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Bears & Wolves At Wild Ireland - November 2019

My Dad always talked fondly about his time in Canada many years ago when through a series of fortuitous events he got to photograph wild Grisly Bears on the Canadian Lakes. While sitting in a boat Bears swam around him and caught wild Salmon as he watched at close range, he said it was the best experience of his life. He has several photographs framed in the house and his old V8 camcorder footage was spectacular to watch. Ever since I've always wanted to photograph bears, I always figured it would happen sometime in the distant future, perhaps during a return trip to Canada so I thought nothing more of it. I was watching the news one October day when suddenly a new story caught my attention and it seemed the attention of everyone else in Ireland and in the media. The coverage was about a new animal sanctuary located within Burnfoot in Co. Donegal called 'Wild Ireland' and much to my amazement there was footage of Brown Bears and Grey Wolves within Donegal, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. As it turned out a solicitor turned zoologist called Killian McLaughlin had rescued a selection of wild animals which had been kept in cruel conditions and had now re-located them to Ireland where they could live a happier life, Killian explained that Bears and Wolves at once been native to Ireland but thanks to prolific hunting and deforestation both species had become extinct in this country, until now, the Bears and Wolves were back in Ireland, this would be his life long dream come true.

The story became big news with Wild Ireland opening to the public the following day, the story was featured on television, in newspapers, and all over social media and being such a positive story Wild Ireland became a sensation. I was adamant that I was going to visit, I wanted to get my very own personal images of Bears and Wolves in Ireland, I was already visualizing the images I wanted to get, the lens I would use and a rough idea of my camera settings, I was genuinely excited to witness these amazing animals. Roisin was just as excited as I was so we decided to pick a day which would suit us both and which would lend itself well to photography. Roisin and I choose Tuesday November 5th, being a week day we hoped we could avoid the weekend crowds, also the weather had potential with light winds and with broken cloud so I would just have to try my luck and hope for the best. Wild Ireland is open every day from 10am to 4pm so Roisin and I got up early, left Cookstown, stopped for a coffee at the Mid-Ulster Garden Centre in Maghera then made our way over the Glenshane Pass. We were both buzzing from the anticipation, we simply couldn't wait to see the Bears. Soon we passed over the Foyle Bridge in Derry/Londonderry and ventured north into Donegal, we took the back roads and arrived at Wild Ireland, we had made it.

Admission was 10 Euro per adult which is an absolute bargain in my opinion, all the money goes back into Wild Ireland to pay for the running of the sanctuary and for feeding and caring for the animals themselves. We entered a reception-shop-cafe combination and were greeted my Killian's Mother and Sister who were lovely people. Then Roisin and I were within the grounds, we followed the signs and took our time so we could experience everything. We watched Monkeys, several baby Goats, a Red Deer, a beautiful Lynx Cat then made our way to the Bears, with electric fences surrounding some of the enclosures it felt like being in Jurassic Park, we rounded a corner, the trail opened up, then suddenly we spotted our first Bears, our faces were lit up with smiles, we were like Children on Christmas morning.

Before us where three adult Brown Bears casually walking around the large enclosure. I reckon I was shooting images before my brain was even processing the information. I was in my photographer mind set, I was using my crop sensor Canon 600D with Canon 100-400mm F/5.6 IS lens which I considered to be my best combination for wild life scenes. The 100-400mm is great glass however its also 'slow' glass, once you start zooming in on a scene in low light or under overcast skies the lens tends to under perform. By that I mean the image looks rather dark so in order to get a brighter exposure at a longer focal length I need to raise the ISO or slow the shutter speed, or both. Slowing the shutter helps but then you can get motion blur from the animals themselves or from camera shake so there's only so far you can get away with this, so the next option with a crop sensor camera is to raise the ISO.

This will make the sensor more sensitive however it also increases digital noise. I ended up using ISO800 to 1600 for most of the Bear images and a shutter speed between 300th/sec to 500th/sec. The settings varied naturally depending on if the Bear was stationary or moving and on the cloud cover, at times the overcast cloud broke allowing good pockets of warm sunshine in which really helped the light so I was very busy adjusting my settings constantly in manual to accommodate the situation, I was also observing and taking in the experience at the same time. These are the Female Bears, what a sight walking towards you.

I was watching the Bears approach through the viewfinder waiting for the rite moment, at times they would have their snouts in the ground questing but once they raised their heads I was ready to press the shutter, looking straight at me here, imagine meeting this in the wild!

One of the other Females, they were walking a lot which was great to see, they seemed to keep themselves busy exercising. To think that not so long ago these three Bears were kept in a tiny cell with bars like a prison with other Bears with little in the way of room to move, they were used to attract visitors into a museum in Lithuania, cruel and depressed, what a terrible life they had. Now they are walking freely outside in Ireland and happy, this must have been like a beach to them compared to the life they had before.

I wanted to get good up close and personal images of their faces to capture the emotion, it also made me feel like I was in there with them. The Bears were actually at fairly close range, you could still get good images with a kit lens or even a mobile phone if you timed it rite.

