Photographing nature's secrets: the story of a rewilding project

A wildlife photographer shares her journey documenting a rewilding project, celebrating the biodiversity of nature through the lens.
A barn owl, photographed as part of a rewilding project, glides over treetops with its wings outstretched.

Windswept clifftops, lakeside marshes and peaceful forests – natural habitats appeal to wildlife and landscape photographers with the patience to chronicle the gradual change and growth through the seasons. Sometimes, though, photography can record and celebrate an even more profound change over time, such as the rewilding of an abandoned quarry as it is reclaimed by nature.

Gayle, the photographer behind Natured Secrets, has a passion for biodiversity and rewilding green spaces. She has documented the slow growth of a UK rewilding project on her doorstep and hopes that her work might inspire others to give a small area of their own gardens back to nature.

A rewilding photography project with history

Multicoloured drifts of heather connect a garden to the hillside beyond, with blue sky in the background.

"To merge the garden into the landscape and to bind the hillside, we planted drifts of heather," explains Gayle. "We mixed it with grasses and birch trees to reflect the surrounding moorland, so it blended into the landscape. All the rock that helped build the steps, the heather banks, the paths and the walls is from the land." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens at 45mm, 1/1000 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 160. © Natured Secrets

The story began 20 years ago when Gayle planted a woodland beside her home in the Pennine mountain range in North West England, turning a disused quarry and former mink farm into a flourishing wildlife haven.

Now, as the landscape has welcomed animals and plant life back, it is fulfilling Gayle's ambition – a "journey of hope" – to have no boundaries between her garden and this restored area, creating a truly wild place.

"When we arrived, I wanted to give this open site a 'sense of place', to connect my relationship with this location to the environment," says Gayle, who also has an MSc in Conservation Science and Ecology from Lancaster University. "The original landscape had been transformed by industrial activity, leaving a wasteland. But since quarrying ended, the site has seen the beginning of a return to nature. A rebirth.

"We began by emulating this transformation and anchoring whatever garden we could create within the landscape, where there was no visible boundary between one and the other. I never really thought we would have a garden as such. We were just 'taming nature'."

As the land is slowly beginning to recover, Gayle sees the journey as perfect for a long-term photography project. "I studied at Chelsea School of Botanical Art for a couple of years, and I always felt [the land] deserved to be documented," she says. "That might be in different journals and on a micro website, but for me it is a split between the science and the creativity. That's where I hoped my photographs could be a little different.

"Our abandoned quarry carries the scars of our industrial past, but steadily the land is being reclaimed by nature. As custodians of an area with a breathtaking mix of history, industry, geology, wildlife and flora, I am keen to record the land's journey, development and biodiversity growth, using photography as a log."

Connecting with nature through the lens

A young roe buck is partially hidden amongst long grasses.

"Not long before this shot was taken, we discovered that we had lost our stag from our roe deer herd," says Gayle. "We decided this young roe buck, who suddenly appeared in the camera lens, was our new contender to lead the herd. The buck has just grown his first set of antlers." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 200. © Natured Secrets

A young kestrel chick sits on a tree branch, surrounded by greenery.

Gayle has a kestrel box positioned on a pole in a pasture next to a small woodland. "This is our first young kestrel chick to fledge from the nearby nest box," she says. "One of the parents was supplying food in these treetops, as the chick has yet to learn how to hunt." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 640. © Natured Secrets

The area is now bustling with wildlife including brown hares, bumblebees, skylarks, curlews, lapwings, common blue damselflies, kestrels and roe deer, making it easy to see why it has become a photographer's paradise. The colourful range of wetland, grassland and woodland scrub alongside a flower-rich hay meadow has attracted plenty of diverse wildlife.

"Over the last 20 years, we have helped regenerate the land, exposing freshwater springs to enhance the large wetland valleys and link existing rock-faced ponds to a series of new unlined ponds," says Gayle.

"We've planted native deciduous forests, watching them grow and slowly become drenched in velvet mosses to provide a lush, green feel all year round to support an abundance of life. Branches and trunks are heavily caked in moss that resembles miniature lost worlds when encountered close-up and magnified."

