Mark Hamblin

Mark Hamblin – visions of the future

Kilmaurs PC is proud to be hosting Mark Hamblin, renowned photographer and director of SCOTLAND: The Big Picture, as this year’s keynote speaker in February. As well as a photographer, Mark is also a writer, having authored and co-authored works including Tooth and Claw and Wild Land – images of nature from the Cairngorms. I caught up with Mark online last week in an attempt to garner more information on this fascinating man.

Mark grew up in Warwickshire, where he developed an early interest in birdwatching and photography. By 1980 he had already won the RSPB’s Young Ornithologist Club’s photograph of the year. He then went on to study Microbiology in Sheffield where he lived for 18 years.

Of his early success and if it influenced the direction of his future career path, Mark commented: “Being a bird photographer as a career wasn’t on my radar or indeed that of the school’s career adviser who favoured a more traditional approach. It was only later in my 20s that I began to explore the possibility.”

A freelance photographer since 1995, Mark’s imagery has featured in many leading photographic competitions, including seven highly commended images in the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) in mid-air, about to land on pine trunk

I asked Mark which came first: the photography or the interest in wildlife. Says Mark: “Some friends of the family enrolled me in the YOC as a birthday present aged 11 and I subsequently became interested in birds and wildlife in general. Having been an avid birdwatcher for a few years I was keen to try to photograph them and subsequently used photography as an extension of my hobby.”

In 2002 Mark headed north to the heart of the Cairngorms National Park. I asked what had prompted this move. Said Mark: “A couple of things really; partly fate, as we were looking to move as much for a change of location than anything tangible but at that time I was also becoming more involved with tour guiding and working with a colleague already based in the area so it was a logical step in many ways.” He added: “Plus the wildlife here was more appealing.”

Mark is of course well–known for his conservation work. Recently he joined forces with other conservation-minded photographers to form Wild Media Foundation – an organisation of which he is a director.  This is a social enterprise which aims to raise awareness about environmental issues, and a principal weapon in the armoury is the use of innovative imagery and thought-provoking stories.  Several major projects have followed including 2020VISION, which set out to engage and enthuse the British public about the enormous benefits of restoring our natural habitats. The 2020VISION book, published in 2012, has been followed by theatre shows and exhibitions around the UK.

This naturally brought us on to the subject of changes to the environment and I asked what changes he had seen in the twenty years he has been a resident of the Cairngorms. His response was: “No great changes to be honest, and it’s too early to say that global warming has made a significant impact yet, although I’m sure there are underlying implications that will manifest in the years to come. The National Park status has brought more visitors which has implications in regards to increased pressure on some landscapes and wildlife populations.”

He then issued a slight warning to all of us photographers as a timely reminder that in our quest for the perfect photo, we might be inadvertently contributing to the problem. “Photography has also become much more popular in the last 15 years and there are now significant numbers of photographers visiting the area and again there are implications of this, in particular disturbance of some species.” He concludes: “Overall the increase in nature-based tourism is a good thing but there are factors to consider outside the more obvious economic benefits.”

Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) winter plumage male in flight

 Rewilding – the big picture

Mark primary focus now is Scotland: the Big Picture (STBP), a project which has at its core the rewilding of Scotland’s landscapes.  I asked Mark what piqued his interest in rewilding?

“It’s been a gradual transition really as I and those I work with have become more aware of the environment we live in and the environmental issues facing us as a society and the implications of these. Ecological restoration, or rewilding, has a major role to play in addressing some of these issues.”

As one of a hopefully growing band of people now interested in rewilding in Scotland, I was keen to get Mark’s views on the current challenges facing rewilding projects in Scotland. My own perceptions are that it is hindered by lack of awareness among the general public, misconceptions (including any deliberate attempts to spread adverse publicity) and a degree of remaining resistance from the agricultural and estate management community/industry, and of course lack of funding.  I asked Mark if I was anywhere near the mark with those thoughts.

Mark’s response was: “Yes, all of those hold. A lack of understanding of ecological processes is a major challenge and one which we at STBP are trying to address through our own work and for others. It’s important for people to know that there are problems that require solutions before those people will care and therefore take action.”

He sees the solution lying in: “Dealing in the truth in a respectful manner and providing people with the facts, identifying problems and offering solutions is what we feel is the way forward. Lack of funding is of course a major headwind for us as an organisation and for others working in this arena.”

This all rather gave rise to the question is rewilding justified in the face of economic “needs”. Responded Mark: “At the moment economics trumps everything but if we are to survive as a species then humans have to care for the planet which sustains us. Without a planet to live on and supply us with our basic requirements then we have no future, irrespective of how much money you may have in the bank. Rewilding has a significant role to play in this.”

Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo) mantling prey from rival bird (out of shot)

The Thunberg Effect?

And of course with regard to environmental issues these days it is almost impossible not to talk about the “Thunberg Effect”. I asked Mark one last question – is the future of rewilding in our hands or more in the hands of the next generation?

“It has to be in our hands right now.” He replied. “ A tree planted today is better than one planted tomorrow. Millennials are reported to be more switched on to the ethos of rewilding, climate change and the environment but it’s crucial that we all play our part.”

Continued Mark: “This is not a problem for the next generation to fix; they need to take a lead from decision makers today. But of course activists and campaigners will and can make a difference in terms of affecting policy at government level. Education from a young age is equally vital.”

Mark finished by saying: “Nature is telling us to make radical changes and the warning signs are all too obvious. Nature will survive in some shape or form I’m sure. I feel there are the signs of change for a better future for the environment but things may well get worse before they improve and before radical action is taken universally. There’s no turning back of the ecological clock though.”

Wise words indeed!

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus) adult in summer coat running across moorland


Snow-capped mountain (Lochnagar) at dawn, Scotland by Mark Hamblin