John Johnson weighs up the pros and cons of stalking and shooting deer – with a trail camera
So we’ve established that trail cams, or ‘camera traps’, can be used by stalkers or anyone who wants to see what is going on in a particular location for 24 hours seven days a week. For instance, they can help if we want to know whether the tell-tale scrape at the bottom of a frayed hazel sapling is the work of a buck of a lifetime or a suitable cull buck that would be perfect for the freezer.
Trail cams have been used in the USA for some years, and have brought about a whole new way to enjoy stalking. There are three main types of these devices. At the top of the tree is the professional device used by scientists on projects. These are often custom-built and based on expensive digital SLR cameras. If you want a no-hassle piece of equipment that will just do the job, then the solution is one of the mass-produced pieces of kit – freely available in the US and with limited availability in the UK. The cost varies from under £100 to well over £400.
When choosing the camera you need to consider four things: trigger time; the range of the infrared sensor; battery life; and after-dark illumination. Trigger time is how long it takes to record the first picture once the infrared sensor has registered the presence of a possible animal in range. It’s no good having a set-up that takes three seconds or more to get a picture when the possible target has moved out of camera shot. Three seconds does not seem a long time, but if you study a sequence of three consecutive shots you may be surprised how much can happen in five or six seconds. Study the sequence of photographs of the buck shown here. In the time the camera has taken to trigger the first shot, the buck has reached the hazel sapling. In the subsequent two shots the buck has moved closer and is scent marking. The camera resets itself and is ready to take the next sequence within one minute, though by this time the buck has moved on. This sequence was captured using a ScoutGuard 550, which has a trigger time of around 1.5 seconds. I would suggest that it is best to ignore any trail cam with a trigger time in excess of two seconds.
The range of the infrared sensor and the width of the area within which it can detect movement are also important. The average is 30 to 40ft, with only the most expensive cameras reaching 50ft. Third is battery life. The first trail cam I purchased – for around £80 – had a battery life of a week, which I considered pretty poor. I like a battery to last for a couple of weeks minimum.
The last aspect to consider is after-dark illumination. This falls into two categories: incandescent flash or infrared. A camera with infrared capabilities will automatically switch into this mode when the daylight drops below the necessary amount. Cameras that can switch between still pictures and video mode will generally only have infrared lighting capabilities. The majority of infrared cameras operate within the visible range. That means the human eye can detect the glow of the emitters if in the direct eyeline of the unit. Most trail cams have a resolution of three megapixels, and some even have five and above. But don’t be disappointed when the results of a three or five megapixel camera don’t show anywhere near the clarity or depth of picture of a normal digital camera. This is due to a combination of the lens and image capture technology used in the mass-produced trail cams.
Once you have chosen your equipment, where you site it is critical. Like with any other camera, placing and lighting is the way to get the best shots. Do not place it directly at the rising or setting sun. If you do, the picture of your animal will be at best over-exposed and at worst a complete whiteout. Position the camera at waist height to avoid perfect close-ups of rabbits! Once placed, leave the area undisturbed for at least a week. Do not be tempted to revisit and disturb the site. When you do return, make the visit as short as possible. All the pictures are captured to a standard SD-format memory card, so just carry a spare card and do a quick change. If you have the luxury of more than one camera it should be possible to track movement and analyse movement patterns. In the case of a specific roebuck this should be comparatively easy; for groups of fallow deer it will be slightly more difficult. It will make the task easier if you study either individual still sequences or even short video clips. Take note of the groups’ composition. If the fallow deer in your area vary in colour, note the different individuals in the groups. Not only will you get a better idea of how and when deer move through, it will also help you get to know how many may be present.
Once you have got the equipment and seen the results, you may still want the same quality of beautiful high-resolution pictures taken using a modern digital camera, but without the cost of the professional pieces of kit. This is a little more technically involved, and I wouldn’t be doing anyone any favours by trying to explain the entire process here. However, if this is something you would be interested in doing, there is an option: the Homebrew. These are assembled from parts sourced in the US and combined with a modified digital camera. The main component in this type of set-up is the digital camera, plus a ready-built control board and a suitable weatherproof case. Various suppliers in the US can provide all of the necessary bits, and then it just takes some fine handiwork and delicate soldering skills to hack the camera – that is, switch its photo capabilities with a superior system. You can find much more detailed instructions, as well as all the retailers needed, on the internet. But beware: a hack that goes wrong may leave you with a totally destroyed digital camera. Once you have seen the images included here, though, taken by Tim Walter with his homebrew camera, you may think the risk worthwhile.