I still couldn't believe I was looking at Bears in Ireland, it really was a dream come true, Roisin was in her element snapping away. People arrived constantly to marvel at the animals and take selfies.

I'm no expert on Bears so I don't know if this one is Male or Female, however she looks Female to me, if I get it wrong pass no remarks. During this visit the Bears had not been named yet however at the time of writing a facebook poll has been completed and their new names will be announced soon.

This Bear was amusing to watch, while the others walked around she sat on this elevated position with her back to the crowd and became fixated on something in the distance. She was like this for a good 30 minutes, we wondered what she was up to. Later I found out why, Killian was preparing fruit and treats for the Bears and since the breeze was from the north this day the Bear could smell the food being prepared!, how cool is that, they must have a superb sense of smell as Killian wasn't even visible to us at this time.

Look at her face, she knows treats are coming

Nose to the air taking in the wonderful scent of fruit which would be coming her way soon

Then one of the other Bears climbed upon this tree stump and began sniffing the air too

Cool pose, I was delighted to get an action scene, looking into my eyes again, hope she didn't see me as a big apple. The cloud thickened, Roisin and I had been so engrossed we didn't notice that two hours had passed. It began to rain and was getting cold so we went back to the tea room for a hot beverage and snack and waited for the shower to pass.

Once we were sufficiently warmed up and re-energized we went back through the sanctuary one more time. The shower had passed and the sun came out bringing with it magical golden hour light. We went to the Wolf Pack and they were showing off, their owner Killian was walking about and they were watching his every move. I have never seen a wild Wolf before, to think these used to roam the ancient forests of Ireland years ago is amazing.

His name is Oisin and he's a beauty, I could sense his intelligence.

Perched on the entrance to their den and watching Killian like a hawk, he seldom took his eyes off him. There are three Wolves here, currently they are only five months old and yet they look big already. Killian had raised all three Wolves since they were cubs.

This is Finn, he's so domesticated, Killian goes into their den and they accept him as part of the pack, they lick and play with him like a pet dog, it's amazing to watch.

What a beauty Finn is. Killian was now going around the enclosures giving a talk and the crowds followed him, they had just arrived at the Wolf den so I figured photography would be difficult with the crowds blocking my view, I decided I would come back to Finn before sunset, now would be a good time to get another look at the Bears as the crowds were currently engaged.

Later Killian had appeared from inside the caged area and threw treats into the Bear sanctuary then came out to watch, the crowd now approached the Bears so I decided to stay and listen. Killian gave a great talk about the history and current behavior of these animals and answered questions from the public which was fascinating to listen to. It was obvious Killian was an expert on his subject but more than that his passion is what stood out the most, he really loved and cared for these animals and that moved me, I knew then that Wild Ireland was a very positive place and would have a prosperous and colourful future. Killian explained how the Bears love fruit, to them it was like sweets, they always sourced fresh fruit and vegetables every day, they loved pears, apples and oranges, they even had a pumpkin with honey and fruit inside for Halloween.

The three Bears came back into the viewing area to eat their fruit, some of which had fallen into the water. We learned that these Bears never had learned to swim because of their time in captivity so they tended to be nervous around water and had yet to build their confidence. This one really wanted his fruit though, he/she climbed up on the log and leaned over with one great paw reaching down to grab a pair. It was such a cute and funny scene, however the pair was always out of reach and kept bobbing around just beyond her grasp.

So she took the chance and went into the water to retrieve the pair which provided me with some action shots.

She has it in her right paw now, success, but the waves in the water have revealed another pair emerging from under the log

She went back for that one too, she's a happy girl now

Then she went back in a third time to make sure there wasn't any more fruit. I'm sure it won't be long before they are swimming again going by these antics.

Roisin stayed with the Bears while I went back to the Wolves. The light was perfect, warm golden hour bliss and Finn was laying on the den content in a perfect position with sunshine on one side of his face, a perfect photo opportunity, the wait had been worth it.

Portrait version

My last image of the day, I still couldn't believe I was this close to a Wolf of this beauty. My photo shoot had been a complete success, we ended up spending four hours here and how fast time had flown in. I ended up with 840 images taken so these are my personal favourites from the shoot. I was quite content with my images until Roisin showed me her best image. Using her mobile phone she had captured one of the Bears standing upright on two legs in full sunshine, it was a brilliant capture and just shows what patience and a phone camera can do when all the elements converge.

Roisin and I had a wonderful time at Wild Ireland, we loved the animals and the great cause, we are very supportive of anyone who helps animals so we knew we were in good company with Killian and his family who were all very friendly and helpful. The current enclosures are just phase one, there are plans to expand the paddocks into a massive area for the animals in the near future once sufficient funding as been reached. Read more about Wild Ireland via their website and give them a visit and show them your support, you won't regret it. I plan on returning soon myself for more imagery and perhaps some video footage, Roisin and I wish Wild Ireland a great future, thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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