Morrey Salmon: the father of British bird photography

A few months ago I went to visit Norman Salmon, a retired Army major living in Ashcott. He talked about his life in the military, particularly his involvement in the Korean war; he also told me about his later pursuit of his future wife, which led him to southern Africa and to cross half of Europe to re-unite with her: a wonderful Cold War romance that would grace a movie! As I was leaving, he showed me some photos of his father, Morrey Salmon, who had risen to the rank of colonel whilst serving in World War 2 with the RAF regiment – but whose real passion was as a pioneer of wildlife photography.

I was fascinated and found a copy of his book, which he co-wrote with Geoffrey Ingram in 1934, “Birds in Britain today”. A few weeks later Norman gave me a copy of the biography he and his brother had written about their illustrious father, which gave me some of  his background.

Morrey Salmon, holding a juvenile puffin on Skokholm

Morrey Salmon, who was born in 1891, had a distinguished military career in two world wars. One of his most notable achievements came near the end of the first world war, when he led the liberation of the small French town of Bry. His company came under heavy gunfire, and they lost 24 soldiers in the conflict, but he was determined to persevere and succeeded in taking and securing the town even with a depleted company. Norman visited Bry over ninety years later, and was honoured in a civic ceremony as the son of their chief liberator.

Between the wars he worked in his father’s business, South Wales India Rubber Company, but joined up again at the start of the second world war. He was the Commander of the RAF Regiment in North Africa, and then rose to the rank of colonel for the invasion of Sicily, before ultimately taking overall charge of the RAF regiments for the invasion of Italy.

For all this, it was nature that was his greatest passion. He was avidly interested in photography from an early age, and took his first photograph of a bird in 1909. He joined the Cardiff Naturalists in 1910, and two years later started its Photographic section. In 1914 some of his photos appeared in a major exhibition in London.

Morrey_Salmon_RBS1crmed

Photo of a red-backed shrike at a nest in Wales. This is of considerable historical interest because this species no longer breeds in the UK.

He used much of his spare time in the inter-war years in the countryside, observing and photographing wildlife. His chief companion in this was Geoffrey Ingram, and the two of them eventually wrote a book together, “Birds of Britain today”. It’s a fascinating record of the birdlife in the UK at the time, and the comparison between the 1930s and now is quite revealing.

For example, I was intrigued to see a substantial entry on the red-backed shrike, complete with a photograph of a male on a nest. It was then a regular breeding bird throughout the UK, although sparsely distributed: it happened that there were several pairs near them in South Wales which they were able to observe at close quarters on many occasions. However, they wrote that “Our own view is that it is becoming, or indeed has become much scarcer, especially in the western districts which we know so well.” This was a perceptive observation: red-backed shrikes ceased breeding altogether in the UK by 1989. There have been a few signs of hope since then – for example with two pairs breeding on Dartmoor in 2010 [ref1;ref2] – but this is still very far from their widespread distribution in the early part of the twentieth century.

Peregrine falcon feeding her youngsters on her cliff-face eyrie

Today, the way for a wildlife photographer to get a close shot of a bird would be to use a big zoom lens – but when Morrey Salmon was active, such lenses did not exist. The only option was to build hides near to where the birds were. This was how he was able to get such good shots of the shrikes, for example. Writing about a hide that they had set up near a peregrine’s nest, he and Ingram were almost lyrical about its location:

Crouched in a hide on a narrow shelf high up on the face of a cliff, all the world seemed open to our sight, and the view stretching away for miles across the hills was almost indescribable. Behind the hide, a little waterfall festooned at its lip with great masses of Saxifraga hypnoides, splashed and tinkled unceasingly, while to its music was added the wild and ringing pipings of the Ring-Ouzels nesting on the screes below… In front, not more than twelve feet away, upon a small ledge fringed with polypody ferns, and separated from the hide by a deep cleft in the face of the cliff, was the Peregrines’ eyrie containing three small young about a week old.

This makes photography with big zoom lenses seem quite tame by comparison!

Twenty years later he was experimenting with flash photography. On one occasion he and a colleague (Arthur Brook) decided to try to snap swifts as they flew up to their nests, realising that early evening was the best time to do it. So they rigged up a camera and flash system on a ladder which they operated below. The experiment was a great success but there was something odd about what they saw. As he describes it:

An extraordinary photo of a swift in flight, arriving at a nest, with cheeks stuffed full of insects it has caught.

We developed the plates while having supper and when we looked at the negatives we simply could not understand what we had got because the head of the bird in each case had the profile of an Otter. When I arrived there next evening Arthur had printed some and the mystery was resolved. The bird’s throat was so bulged out with a mass of flies that it reached beyond the tip of the bill. We had obtained what had never been done before – photographs of speeding swifts flying up to their nests with food for their young and flying out again.

Morrey Salmon’s passion for wildlife and its photography led him to be at the forefront of nature conservation at a time when it was a small minority interest. When writing about the peregrine, he referred to the antagonism of pigeon breeders whose birds were being killed by peregrines. He and Ingram wrote: “When surveying the pros and cons of this question, it is well for all to bear in mind that pigeons can be raised artificially in thousands, annually, but once let a species like the peregrine be exterminated it is exceedingly improbable that it can ever be re-established. It seems an exceedingly unwise policy to allow our native birds of prey to be exterminated for the sake of imported or artifically reared creatures which represent nothing but so much £ s. d.”

It was a theme to which they returned at the end of their book. In a passionate plea to gamekeepers, they urged them to cease their persecution of birds of prey, and in particular to end some of the more barbaric practices that were then used. They conclude their book thus: “…as sportsmen, will you not give the most sporting birds we have, the largest raptors especially, a sporting chance?”.

Their words did not fall on deaf ears, even if change was slow. The work of naturalists like Salmon and Ingram ultimately led to legislative change through the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which – amongst other things – made it an offence to kill any bird (with certain obvious exceptions), with higher penalties for the killing of many of the raptor species, like peregrines and harriers, which appeared on Schedule 1 of the Act.

Morrey Salmon’s distinguished life was given appropriate reward: his military career, for example, earned him two military crosses and a CBE. His conservation work led him to be awarded the Gold Medal of the RSPB, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Wales. The significance of his photography is probably best described by another notable pioneer, Eric Hosking, who described him as the ‘Father of British Bird Photography’. Even now, in the early 21st century, it is clear that he was an exceptionally skilled wildlife photographer.

Birds of Britain Today, by Geoffrey C S Ingram and H Morrey Salmon, published by Nicholson & Watson, 1934.

Footprints on the Sands of Time: the life of Colonel Harry Morrey Salmon, by Norman & Hugh Salmon, 2011

5 thoughts on “Morrey Salmon: the father of British bird photography

  1. A lovely read Richard and a reminder of how difficult early wildlife photography was before the advent of digital cameras and the superb lenses we have today. Just processing the images must have been a daunting task and imagine not being able to crop and enhance our shots in the way that is so easy now. Great research as well, thanks.

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