Behind the Spy: North East Scotland Camera Trapping

By Kat Holmes

Rose Toney runs the very successful North East Scotland Camera Trapping Community on Facebook. We have had serious camera trapping admiration for this group for a long time now, so we were very excited when Rose agreed to be interviewed. We certainly weren’t disappointed…


[KH] Hi Rose, nice to meet you and thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about the North East Scotland Camera Trapping Community. We always feel very lucky to explore North Wales with our camera traps but your part of Scotland must be incredible too, is it a wonderful spot for camera trapping?

[RT] Yes, we love it – there is a fantastic variety of habitats and lots of quiet, wild areas that are just perfect for leaving out a camera trap uninterrupted by anything other than passing animals. Some of the extensive forestry plantations, in particular, are ideal as they are so difficult to survey by other means.

[KH] Wild places are so special. So, how did you start camera trapping and how did your first attempt go?

[RT] Well, along with my husband, I am a voluntary reserve convenor for a local Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve. A work colleague had some camera traps for research that he was carrying out and loaned one to us for a few weeks. Before long, we had recorded fox (which we had seen occasionally on the reserve) and badger (which we hadn’t seen before), soon we were hooked. We bought our first camera trap soon after and it all took off from there.

Here’s an action action shot of a fishing heron…

[KH] It sounds like you did brilliantly from the start, no wonder you were hooked! So was it your own camera trap experiences which kick started the community and how did it all get going?

[RT] Yes, indeed. Initially we were just camera trapping on the reserve, partly for our own interest and partly to get records for an ongoing mammal atlas project in our region. In my day job, though, I co-ordinate the North East Scotland Biodiversity Partnership. Much like NatureSpy I guess, I saw the opportunity to promote camera trapping both for awareness raising among individuals and communities and for increasing knowledge about the distribution of our wildlife. We got funding for five cameras and these were loaned out across North East Scotland. Alongside this, we set up a Yahoo group, but take-up for this was small and we soon realised that Facebook offered better opportunities to showcase videos and images obtained and to act as a general platform for information exchange.

The following year, I secured additional funding for a further North East Scotland Biodiversity Partnership project. We bought twelve camera traps that were used by primary schools in Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and Moray. The children were invited to put together a compilation video of the wildlife in their school grounds and the catchment for the school. This proved to be hugely successful and has even prompted enthusiasm at the highest levels of Scottish Government. Our community on Facebook has really taken off and includes folks who have got involved through these projects and a wide range of people who are getting into camera trapping independently, often just in their garden, but sometimes further afield. We are delighted that all these folks share our enthusiasm and are especially pleased that a number of people share their pictures and videos with the group. We are also very happy that a large number of people outside our region seem to enjoy our outputs almost as much as we do.

[KH] What a great story, our objectives are definitely similar – great minds think alike! We always get excited when people share their camera trap experiences with us, it’s often a window into wildlife we haven’t captured and there is always a great personal story behind it. Do you feel the same?

[RT] Absolutely. We’re thrilled that so many people are discovering the fun that camera trapping can bring. We often hear from people who discover badgers, foxes and hedgehogs in their gardens, that they simply did not know were there! We also try to encourage camera trappers to report their records to the local biological records centre or other recording schemes, to ensure that the maximum benefit is gained from their discoveries.

[KH] We have been admiring the captures shared in your community for a long time, it would be great to hear which have been your favourites?

[RT] The schools project came up with some fantastic material, but one of our favourites was a quick blur racing across in front of the camera that the school labelled as a “supersonic sausage”. We’ve had lots of great badger footage posted by our friends at Windows on Wildlife at Clyde Muirshiel, we particularly love the badger cubs. We’ve also had great pine marten footage from Black Isles Hides. Several group members have also obtained great otter footage, there is a recent clip contributed, from Orkney, of one investigating a recess in a small stone building that was especially exciting to see.

Supersonc sausage

Click for Crathe Primary School Video (with supersonic sausage)

[KH] Wow, we have never found a supersonic sausage! You must have had lots of success yourself; which camera trap capture are you most proud of?

