Twelve months in the making and the first project of its kind for the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Slimbridge abandons the more curatorial, library-focused methodologies of wildlife sound recording in pursuit of experiences; hidden sounds, encountered during moments of transition and flux.
Recorded throughout the main WWT Slimbridge wetland reserve, the unique sound portraits making up the project were mostly captured using small, omnidirectional microphones attached to/concealed within a range of objects and surfaces: reeds, trees, hedges, fences and walls were all utilised, bringing unique sets of challenges in terms of microphone placement, camouflage and protection from the ever-changing weather around the Severn Estuary.
Despite the inherent risks and difficulties, this approach allowed for smooth, organic sound capture, unaffected by the presence of the recordist. As I listened from a distance, a series of unique moments emerged: fly-bys, vocalisations, atmospheres, and internal perspectives that would normally pass unnoticed.
The portraits should be regarded as part of a collective listening experience: a deeply interwoven sonic fabric, occurring within the wider soundscape of the reserve.
We are an inescapable part of this, and whilst human activity is often perceived as a hindrance to wildlife sound recording, I found myself taking advantage of anthropogenic sound on several occasions to contextualise my work and offer a better-developed, more representative sense of place.
What Sir Peter Scott may have regarded as the edges of the canvas are, then, in Slimbridge, points beyond the microphone(s): surroundings with depth and atmosphere, both 'natural' and man-made. It was fascinating to absorb these environments as they developed and evolved concurrently around the subjects I was attempting to capture.
Extended recording projects are rarely possible without the patience and support of close family and friends: my thanks to all. I am also indebted to the many WWT Slimbridge staff and volunteers who provided invaluable help and advice over the course of the year; in particular, I would like to thank Dave Paynter for granting access to parts of the reserve normally off-limits to the public, and Martin McGill for offering general advice about species as well as suggestions regarding microphone placement.
Please consider joining WWT to help support its vital conservation work globally. The world has lost roughly half of its wetlands over the last 100 years, mostly due to drainage for agriculture and housing; this puts thousands of unique species at risk, including our own. Wetlands are a vital source of drinking water, and play an equally vital role in filtration and flood protection: these universal human benefits alone surely make them worth protecting.
Before you listen, consider this: there is a high probability — based on political developments since early 2016, and recent evidence submitted from the scientific and conservation community — that many wetland species will be virtually inaudible throughout the UK within the next few decades. This is not fantasy; it is a very real possibility. According to the State of Nature report 2016, 56% of UK species declined between 1970 and 2013, and this looks set to continue unless we fundamentally change our approach to nature.
Years from now, I hope Slimbridge serves as an incentive for others to explore what still exists, as opposed to a preservation or record of what can no longer be heard.
Bristol, May 2017