How to set-up and deploy remote wildlife cameras

Badgers recorded at a sett using a remote wildlife camera

Badgers recorded at a sett using a remote wildlife camera

So you’ve just bought your new remote wildlife camera - brilliant! Now it's time to head straight into the field to see what amazing beasts lurk in your neighbourhood…..or is it?!

Practecology has spent hours looking at specifications of remote cameras prior to deciding on which one to purchase. Yes, the more you spend often gives you a technically better camera with a lower trigger speed, higher detection range and better illumination. However, this is only half the story.

Despite the availability of camera reviews on the internet there did not appear to be much advice on using them. To avoid looking at blurry images, swaying grass or worst of all, nothing, Practecology put together this top ten list of things to consider before deploying your camera.

We hope you find it useful!

1. Spend as much as you can

The price you pay will be reflected in quality and number of images you capture so the more you can invest the better rewarded you will be. To get information to inform protected species then you should invest in the highest specification possible. The following links show the breadth and specification of cameras available to photograph and film wildlife.

2. Test Your Camera

You should always trial your camera set up before you deploy it in the field. Use a test subject and work with various settings, heights and angles to maximise its effectiveness - the neighbours cat may be an invaluable assistant! It is also a good time to confirm the camera actually works - if not, then send it back and get a replacement.

3. Security

Determine the need for security before you deploy your camera - a stolen camera will give you no footage! Python cable locks and metal boxes are an excellent deterrent - but make sure you buy the correct size of lock or box! Avoid using cameras if there is a risk of them being stolen.

4. Wildlife Legislation

Remember that some species are legally protected against disturbance (e.g. otter, badger). Make sure you have considered any licensing requirements before you embark on photography - especially if you intend to site your camera close to burrows, den sites or setts.

5. Location

It is probably best to avoid public areas, footpaths and areas close to human habitation. Ideally avoid streams and rivers as they can rise unexpectedly due to heavy rain many miles further upstream. Not only may your camera get wet and be unusable it could also get washed away!

The best place to site your camera will of course be on wildlife paths, in particular where paths cross fences, walls, ditches or through hedges. Identifying likely burrows, dens or territorial marking posts and including them in your field of view is ideal but again bare in mind possible legislation.

It is also worth remembering that you have to return to collect your cameras so don’t put them in very remote places unless committed to recovering them!

6. Camera Position

The height of your camera will largely depend on what species you are hoping to see. if you are hoping to photograph large animals such as deer you don’t want your camera a foot off the ground, and vice versa for small species like mustelids.

Cameras positioned along tracks may work best if placed 3-5m from the track and at an angle of roughly 45oas this gives enough time for the shutter to trigger as the animal moves towards or away from the camera. If you place it perpendicular to the track then a fast moving animal may have passed by the time the shutter triggers.

If focusing on marking posts or burrows try to position your camera so that it includes as much of the surrounding area as possible, as well as at an angle which includes the path leading up to it. If an animal detects human presence near its burrow then it may not venture all the way to the entrance and trigger the camera.

It is important to maximise the field of view of your camera. Some cameras have range capabilities in excess of 20m so facing the camera into a slope, towards a wall or large tree will reduce the likelihood of detecting an animal further from the camera.

Carrying a stake with you to position the camera in your preferred place removes the need to rely on trees - which more often than not always seem to be too big, too small, or in the wrong place!

Poor location selection due to limited range - but  can you see the shrew!

Poor location selection due to limited range - but can you see the shrew!

A remote wildlife camera placed at this otter holt could get washed away in high water

A remote wildlife camera placed at this otter holt could get washed away in high water

7. Interference and Disturbance

Think about features which may interfere with the quality of your images or produce no useful images. Swaying branches and moving grass are common problems. A small pair of secateurs to cut back vegetation is a useful tool to carry. Think also about moon phase, sunset, aircraft flight lines, and the local road layout as any change in light hitting the camera could trigger the shutter.

There will always be the want to return to your camera to check it is still working. However, if it is positioned correctly, well hidden, has a suitable battery life and large enough SIM card then leave it as long as you can. Scheduling a visit every 6 weeks is reasonable.

Avoid creating paths to your camera, not least this may put off your target species, but it may cause third parties to investigate and discover your equipment.

Branches obscuring image and triggering camera - but can you see the badger?

Branches obscuring image and triggering camera - but can you see the badger?

8. Camera Settings

Capturing stills or video can be a hard decision to make. Do you choose lifeless still images on which you cannot detect motion or do you capture video which can be enthralling to watch? However, using video will drain the batteries and fill up the SIM card faster - a real problem if the camera is triggered by moving grass.

To determine the presence of a species then stills are sufficient, whereas if you wish to know if a burrow is being used then video is best. Video will also allow you to interpret an animals behaviour close to the burrow. Also, if you have too long an interval setting your still images may not show groups of animals if their approach to or from a burrow is staggered.

Some of the more advanced cameras have a hybrid mode which allows for both still and video capture and is by far the best option.

Trigger interval and video duration depend largely on the purpose of your work and how long you intend to leave the camera in the field. It is also dependent on battery life and SIM card size so make sure you buy good batteries and a SIM with a high storage specification. If you just want to get some interesting stills then choose the highest image capture setting with a short trigger interval - say 5 seconds.

Using a short trigger interval on video will maximise your return for when an animal ventures into the field of view, but be careful not to select too long a recording time. The animal may have triggered the camera when walking past leaving you with lots of additional blank footage to review. A 15-20 second recording time is usually sufficient to get meaningful footage.

The problem with stills.....can you see the animal?

The problem with stills.....can you see the animal?

9. Data Management

It is important that you keep a note of where your images have come from, the time of day, the species recorded and the duration your camera was deployed. This will be key in presenting information in licence applications but it will also allow you to see if one of your cameras is faulty. A camera which repeatedly provides no images may be broken rather than there being no wildlife around. Delete images which contain nothing and give those a file-name which do.

Don’t underestimate the time it takes to review footage, especially if you have been recording in video mode. It is important to view each video in full and concentrate on the background. Animals may have triggered the camera but have moved just outside the area illuminated by the infra red lights. Look for eye reflection and moving dark shapes in the background.

10. Interpreting Signs

Try to interpret the images you see, whether on stills or videos. For instance can you identify individual animals by their size or physical features (tears in ears or patterns in pelage) or even idiosyncrasies in their behaviour?

Be prepared for the unexpected! Some species can turn up in the strangest of places and it can be difficult to identify a running animal in the dark so keep an open mind and don’t make quick assumptions.

This cat appeared at a remote badger sett

This cat appeared at a remote badger sett

Fox or deer? Sometimes it's not easy to tell!

Fox or deer? Sometimes it's not easy to tell!

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