[RT] Well rather than one specific video or image, I think we are most proud of an innovation. Back at our nature reserve near Aberdeen, we were getting great footage of badgers, foxes, pine martens, otters and roe deer, but realised that we were completely missing out on the small mammals. In fact we only had wood mouse on the reserve list, having seen them occasionally snatching peanuts from a baited site in front of a regular camera position. With a lot of trial and error, which started out by dismantling a pair of reading glasses and using a drainpipe section, we developed what we now call the Small Mammal Cam. We fix a close-focus filter from a regular camera over the camera trap lens with blu-tac and put brown tape over the flash to damp down the intensity of night-time illumination. The camera is then strapped on the end of a baited wooden box with a clear roof. It really is remarkably successful at demonstrating what mice, rats, voles and shrews are present and we also get weasels, red squirrels and other animals inspecting it from time to time.

Last year we had a Masters student comparing its efficiency with live traps and found that, in some situations, it actually recorded more species. Of course it is also more humane (with there being no mortality risk) and way less labour intensive, with no need to visit at any defined intervals.

Here’s another interesting visitor to the Small Mammal Cam…

If we were to pick one success from using this camera, it must be a sequence of water shrew videos that we got out on the nature reserve. Although the habitat was suitable for water shrews we had no records and, before developing this system, little chance of finding them. We were thrilled to have success with these and the videos went down very well on the Facebook page too, which is always a bonus.

[KH] We have a small mammal lens too (inspired by your efforts!) but your’s sounds very successful and very inventive! But like all of us you must have had challenges too, what has been your biggest camera trap fail?

[RT] I’m not sure we have anything that we would call a fail. Sometimes there are intriguing images or videos of a creature, which we cannot be quite sure what it is but suspect that it might be something very exciting. We often get some amusing video clips, especially involving badgers which seem to be quite interested in the cameras and sometimes approach right up to them for a good sniff or a rub against them. We have had the Small Mammal Cam “sabotaged” by a badger that tipped out the bait.

Perhaps a bigger “fail” might have been when we put out a Small Mammal Cam over the wall of our garden into the adjacent field. In the morning, we saw that the farmer had turned out a herd of cows into the field – the camera box had been dislodged from place but was, thankfully, undamaged, and the videos showed several close-ups of cows’ muzzles nudging the box about.

[KH] Phew, the cows sound like a close shave and that desperate badger makes for such a funny video! You and the community must share lots of tips and advice on camera trapping; what is your top tip for beginners?

[RT] Probably to completely ignore the instruction manual and to just try things out! Our first camera was a Bushnell and the manual recommended placing it on a tree, 5 or 6 feet up and 5 m or so from the target area. We did this to start with but soon realised that the instructions were aimed very much at North American deer hunters and that there was loads of potential to use less conventional camera placements for greater success. One example was getting my husband to crawl into a drain under a path near work to wedge a stick in place and attach a camera trap. We got some great brown rat footage; I realise that this is not everyone’s favourite animal but we were really pleased to get some nice footage of it. 

Here’s a weasel struggling with a chicken drumstick…

[KH] It sounds like your husband is a very dedicated camera trapper too! That is great advice though, forget the manual and have fun!

One last question… do you have a camera trap goal for the year?

[RT] Well two goals come to mind. Right at this moment, we have a couple of Small Mammal Cams next to some water vole latrines that we have just found. We would love to get some nice footage of this animal. There was a blurry image of a water vole in the first few days (it was right up against the lens), but fingers crossed the next time we check them we get clearer images. The other thing that I would really love to get footage of is a mole coming up out of a molehill.

[KH] Water voles are on our list too and a mole would be incredibly special! Will you keep us posted on how you get along?

[RT] Yes of course, and if anyone else gets these, we would be delighted for them to share with our page.

[KH] We will spread the word, as we would love to see them too! I am sure your community members have lots of goals too, please let them know we are always keen to hear about them! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us and we will look forward to seeing more great camera trap results from the North East Scotland Camera Trapping Group on Facebook.

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