If you choose to document your own project, perhaps a corner of your garden that you've given back to nature, make sure you have the right camera and lens. Gayle uses her Canon EOS 6D Mark II, paired with one of her macro lenses, to capture these tiny worlds. "The camera gives us the ability to be at one with a specific organism, whether it be a close-up flower, an insect or the spores on the back of a fern," she says. "You start to see things that you've never noticed before, and that's made me more aware of how you can become more connected with nature through the lens."

Learning to 'see' with the camera

Common blue damselflies rest on pondweed, with shades of blue and green reflected in the water below.

Photographed at the quarry's large top pond, common blue damselflies are seen here resting on the scarce red pondweed, Potamogeton alpinus. The pondweed is considered vulnerable in England as it is normally found further north in the Scottish Highlands. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM) at 330mm, 1/320 sec, f/6.3 and ISO 200. © Natured Secrets

Two owlets in the window of a stone barn, while a third owl sits on the roof above them.

"This is the owl barn in the top field – it's a restored dry stone construction," says Gayle. "The barn is nestled into the hillside, so the fledglings can easily jump onto the grassy banks." Taken on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens at 1/800 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 2500. © Natured Secrets

This connection has been strengthened since a family of barn owls has appeared following restoration work to a barn, which Gayle and dry-stone wall craftsmen rebuilt using stone found at the former quarry. It's now a new home for birdlife.

"Learning to 'see' through my camera and waiting quietly for the barn owls to emerge allows me to observe more," Gayle says. "I notice the movement of the grasses, the change in the light, the moths, the birds, and the flowers they touch. Momentarily I become the prey when the lens picks up the talons as it circles above, then the narrative shifts when I move. I become the hunter."

Gayle uses a second full-frame DSLR camera with a selection of longer EF lenses. By keeping one camera body for her macro lenses and another for her telephotos, she never misses a moment while having to change lenses. These tools help her capture dramatic skies and birds in flight, such as the owls, with the image stabilisation being particularly important since she doesn't use a tripod.

"I need the reach of my fabulous EF 600mm f/4L IS III USM to get up close to the owls," she says. "I'm a long way away on the site here and there's no cover, so I can't just sit and feel that I'm going to see a deer or a bird up close. It's even hard to photograph a robin because the trees are so big. You know you're going to get the best shots with the 600mm because it's crisp, as it's a fixed lens, whereas the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM gives me the ability to zoom in and out so I can capture the bird if it's moving or coming towards me. I've got the distance."

Documenting rewilding now and in the future

A close-up of the green and white flower heads of a wild carrot plant, a meadow out of focus in the background.

"These plants are growing on our spoil heaps in and around the quarry. We love the white lacy umbels of the wild carrot in high summer," says Gayle. "But later in mid-August the little green, bean-like seed pods invert as they dry and the flower heads tightly curl into a concave bird's nest." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 320. © Natured Secrets

A close-up of a bumblebee hovering amongst thistles and grass.

"All I can do is leave this land in a better state than I found it," says Gayle. "That's my challenge, to continue improving it. I'm just keen to track it, so that we can see the difference." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 153mm, 1/1000 sec, f/5 and ISO 640. © Natured Secrets

Gayle has also documented the rewilding project through surveys, flower pressing, preserving plants in alcohol, and sketching and watercolour painting. Ultimately, though, she enjoys the little moments with the wildlife that has gravitated to this spot, and is passionate about the benefits of interacting with nature for one's mental health. "Looking through the camera on those early mornings allows the inhalation of calm and tranquility," she explains. "I can imprint that state of mind by sharing this imagery on social media, assisting others with the experience of glimpsing the beauty that surrounds us."

She encourages anybody thinking of creating a similar project to begin with a few trees or shrubs to attract birds and insects. "Always plant trees if you can," she advises. "You don't need much space – in six or seven years you will have a woodland and you'll be able to walk around and feel the space."

Written by Lorna Dockerill

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