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Getting started with camera traps

At Scottish Wildcat Action, we use motion-sensitive trail cameras to help us keep track of wildcats, hybrids and feral cats living in the countryside. This helps us with our conservation efforts to save this rare and elusive native cat, as well as target stray and feral domestic cats for neutering and vaccination so they do not pose a threat to the wildcats. 

Trail cameras or "camera traps" have revolutionised how conservationists carry out their work. These cameras do not disturb the animal and we can get a good idea of their range and territory size if we see them on several cameras over an area. We use different types of food bait to encourage cats to stick around.

Photo: Scottish Wildcat Action labels all trail cameras

This piece of equipment has also become more affordable and it's a great way for wildlife enthusiasts to find out what's visiting their garden when they're not looking!

So how do you get started? Emma Rawling is one of our wildcat project officers and is no stranger to trail cameras. We used 347 of them last year in the biggest ever survey conducted for cats in Scotland. Here is some advice she gives to her volunteers when they are getting started with camera traps. 

1. Shop around - There are loads of suppliers so do some research. There are lots of specialist supplies advertised in wildlife magazines, most camera shops sell them, even occasionally bargain supermarket stores. Online retailers have the best selection.

2. Brand - Some of the best known makes are Bushnell, Spypoint, Ltl Acorn, Cuddeback and Crenova. All have some merits, so go for the features you want rather than brand.

3. Price - This varies, from under £100 to over £400 according to the model's features. Any camera can give you good results if used well but expect to pay between £100-200 for a fully serviceable cam with good features and decent quality images.

4. HD or not? This adds a lot to the cost but most of us do not need HD quality cameras. If you are just enjoying your shots and putting the odd picture on your social media don't worry about high definition.  

5. Fancy functions - Unless you really need them for a challenging situation, avoid the models with SIM card which send the pictures to your mobile phone- they are more costly to buy and run.

6. Video - Almost all models do photos and videos - some are better for one or the other in terms of quality. All will do colour in daytime and infrared at nighttime (i.e. in black and white).

7. Flash - Choose one with what is known as "Blacklight flash"  or “no glow” – most modern cams are. This means the nighttime, the flash is not visible to the animals so affects their behaviour less.

8. Preview screen - If possible choose a model with a preview screen on it- this enables you to check your camera positioning, and preview images on the card whilst still in the field and saves time and hassle.

9. SD cards - All camera traps store images on SD cards - be sure to buy 2 so you can swap them about. Choose one as large as you can afford if you want to leave the camera trap in place for more than a week at a time, or are using the video setting, to avoid them filling up and losing some data. You can use any type of SD card but remember if it’s been used in another machine (camera, other brand of camera trap) you will need to reformat it before use- easy to do on any computer with an SD card slot.

10. Batteries - most cameras use AA batteries, some 6 and some up to 12. Any good quality batteries will do, but if you plan to deploy the camera trap for long periods or in cold winter weather, Lithium batteries last longer though are more expensive. Rechargeable batteries can be used but often last less than a week.

Photo: Volunteer positions a trail camera (credit: Stuart Cant)

Setting up a camera trap

Always turn the camera trap off before removing or inserting an SD card to protect it from corruption. It helps to experiment in your garden before you use it further afield. Every camera trap has a slightly different ‘sweet spot’ – the distance from the camera where the image focus is best. You want to know what this is so you can tempt most animals into this zone. Try holding up a sign to check if you can read it and get to know the extent of your cameras ‘cone of view’- that is, how far right, left and in the distance it picks animals up.

Photo: Watch out for field signs like paw prints

Field signs

Know your target animals behaviour and use good old fashioned tracking skills to choose where to place your camera for best results. Be patient: often it takes a while for animals to behave normally around a new camera especially if it looks new or smells of humans or dogs. Remember you need landowner permission to deploy a camera trap. Add a label with your phone number to the camera if it’s likely to be seen and a lock or chain to prevent theft if necessary.

Your local biological records centre will be grateful for your species records. Scottish Wildcat Action has a report sightings form that will help our conservation work so if you see any cats on camera please report them here.

Good luck and have great fun! 

Scottish Wildcat Action is the first national project to save the highly endangered Scottish wildcat from extinction. It is a partnership involving over 20 organisations, including, Scottish Natural Heritage, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Government, as well as its partners.

Contact hello@scottishwildcataction.org for more information or visit our website at www.scottishwildcataction.org

Heritage Lottery Fund

This content was made possible by our Partners & Funders at Heritage Lottery Fund

By:

Image for Emma Rawling

Emma is responsible for the Strathbogie area and coordinating Scottish Wildcat Action's volunteers. She has previously worked as a wildlife ranger and warden, with species like red squirrels, ospreys and beavers, as well as being a vet nurse and working in animal welfare. She is based at the FES office near Elgin.

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07733 308002

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