A WOLDS painter whose living depends on wildlife has started a scheme to help preserve it. Michael Hickling reports.
Near or far, all wildlife attracts the eye of Robert E Fuller. His project in hand could hardly be more domestic – spread across two table tops in his studio are photographs of swallows nesting in his porch which he crops and sifts to compose a single satisfying image which he will then paint.
Next week he's off on safari to Tanzania to pursue his next subject – packs of wild dogs roaming the savannah.
He's not just good with camera and paint brushes, he's pretty good on ladders too. Robert's home, whose surroundings are more like an adventure playground for bird lovers, is the headquarters of a barn owl project, and from here Robert regularly sets out in his 4x4 with ladders strapped to the roof. The destination is a tree he's identified at a likely place for a barn owl nesting box.
So far he has put up 72 of these boxes and nimbly clambers to the top of an ash tree for the purposes of illustration. With our photographer in position, Robert, from the top of his ladder, opens the door of the box and the irritated resident obligingly launches himself out of his Swiss-chalet type home and down into the valley.
How did Robert know this was a desirable residential area for barn owls? He had spotted one living in a crevice in this tree – he had caught the owl's eyes following him when he passed. But the crevice was not big enough to nest in and this owl, like so may others, needed encouragement.
Robert's eyes don't seem to miss anything in this landscape. "Every time I go for a walk it's with wildlife in mind. I always walk with a purpose." His purpose with barn owls is to help a bird that has been in decline for 20 years. They eat rodents, field voles if they can get them, and their food supply has dwindled as farming methods changed and the unmown grass margins, which voles like, shrank.
Half the country's barn owl population now breed in boxes and a donation of 35 to Robert's group buys one for a whole barn owl family. Grateful birds have taken up residence in 80 per cent of the 100 installed so far. The group have mapped all the locations and keep a record of the success rates in ring binders. Monitoring the residents who have accepted the invitation to start a family is important. Given half a chance, jackdaws will nest in the boxes and fill them full of sticks
"It's trial and error," says Robert. "But the larger the box the better it will be, some have two compartments, although it's harder to fix in a tree. Everyone is enthusiastic and all the farmers are keen to help. I've always wanted to do this project. It can get very busy, but I've made time to do it."
Other types of owl also get five-star treatment. As his 4x4 progresses slowly along a steep Wolds bank, he points out another tree where a home for a Little Owl has been constructed. They prefer to nest in tunnel-like boxes rather than Swiss chalets and because their diet is more varied they have fared better
in recent times.
"Dissect a pellet that a barn owl brings up after it has hunted reveals what a specialist hunter it is. A Little owl on the other hand will catch and eat anything. Tawny owls also eat everything they can catch and they are very territorial and aggressive with neighbours.
"The barn owl is the least territorial of the three but he still needs his habitat and this has been disappearing. A lot of it is tied it with field sports. What's good for the game bird is good for wildlife, the two go together."
Richard, 35, formed his nest box group with some friends and they were not short of knowledge. All are countrymen and one of the members, who has recently left the area, also has a PhD in barn owls.
It was not academic qualifications which brought Robert to this place and this career. It was probably more to do with genetic inheritance. His home is only five miles or so from the farm at Great Givendale where he was born and brought up and where his father Richard
was the farm manager and a man ahead of his time.
In the Seventies, while the general thrust of the industry was increasingly intensive in approach, Richard Fuller sought to prove that a farm could be a commercial success as well as a haven for wildlife. A keen photographer and conservationist, Richard even wrote a book about it, called Givendale – a Farm in Harmony with Nature which attracted national attention at the time.
His sons Robert and David spent halcyon days nesting and ferreting, observing natural rhythms of birds and animals and looking after numerous pets and injured creatures that came their way. It was an informal education, entirely in tune with Robert's talents and offered great fulfilment. But when it came to the formal sort in school, he felt less receptive because of dyslexia.
