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The m² project - helping nature gain ground metre by metre
I'm very excited to introduce my latest project which has its roots in the following story I was told many years ago:

It had been a stormy night at the hotel on the coast and the next morning a businessman took an early morning walk before his meetings started. All along the beach were washed up starfishes, thousands of them stretching out for hundreds of feet. Without giving it too much thought he continued on his walk until he met a woman picking up the starfishes and putting them one by one back into the ocean. The man stopped and asked the woman what was the point of returning a few starfish when there were so many of them. 'What difference is it going to make' he said. The woman slowly looked up, returned his gaze and picked up another starfish and gently eased it back into the water. 'Well, it's made a difference to that one hasn't it?' The man thought on this for a moment then ruefully smiled, rolled up his sleeves and along with the woman began putting more starfish into the sea...

I've never forgotten that story and over the years the analogy has become something of a blueprint for my life and how I deal with what often seem unsurmountable problems too big for any one person to even begin to attempt to address. Fast forward to my current life back in the Wales of my ancestors and I was struck by the sheer volume of bad news about nature, wildlife, our planet and biodiversity in general. It got me thinking we needed some bite-sized pieces of good news and small wins to counteract much of the negativity out there. The idea of 'saving a planet' as a universal goal to me was both overwhelming and unachievable - after all, what difference could one person make! My idea for the m² project in earnest began in Monmouth where we were renting before moving to Powys and it was based around these criteria:

Most people with access to a garden, green space, balcony or patio should be able to get involved
It shouldn't cost much other than some time
The project should be seen as achievable and be environmentally sustainable
Wildlife, nature and people should all benefit in some way from the project
It must be manageable for people of all ages, cultures, social backgrounds and abilities
Many people don't want their garden to be a complete wilderness so an optimal size capable of hosting a wide range of flora and fauna is needed
The space should have water, food, shelter and be a safe environment with minimal intrusion from pets and people
Most importantly the wellbeing of anything that comes to visit or stay is paramount 
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The m² project is my way of helping people create a natural microcosm in whatever space they may have. I have several versions because I'm lucky enough to have a garden but the beauty of this concept is you can create a single metre squared of nature just about anywhere. The image was taken just after completion but I expect the plants to grow over the tray which is deliberately raised to a specific level that lets me shoot 'eye to eye' with the wildlife. Here's what I did to create my favourite m² which consists of a reflection pool, mature logs for shelter and to promote bug life, screening vegetation and a meadow turf tray:

1. I found a quiet space at the right distance for my photo gear where I could sit indoors and look out on to the m² through a sash window. A shed or some other kind of shelter you can use would be just as good as you can get some very interesting images in the rain. If that's not possible for you then try to find a location that lets you see what's going on without disturbing anything visiting too much. Once the wildlife has settled in it's entirely possible to get a lot closer if you want to photograph them. Don't push your lens too far though as there's a good chance you're going to be on high ISO settings. Having to crop an already noisy image too much will result in an obvious drop in quality 

2. I've deliberately backed the m² against a backdrop of already wild vegetation to help provide cover. This in turn encourages wildlife to visit you as they will feel that little bit safer from predators. Where possible incorporate existing structures and plants into the m² you're planning as wildlife will habituate to it quicker. If you are starting from scratch try to pick a space with a neutral backdrop or plant quick growing, native plants to break up fences etc. 

3. I used old wood, stones, slate and a selection of native plants to create a microcosm of what the wildlife would normally seek themselves. Keeping it looking as natural as possible will also help you with your photography if you plan on photographing the activity in your m². Try to limit unnatural objects like plants you wouldn't normally find in your chosen environment, obvious man-made structures and anything with the potential to harm the wildlife. With the two trays I've used here one has been sunk into the ground and I've put slate around most of the edges to keep it natural. Marginal plants will be going into the bottom right hand corner whilst the existing plants in the meadow turf tray will eventually grow and camouflage the edges which aren't seen anyway as I'm shooting past the edges into the tray

4. I checked the position of the light over several months and made minor tweaks to the m² as I learnt more about available light, where the shadows would fall and how wind and rain affected my options for photography. I also have the option to add portable artificial lights so factor that in if you can

5. Way before I began to photograph anything I put out regular food and water. By regular I mean small amounts each day without fail for several weeks. Voles, mice and shrews happily eat sunflower seeds and mealworms so these are my main food sources. Supplementing these with seasonally available wild fruit and seeds like brambles in autumn is another effective way of both providing food wildlife will want to come in for and giving you natural photographic opportunities that will resonate with the viewer

6. Get creative with your m². I've built my m²not only wide but added in another tier above part of my existing m². This has given me another option with the wildlife as I can have two seemingly different environments within inches of each other. Whether you have limited space or not tis is a 'photograph smarter, not harder' move that will open up more diverse photo opportunities for you

7. For my water feature and meadow turf environment I've used gardening trays. These are great as they're robust, usually shallow and have to some degree resistance to cold, sun and leaks. The reflection pond has been dug in deep to hide the edges and slate has been added to give the illusion of a natural stone surface like you'd find in a shallow pond. Make sure it's not too deep and try to avoid food going into it as it will quickly become unpleasant. The meadow turf tier consists of compost and some grassy turf with existing plants allowed to grow over time and fill the gardening tray. I've deliberately raised it to a height I can shoot directly across at which gives me eye-level photo opps as I like to shoot at this level

8. I've hung an old DVD from a branch and have a low key wind chime nearby. Both get wildlife used to movements similar to a lens being turned and any noises you might make if your camera doesn't have a completely silent shutter. I often shoot with dark fingerless gloves as your hands moving around are two of the biggest red flags to wildlife that something isn't quite right. Dark clothing, camo scrim net, hat of some sort and the phone on silent (better still, leave it behind and be in the moment) should be standard operating procedure for any wildlife photographer wanting the best candid wildlife shots possible 

9. This is just one example of a successful m² project. I've got others that use bird tables and feeders along with naturally occurring planted areas I've simply put a feeder into to create a temporary m² to suit the season. Like I said earlier on, get creative with this and make it your own.

 

The power of nature and wildlife to heal and nurture our physical and mental wellbeing is limitless so let's get your project up and running and help nature gain ground metre by metre 

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