08 February 2022

Graham Catley - A Life in Photography

UEA Field Trip 70s
UEA 70s Field Trip. Full album on Facebook.

Graham Catley studied Environmental Sciences from 1972-1975. He has always been passionate about wildlife and photography, with his formative trips made while studying in Norwich. Graham has been kind enough to share some photos of these excursions. He also shares with us his thoughts on British wildlife and a life spent documenting our native UK species. Graham has a photography website and a blog page.

How did you first become interested in photography and wildlife?

My early interest in birds and wildlife came from a childhood in the countryside with bird’s egg collecting an initial and frequent pastime. Birds quickly became the centre of my interest and joining the Young Ornithologists Club, a junior offshoot of the RSPB, first led to meeting with like-minded teenagers on the Lincolnshire coast. Being befriended by some superb mentors in my local village pushed me into the realms of overly keen birdwatcher and developed my life-long passion. Photography started around the time I went to UEA with an affordable SLR camera. Film was expensive, though, along with food and beer essentials, so the number of slides produced was strictly limited. 

Why did you choose to study at UEA? 

Geography was my desired route into academia. The sound of the ENV course at UEA was interesting and diverse and of course Norwich was the centre of the British birdwatching universe; with easy access to the Norfolk coast, Brecks and Broads. It also was in reach of the hallowed hot spots of Walberswick and Minsmere in Suffolk that I had first encountered on an autumn trip in 1971. 

What are some of your favourite memories from studying in Norwich? 

I was based on the UEA campus in Waveney Terrace for three years (72 – 75). I had walkable access to Earlham Park with its Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and wintering thrush flocks and seeing my first ever Waxwings along the Colney roadside clearly formed a wildlife backdrop to the academic aspects of life. ENV at that time was a very small department and a bunch of fellow students fostered an interest in the wilder East Anglia, with Bird Club mini-bus trips often being mostly filled by ENV students. It was a good studying environment and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in ENV with hands on soil science trips being some of the highlights.

A 1973 UEA sponsored bird ringing expedition to Unst in the Shetlands saw us eating more donated steak and kidney puddings than was healthy and drinking water from a stream in which we later found a dead sheep!

I was not sporting by nature but in the 74-75 season a group of less than professional ENV members formed a 5-a-side football team that managed runner up status, to a team of UEA pros, in an indoor competition. 

Studying for finals in early June I carried my notes and books on the back of Duncan Brooks’ motorbike as we headed up to the North Norfolk woods to watch breeding Honey-buzzards. Duncan did the lion’s share of searching while I swatted between watches! The Bird Club trips to the Camargue and 1975 and the Pyrenees in 1976 were just as memorable for the human as well as bird related encounters and a springboard to later foreign travels. 

What have you been up to since graduating?

After leaving UEA full time bird watching gave way a career move in British Rail and its later derivatives. This provided lots of free time and long hours for birdwatching and photography and eventually saw me starting to do consulting work for various ecological organisations. I then set up my own bird survey business with regular clients including Environment Agency, Forest Enterprise, Associated British Ports and local councils. I have recently retired although I continue to monitor the Alkborough Flats Managed Realignment site (the largest such project in the UK at the time at 400 hectares) a project that I have undertaken since its inception in 2006. 

Pyrenees UEA Field Trip
Pyrenees UEA Field Trip

What wildlife and conservation trends have you studied while pursuing your passion?

Monitoring the development of the Alkborough Flats Managed Realignment over its first 15 years has been fascinating and has shown how rapidly estuarine environments can change. This has, of course, also been set against rapid changes in species abundance connected to the advancing effects of climate change. 
I have also studied breeding Marsh Harriers in North Lincolnshire for 30 years as well as monitoring the specialist heathland birds of Laughton forest, Nightjars, Woodlarks and Tree Pipits over a similar timescale. 

And over these years, what has been a highlight for you?

I have always had a passion for studying raptors, from the influxes of Rough-legged Buzzards in 1973-74 and 74-75 while at UEA, to the present day. Locating breeding birds has been one of my most rewarding and challenging pursuits. This culminated in finding breeding Montagu’s Harriers in what will probably be their last nesting area in Lincolnshire in 2012 and 2014 and proving breeding for the first time by Honey-buzzards and Goshawks in the county. Rare birds have also been at the forefront of my birding and in 2020 a singing Blyth’s Reed Warbler (on my local patch) became my 300th self-found species in Lincolnshire, a milestone never achieved by anyone else. 

What do you think the future holds of our native species?

Sadly, I fear we may well have passed the tipping point for saving many of our native species. While some species like herons and some waterfowl are clearly thriving, the scale of agricultural intensification appears unremitting, and recovery of most species seems unlikely, even if there is a sea change in political will. So many birds have now been lost and the food resources destroyed. Birds that I took for granted as a young birdwatcher like the Willow Tit and Turtle Dove are now all but extinct in Lincolnshire, something that would not have been thought possible even twenty years ago.

What can we do now to engage more with wildlife?

Educating youngsters from an early age is obviously key but the growing mass of people with ample spare time also need to be shown that wildlife is not just on Spring Watch and it needs their support and this needs to filter up to the politicians who drive the economy.  

Images ©Graham Catley


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