeting by over eighty percent in the last century. It’s also encouraging to see a growing number of insect species across the site, including many popular butterflies such as the gatekeeper and small skipper alongside an occasional rarity too. The insect (and bird) diversity will only increase as the number of wildflower species also increases.
It might not be the easiest location to photograph, but it’s a privilege to be allowed to access Storengy’s unique site in Cheshire. Sightings and subsequent images of wildlife are never guaranteed at any location, but it’s great to see a company going to such lengths to encourage nature and lessen their impact on the environment.