Picture power: Bird flu

Image copyright Darren Staples/reuters

When news broke that bird flu was back in the UK, photographers from the wire agencies, newspapers and freelancers made their way to the scene of the outbreak with the aim of capturing one image that told the story.

With limited access it is a tough assignment, involving lots of patience and some cunning. Reuters photographer Darren Staples tells the story of how he came to capture the photograph shown here of a cull at a farm in Nafferton.

I've been a photographer for more than 25 years, and in that time I have covered a number of diseases like this in the UK, including bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), foot-and-mouth (twice) and bird flu (ditto). On days like these, workers from government body Defra (Department For Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) in white suits, death, bodies and their disposal are starting to feel routine.

For photographers, the days are filled with hanging around in places where we're not wanted, feeling cold, so I'm ready for them. My sandwiches are packed the night before, the flask waiting to be filled with coffee the next morning. There will be no cafes where I'm going.

Image copyright Darren Staples/reuters

On the way to the scene I listen to the radio making sure that that I keep up with the story. It takes two-and-a-half hours to get there, but I needn't have rushed. From the minute I park up near the farm, it's clear that nothing today will happen quickly.

I pull on my wellington boots. During the foot-and-mouth crisis, washing boots and bio-security became a part of the job, but overnight it's become clear that this strain - H5N8 - is a low threat to public health and the full protection gear won't be needed.

In my spare time I like fishing, and if there's one thing fishing teaches you, it's patience. I filed an early picture of the gas being delivered. Another when crates arrived to cage the ducks. And then I waited.

The hours tick by. I can see down into the farm from two public roads. The Defra people stop for a lunch-break. I chew the fat with colleagues and eat biscuits.

The light is starting to go. Surely they are going to do the job today? We know they are when an 18-wheeler lorry is parked in front of us in an attempt to block our view, but I can still see through the leafless trees.

And so it begins. The story unfolding as it has so often before. White-feathered ducks loaded into crates are driven from a barn on a lorry. Probably 200 in each, tightly packed to stop them panicking and injuring each other in the process. Or maybe just to get as many in at one time, as there are 6,000 to cull.

It takes a surprisingly long time for them to re-emerge. Maybe it's 10 minutes, maybe longer. And then there is no movement at all as their limp bodies are loaded on to a waiting lorry.

I'm far away so I'm shooting on a 500mm lens with a 1.4 converter mounted on my Canon 1DX camera. As I watch the carcasses loaded, some begin to fall off.

Image copyright Darren Staples/reuters
Image caption The original frame that was cropped for the final image

I file the pictures directly off the back of the camera to our desk in London using a wifi transmitter and a very weak 3G signal. My colleague, Toby Melville, decided to crop into the picture of the carcasses falling from the lorry, because he liked the symmetry. There were other pictures I took that day that I liked better. It goes to show how wrong you can be.

In Britain, we are not keen on photographs of dead animals, so I was surprised when I checked the newspapers the next day and saw that it had been used. The picture did well on websites around the world as well.

I have done my job, told the story but with so many birds killed there can be little satisfaction in it.

All photographs © Darren Staples/Reuters.

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