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New Forest photographer Sally Fear: Respect for the natural wonder on my doorstep

PUBLISHED: 11:18 28 September 2016

Sally has produced work for The Observer, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and more

Sally has produced work for The Observer, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and more

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Capturing the role of the Crown Keepers as they have never been seen before, New Forest photographer Sally Fear has a newfound respect for the natural wonder on her doorstep says Claire Pitcher

Last time I met with photographer Sally Fear was six years ago when I visited her at home at Brockenhurst to talk about her new book, ‘New Forest Drift’. This time we’re sipping coffee in Steff’s Kitchen in Beaulieu as she hands me a copy of her third book, ‘Crown Keepers of the New Forest’. It’s her biggest and most comprehensive book yet exploring the role of the 10 Keepers whose job it is to manage the Forest, from controlled burning to bat surveys. These gents (and one lady) work on a 24-hour roster, seven days a week and each have their part of the Forest to manage.

The 190-page book is the culmination of six years hard work for Commoner Sally, who spent countless days and nights on high seats in the Forest, shadowing the Keepers and recording their movements. It must have been a labour of love, but its creation was born out of a real need to show people how important the Keepers are to the welfare of the New Forest National Park. Sally explains: “The idea came in 2010 when I read a letter in The Lymington Times from ‘the son of a New Forest Keeper and the grandson of a Head Keeper’ – John Cutler. His letter was in response to an item in the same paper by Anthony Pasmore, a Verderer of the New Forest.

“The jobs of the Keepers were in jeopardy as the government was considering cutting the (then) team of 12 to six, and it appeared it was simply because nobody really understood what they do.” Thankfully, the government changed their mind and they kept their jobs, but it bought to light the fact that very little was known about them.

“I asked one of the Keepers I knew, Tim Creed, if they might want to be part of a book like the one I produced for the Commoners. They all said they would.”

This wasn’t to be a simple ‘day in the life’ documentary of photographs, as the diverse range of responsibilities the Keepers have could not be captured in just a few hours, or even weeks or months. Each season on the Forest brings with it a fresh list of things to do. From ringing Goshawk chicks in the spring…to managing the deer at the end of autumn, Sally has recorded it all and displayed it seasonally in ‘Crown Keepers of the New Forest’, accompanied with just the right amount of explanation – also penned by her.

For three years Sally accompanied the various Crown Keepers, before putting together a presentation to show her work so far.

Controlled burning made for some very atmospheric shotsControlled burning made for some very atmospheric shots

“That’s when we realised most of what I had taken was all about killing! A lot of the time, you see the Keepers when they unfortunately have to dispatch an injured animal, or manage deer, rabbit and squirrel populations. So we decided I would spend more time watching them manage and look after the Forest,” says Sally.

This meant her book could also reveal the importance of things like the electric fish survey, the firearms skills test, grey squirrel and magpie 
management, hunting with mink hounds and bat surveys.

“Inspecting the bat boxes was planned, so was the controlled burning…more often than not I was going to be in the way, or the Keepers thought I was. It took a long time to earn their confidence.” As you can imagine, it wouldn’t be too comfortable waiting potentially for hours in the undergrowth or in the trees.

“There were a few occasions when they were going out during the shooting season and I would sit up in a high seat at the crack of dawn in the freezing cold, waiting for and observing the animals and Keepers.

“There was a lot of hanging around, in particular when I tried to capture the red deer rut. I went out everyday for three weeks and didn’t see a thing!”

Sally certainly doesn’t consider herself a wildlife photographer. Indeed, her experience lies more in documentary assignments capturing people, rather than animals and birds. She’s produced work for The Observer, Sunday Times, Newsweek, the Telegraph and Time and Fortune, among others. Documenting people must surely be easier then animals: “I approach it in the same way really. I spent three days with one particular red stag, ‘Giant’ he was called, in the same way as I would a person. I got to know him, gained his confidence, I quite liked him. He had a very interesting face, the most interesting of the stags that were about. It was a privilege to spend so many days in his company.”

Goshawk chicks were ringed in the springGoshawk chicks were ringed in the spring

For Sally, her time with the Keepers was a real eye opener to the sheer variety of flora and fauna they look after.

“Insects too, like the butterflies for instance and the maintenance of their habitat. There are quite a few species you can only find in the New Forest. There are rare orchids here too, as well as flowers that only open for a short while, so you need people to spot when they are open and let you know - like the wild gladioli, which only exists here.

“I also didn’t realise the Keepers have to deal with naughty people too, campers who don’t camp on campsites and people who build homes for themselves on the Forest.”

As you can imagine, six year’s worth of digital photographs ran into the tens of thousands. Trying to choose which were going to make the final cut must have taken as much patience as waiting for a glimpse of the red deer rut.

“I thought it would take a month for me to go through them all, but it actually took me a year to narrow them down. Then they had to be narrowed down again, before the designer chose the ones he thought would work,” she recalls. It was a case of so much to say and not enough pages to include it all. Browsing through the book Sally has definitely achieved what she must have thought at some points wouldn’t be possible.

“It was a real challenge to get it all together, all the information and the design, as well as to write it in a way that was readable, made sense and wasn’t boring.”

Photo by Sally FearPhoto by Sally Fear

Once the first draft was complete it was checked, then checked again, by a number of different people: “If I’d done something wrong they would tell me in no uncertain terms,” she laughs.

Since its launch in May, ‘The Crown Keepers of the New Forest’ has been flying off the shelves of the local farm shops, as well as five of Hampshire’s Waterstones. After six years of sitting in the freezing cold, up trees, getting lost on the Forest and observing the working lives of the Crown Keepers, surely Sally is due some time off? “Time off? I can’t take time off now,” she replies in disbelief. “I’m working on promoting the book – I have to be able to sell it now! I’m trying to get to grips with Facebook and Twitter at the moment – they’ve been proven to help sales I hear. It’s not easy for a non-technical person like me,” she laughs.

Since buying a copy myself, I’ve come back to it time and time again to find out more about what is surely England’s most unique National Park. Sally’s documentation of the work of the Crown Keepers will hopefully make all its readers that little bit more aware of the important work they do every day on the Forest.

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