Carl Reavey Interviews Gordon Yates

This year Gordon Yates and his wife Pauline will be presenting 'An Arctic and Hebridean Odyssey', the first half of which is shot in Greenland and Spitzbergen with some lovely shots of walrus, bearded seals, and exotic birds such as the ivory gull. The second half will be tour around some of the other Hebridean islands with footage from Arran, Jura, Colonsay and Skye. The many hundreds of Ilich who have previously been to a Gordon Yates film show will need no persuasion to return, but if you have never been and have even a passing interest in wildlife, then please do come to the INHT on Thursday evening 19th February for what is one of the natural history highlights of the year.

Wildlife photographer Gordon Yates has visited Islay some eighty times since 1976, shooting hundreds of hours of film concentrating largely on the island’s spectacular birdlife. He now spends an average of ten weeks a year here, splitting his time between his native Lancashire where he films wildlife among the Pennine Hills he loves, and journeys to more exotic locations.

Gordon was first introduced to the wonders of nature at the age of four by his father who had a 'mild interest' in natural history. He was held up to peer into the nest of a hedge sparrow and Gordon still remembers being amazed by the delicate moss-lined structure holding four lovely blue eggs. His interest was also developed through watching those early ground-breaking natural history programmes; particularly 'Look ' with Peter Scott which first showed the revolutionary 'Woodpeckers' film shot by the German photographer Heinz Seilmann. Seilmann had filmed the interior of woodpeckers nests by cutting away the back of the nesting tree’s trunk - and put together a half hour programme, in black and white, which caused an absolute sensation at the time. It received viewer ratings similar to the FA Cup final. Continue reading.....Seilmann, and a British stills photographer called Eric Hosking (who famously lost his left eye when attacked by a tawny owl he was attempting to photograph) were a major influence on the young Gordon Yates, who later in life was himself to suffer several attacks from irascible owls - on one occasion having the glasses ripped from his face in what must have been a very close shave.
While he admired these great pioneers, Gordon never dreamed that he could carve a career for himself from natural history. He never had the opportunity to attend university and after school started working in a bank. He obtained his first camera (an Ilford 'Sportsman') when he was sixteen, and when his young family came along support from his mother-in-law enabled him to purchase his first cine - he told her he was going to film the grandchildren growing up!! It wasn’t long however before he was out there in the woods taking his first filmed sequence, that of a nest of baby woodcock hatching. Anyone who knows anything about birdwatching will realise just how difficult it is to even find a woodcock’s nest, let along film the young hatching, so I put it to Gordon that this had been an ambitious first foray. 'You have to have a certain ambition in this game.' he told me. 'But it is actually impossible to plan a wildlife film if you are simply a one-man operation. 'What I have had to do is build up a stock of material over a number of years - I generally reckon to be working about ten years ahead of myself, gradually building up archives which enable the production of one film a year. I have now produced 38 in 38 years. If you are the BBC Natural History Unit then you do of course have teams of researchers who can do the donkey work, it is difficult to describe the feeling of excitement however when, after hundreds of hours of carefully scanning the leaf strewn floor of a wood, you finally spot the lovely liquid eye of a sitting woodcock with its long beak buried in the litter.'

I asked Gordon if he had particular target birds to film this year: 'I am hoping for some more footage of short eared owls - and if I am lucky perhaps a lesser spotted woodpeckers nest. These tiny woodpeckers are a really difficult subject - I have only found eight nests in the last ten years and those that I do find tend to fail because of predation by blue tits of all things. The poor little woodpecker works very hard to excavate a hole in a tree, then as soon as it is finished a blue tit comes along and pinches it. They don’t seem to be able to defend themslves againt this nest predation and I think this may be a major reason why they are becoming so rare.'

Gordon released his first DVD last year, a film shot on video about Islay which has so far sold almost 1,500 copies. I asked him how the change from film to video had affected his techniques. 'I was eventually forced to make the change to shooting video because Kodak no longer produce the film I used. I now wish I had made the switch years ago. Video is vastly cheaper. I was spending around £2,000 a year on film - I now shoot around 50 hours a year on digital video and it costs me around £100. That is a huge difference. Video is also much more versatile, you can film in really low light conditions.' Mr Yates is a man with a permanent twinkle in the eye and he tells me: ' When I worked in the bank I often used to wonder if anyone noticed how often I would have to have my troublesome teeth filled on sunny mornings - which involved my being late for work. I never visited the dentist when it was raining. If I had had video back then I could have, er, visited the dentist no matter what the weather!'

Now retired from the bank, Gordon delivers around eighty film shows a year to various natural history groups around the country. His first film show on Islay was back in 1981 in Bowmore - a fundraiser for the swimming pool which he recalls banked £100 for the fledgling project - a tidy sum back then. I asked him what it was that first brought him to Islay and he says that after dragging his long suffering wife Pauline round various rain sodden Hebridean islands, they finally gave Islay a try, loved it, and the rest is history. Pauline is now an integral part of the film making process as editor-in-chief, a role that is increasingly important with the shift into a digital format.

This story was published with kind permission of the Ileach local newspaper.

Tag: wildlife photography video

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