Otter Sanctuary - Peak District

David Pike

British Otter (Lutra lutra) [captive] Nikon D1, 600mm f4 AF-S (f4, 1/10 sec)
The Otter Sanctuary at the Chestnut Centre in the Peak District keeps three other species of otters, the North American River Otter, (Lutra canadensis), the Asian Small Clawed Otter (Amblonyx cinera) and the Brazilian Giant Otter (Pteronura brasiliensis). It is the only sanctuary in the UK to keep the Giant Otters.

It was a glorious sunny day and I decided to take a trip to The Chestnut Centre near Chapel-en-le-Frith in the north eastern part of the Peak District. The Chestnut Centre is located in parkland that used to be associated with a country house and it is still possible to stroll through the parkland and see the herd of fallow deer that roams freely around the parkland area. When I visited the deer were nowhere to be seen, and as I was keen to get to the otters I did not go to look for them.

The ponds where the otters are kept are in a small wooded valley along the River Swan - which at this point is really a small stream. While all of the ponds are man-made, most have been dug into the valley side and only one that I could see had a concrete base - that was clearly one to avoid. All of the ponds are surrounded by fencing and so it important to choose your position carefully if you want to compose natural looking shots.

There are four types of otters at the centre. Most famous are the Giant Brazilian otters - the only pair in the UK are to be found here and I believe there are only 22 captive breeding pairs of this endangered species worldwide. The Chestnut Centre is involved in a captive breeding programme for the giant otters and that is the real value of places like the Chestnut Centre.

Again when I visited the Giant Brazilian Otters were not out and about and so there was very little chance of photographing them - although the pond used by the Giants was, as you would expect, the largest and it was also probably the most natural looking environment.

In addition to the Giants, there are also Asian Short Claw Otters, North American Otters and European or British Otters. The Asian Short Claws are probably the species that is most often seen in zoos and wildlife parks and they are smaller than the other two species.

Scottish Wild Cat (Felis sylvestris)[captive]
Nikon D1, 600mm f4 AF-S (f4, 1/15 sec)
I used a wide aperture to ensure that the fence in front of the cat was not visible. I then chose my position carefully and took advantage of the narrow angle of view of my 600mm lens to keep the fence behind the cat out of the frame.

The centre also keeps Scottish Wild Cats, Red Foxes and a range of owls and other birds of prey.

I arrived at the centre pretty much at mid-day and Kath - a very helpful person at the ticket kiosk/shop suggested that rather than follow the sign posted nature trail, that goes in a counter clockwise direction through the centre, I should go straight down to the ponds - she also explained which ponds were likely to be the best. So once through the gate close to the shop, I turned sharp left and descended the relatively steep path down to the otter ponds.

Scottish Wild Cats
At that time of the day there was very little activity in the otter ponds and so I decided to have a look around at some of the other animals at the centre - the owls, the foxes and, particularly, the Scottish Wild Cats. I couldn't resist staying at the cats for a while and taking a few shots.

The big problems here - as with most positions in the centre was the low levels of light because of the surrounding woodland and the fences. I had to make the most of the lighting conditions - which were perhaps better than normal because it was such a bright sunny day. The best I could do was use a wide-open aperture and push my film by one stop to maximise the shutter speeds. Foolishly, while I had taken along a flash, I had failed to put in a flash 'projector' that would allow me to use the flash with my 600mm lens. This is a very useful accessory for use with long lenses when photographing wildlife and where you want to use a little fill flash. It is a very simple devise that uses a Fresnel lens to concentrate the light from the flash unit and to 'project' it further - these accessories should not be used with lenses shorter than 300mm as this is likely to result in corners of the image being dark.

Scottish Wild Cat (Felis sylvestris)[captive]
Nikon D1, 600mm f4 AF-S (f4, 1/20 sec)
While this is a captive animal I tried to make the shot look as natural as I could and I was also looking for behaviour - I was quite please when the cat went into this position as it stared at a young magpie that was chirping for food behind me.

The fences I could deal with a little more successfully - by using a wide open aperture I was able to throw the fence between me and the cats out of focus to such a degree that it was invisible. This is a useful technique and is the result of the fence being outside of the zone of focus that is referred to as the depth of field - see the techniques article in this edition of In Focus. When using this technique the closer you are to the fence the easier it is to keep it well outside of the zone of focus - it is not simply a matter of it not being in focus, it is that you want it so far out of focus that it does not show up at all. As I was working with a 600mm lens at an aperture of f4 or f5.6 the depth of field was only a few centimetres and so it was relatively easy to keep the fence from being visible.