"I was the despair of my mum at parents' evenings," he says. "One teacher wrote on my report in capital letters, 'THANK GOD RICHARD IS NOT TAKING LANGUAGES THIS YEAR'." Instead of conjugating verbs, Robert recalls staring at wildlife outside the classroom window. Anything would do as a distraction,
From an early age he had always drawn pictures, especially of the injured owls, the rehabilitated foxes, kestrels with broken wings, the orphaned Roe deer fawns which had found a refuge on their farm. Family and friends appreciated the talent and commissioned him to do drawings of their pets.
At 13, he was allowed to drop French for extra art tuition where he put a wildlife spin on every lesson. The "food" project became drawings of fish, bulls and chickens. The "small things" project turned out as drawings of chicks in the nest, feathers and shells.
At 15, he started a BTEC diploma course in art and design at York technical college where the other students were post A-level 18 and 19 year-olds. A course on wildlife illustration at Carmarthen followed, during which he volunteered for work at Chester Zoo during the holidays. On the last day of term, he set out for East Yorkshire, with a stop at the zoo on the way. The staff liked what he had with him in his portfolio so much, they bought over 1,000-worth of his paintings.
Back in Yorkshire, Victoria, his then girlfriend and now wife, pushed Robert to mount an exhibition which was held in a barn at Givendale. Looking for a place to live and exhibit the work permanently, they a spotted rented property, Fotherdale Farm dating from 1880 and 600 feet up in Burdale, half a mile from Thixendale on the Garrowby Estate.
Brother David Fuller is now a farm manager in Lincolnshire. Was Richard also tempted to get back on the land? "No. I enjoyed farm work when it was with livestock, but not the tractor work." The Government's Rural Enterprise Scheme helped with the conversion of Fotherdale's redundant buildings next to the farm into a 60ft gallery and workshops.
They planted 1,200 trees – 40 varieties although ash and beech lead the way – and have laid out a shrubbery in the one-and-a-half acre garden where a wildflower mix has also been sown. It all amounts to a big welcome mat to wildlife. Five hanging bird feeders swing in the wind, fresh apples are spiked on the fence. Since this is the Wolds, there's not much surface water about and the pond and water feature he built is very popular. The collective noun for goldfinches is a "charm", so he reckons he's justified in defining the 300 goldfinches who came to call in October as a " super charm".
He has built a hide near the pond to observe all the activity. He hardly needs to use binoculars. A large bough with a wooden box providing a landing pad for a kestrel has a home security sensor snugly concealed at one end. When the kestrel turns up to be fed, the alarm goes off in the house. There's also a tawny owl who comes to feed from his hand three times a day.
Spring and autumn exhibitions at the farm have been annual events which take some preparing. An original oil like the Zebras of Nakuru, for example, would take three months to complete and costs 14,500. The three-dimensional effect of this work is striking – giving the impression that if you put your hand on the surface it would feel like suede. This is achieved through "dry brush" technique and another method he developed himself. The zebras are the most popular subject from his Africa collections. Big game glamour however is out-sold by the domestic and day-to-day. "The best-sellers are the British stuff – red squirrel, badger, partridge, goldfinch."
Families come to his events and bring their children and their work. Richard likes to show them the drawings and paintings that he's kept from when he was a boy as a way of encouraging the budding talent. "The parents say, 'look, he can do it, so can you'." The gallery is open but Robert's admirers must now wait until November for the next new exhibition. "Wildlife is fantastic in the spring and I'm always painting then. Not this year. I will spend the time photographing."
He usually goes on his safaris with Victoria. This latest trip to Tanzania will be with his father Richard.
It seems that Fuller senior was not only successful in putting over to his son the notion that man can live in harmony with nature, but also helped form his painterly tastes. "Dad was unusual building ponds in the 1970s and things like that which were very much against the grain. He also had a couple of books of Sir Charles Tunnicliffe I used to pore over and I think he's been my biggest inspiration." Sir Charles Tunnicliffe is rated by many, including Sir Peter Scott, as the greatest wildlife artist of the 20th century.
The Fullers will meet up in Tanzania with a local man who has a government permit to take pictures of wild dogs. "I'm still frustratingly trying to take the perfect wildlife picture," says Richard. But if he ever did that, would there be any point in spending months re-creating a photographic effect in a painting? "I think so. What the painting gives you is heightened reality."