The next problem was keeping the fence behind the cat from being seen in the image. For this I had three things to help me - first careful positioning so that the fence was not visible in the frame, secondly, allied to the first, I had a very narrow angle of view as I was using a 600mm lens (angle of view of only 4°) and finally I had the limited depth of field given the aperture and lens that I was using.

British Otter (Lutra lutra) [captive] Nikon D1, 600mm f4 AF-S (f4, 1/13 sec)
I was looking for opportunities to capture the otters doing different things - this otter came up for air after playing a rough and tumble game in the water with its mate. The light levels were too low for me to capture the playing - besides most of it was below water.
British Otter (Lutra lutra) [captive]
Nikon D1, 600mm f4 AF-S (f4, 1/80 sec)
The pond where I was photographing the British otters caught some direct sunlight where it broke through the trees. While this was good news in terms of lifting otherwise painfully low light levels, it did create some difficult exposures when the otter moved into the dappled light.

On to the Otters
I only stayed with the Wild Cats for a short while - although there was good potential there, I was eager to get to the otters as that was my main quarry for the day.

I was most keen to photograph the European or British Otter and found that I had to make a choice - the livelier pair (and remember that in the wild these animals are generally at rest during much of the day) were at one end of the Centre, while the pair that was in a more natural looking pond, but who were out in the pond less often were at the other end. The problem was that I knew that the best strategy would be to sit and wait at one or other of the ponds and not to move between them in the hope of getting a good shot.

I chose the more natural looking environment - which is the second pond you come to as you come down the hill in a clockwise direction from the shop and ticket counter (if you follow the marked nature trail then this pond is the second to last).

Light is again a problem here as it is heavily shaded and so a project -a-flash would be very useful. Having set up beside the pond, it was just a question of sitting and waiting. After a while the otters emerged and started to play in the water - the shutter speeds that I was working with were so slow, that I had no chance to capture any of it. Given the poor light levels, I was shooting Fuji Provia 100F pushed one stop, with an aperture of f4 and still only getting shutter speeds of 1/30th. In this situation it was really important that I had with me a strong tripod and that everything was tightened to hold the camera as rock steady as possible. I also used a cable release to minimise any camera shake.

I spent a delightful few hours with the British Otters but by 4.00 the sun had moved sufficiently that there was very little light getting to the pond and so I decided to move on.

British Otter (Lutra lutra) [captive] Nikon D1, 600mm f4 AF-S (f4, 1/6 sec)
As feeding time approached the otters spent more time looking out for the wardens. This otter climbed on to a fallen tree stump to get a better look. The light was very poor, but using a digital SLR I had nothing to lose and although my shutter speed was only 1/6th second I took the shot - its almost acceptably sharp!
British Otter (Lutra lutra) [captive] Nikon D1, 600mm f4 AF-S (f4, 1/10 sec)
The light levels were so low that I had to push my film one stop, shoot with a wide open aperture and make sure that I had everything clamped down tightly on my tripod. I also used a cable release to minimise any camera movement.
Nikon D1, 600mm f4 AF-S (f4, 1/100 sec) As the Sanctuary is built in the parkland of an old country house estate there were plenty of rhododendron bushes around giving a splash of bright colour amid the gloom of the wooded valley.
  Perennial Cornflower
Nikon D1, 600mm f4 AF-S with extension tube (f4, 1/125 sec) This is a garden plant turned wild. I liked the deep purple amid the buttercups and marigolds.

Summer flowers
As a protected area the Centre has a range of summer meadow flowers that also make great subjects, and so after losing the light by the otters I decided to take a few flowers on my way back to the car park and a cup of tea.

Again I did not really have the appropriate equipment - I had not brought a macro lens as I was aiming to spend my time taking the otters. The answer was to improvised with what I had with me. So I popped an extension tube between my 600mm lens and my camera body to provide a closer focussing distance and then took advantage again of the narrow angle of view of the long telephoto lens to takes some 'close-ups' of the flowers.

The Chestnut Centre is located on the A625 road between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Castleton. It is open all year round from 10.30 until 5.30 from March to December and at weekends in January and February. When I visited recently (June 2001) the entrance fee was £5.25 for an adult. Telephone 01298-814099.

Other otter sanctuaries include:
The Otter Trust Reserves:
Bungay, Suffolk, Tel: 01986-893470,
Bowes Reserve, County Durham Tel:01830-628339
Tamar Reserve, Launceston, Cornwall, Tel: 01566-785646

The Dartmoor Otter Sanctuary, Buckfastleigh, Devon, Tel: 01365-642916