Moun­tain hares can be­come an ob­ses­sion, finds Cal Flyn as she meets a pho­tog­ra­pher who has made cap­tur­ing them in the wild his life’s work

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

Cal Flyn en­ters the fas­ci­nat­ing world of the timid moun­tain hare

Oc­to­ber is an ex­cel­lent time to get out into the hills: the midges are long gone; the glens are aglow in the golden light, echo­ing with the roars of the stags; and – best of all – it’s the per­fect time of year to spot one of the up­lands’ most reclu­sive res­i­dents, the moun­tain hare. As the days get shorter and the nights grow cooler, these placid, silent crea­tures are be­gin­ning to set­tle down for a long, cold win­ter on the hill, their fur mor­ph­ing from the sum­mer’s speck­led tawny into their snow-white win­ter cam­ou­flage. As the grass dies back un­der the on­slaught of the wind and rain, their me­tab­o­lisms too will slow and these silent, placid crea­tures will grow yet more silent, more placid, and bet­ter pre­pared to al­low the ap­proach of hu­mans. And if you are pre­pared to take your time, one can get very close in­deed. Andy Howard, a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher based near In­ver­ness, has spent the last seven years iden­ti­fy­ing the best places to find the hares, and per­fect­ing his method of ap­proach – which is, he says, time con­sum­ing but ex­tremely ef­fec­tive. ‘I don’t like to be told about places,’ he told me. ‘I like to dis­cover them my­self.’ Most often he heads into the Cairn­gorms and the nearby Mon­adhliath Moun­tains, al­though those liv­ing in the cen­tral belt can also head to the South­ern Up­lands, where there are good pop­u­la­tions of moun­tain hares, if you know where to look. Start, he says, by get­ting high into the hills, as moun­tain hares are rarely found below 500m above sea level. For this rea­son, out-of-sea­son ski ar­eas are usu­ally a good start­ing point, thanks to their el­e­va­tion and road ac­cess. Then, take note of the wind di­rec­tion: hares will al­most al­ways be found in the lee­ward side of the moun­tain, shel­ter­ing from the worst of the weather. ‘They like a bit of ter­rain on a moun­tain,’ he says. ‘So if there’s a clus­ter of boul­ders, an old ski fence or even a hut or build­ing, that’s a clue as to where to find them. Start walk­ing, and then a good pair of binoc­u­lars will come into their own.’

The speed by which their pelage (coat) changes colour de­pends on a num­ber of fac­tors, in­clud­ing genes, so dur­ing this tran­si­tion time, you may spot an all-white hare clearly fore­grounded by a muddy or heath­ery back­drop. Still, you’ll need a sharp eye; hares don’t dig bur­rows but in­stead seek out div­ots in the ground – called ‘forms’ – where they take up res­i­dence for hours at a time. Once you’ve found your hare, it’s time to make your ap­proach. This, says Andy, has been ‘the most dif­fi­cult and most re­ward­ing’ as­pect of hare pho­tog­ra­phy. ‘It’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent field­craft to what you use with, for ex­am­ple, ot­ters. There, you don’t want to be seen or smelt, but with hares it’s the op­po­site. You walk di­rectly to­wards them, talk to them, and move very slowly. The ex­act op­po­site of what a preda­tor would do.’ Af­ter a cer­tain amount of time, he says, the hare will be­gin to re­lax in your pres­ence. He can tell by their body lan­guage. ‘The more you do it, the bet­ter you get at it and the eas­ier it be­comes. I can look at a hare from a dis­tance of, say, 100 me­tres, and know that it’s not worth even try­ing to ap­proach it. You can see it in the shape of its body and, if you’re close enough, the look in its eye.’ For his por­trait shots, he aims to get within ten me­tres of the an­i­mals, a process which might take two to three hours. Then, tak­ing the pho­to­graphs them­selves might take an­other two to three hours af­ter that. ‘You have to be in­cred­i­bly pa­tient,’ he ad­mits, ‘but spend­ing five to six hours with the same moun­tain hare un­locks the se­cret box of their be­hav­iour. Once they are com­pletely re­laxed and obliv­i­ous to you be­ing there, that’s when you see their real magic.’ The re­ward for all Andy’s hard work and pa­tience is an art­fully pro­duced pho­to­book, The Se­cret Life of the Moun­tain Hare, which is pub­lished by Sand­stone Press (£24.99), fea­tures beau­ti­ful im­agery from all four sea­sons, and is packed with hard-won prac­ti­cal knowl­edge on har­ere­lated hill­craft. For those keen to get out on the hill them­selves, the key point is to en­sure you are well kit­ted out in warm and water­proof clothes – or you’ll be forced to aban­don your stake­out too soon, shiv­er­ing and swear­ing at your own stu­pid­ity. A mat to lie on is in­valu­able, as is a storm shel­ter in case of emer­gency. For your cam­era, if you are tak­ing pho­tos, make sure to carry a sturdy tripod (or a bean­bag, for low-to-the­ground shots), rain pro­tec­tion and spare bat­tery packs, es­pe­cially in cold weather. Those keen to try their hand, but who don’t know where to start,

Once they are com­pletely re­laxed that’s when you see their real magic

may be in­ter­ested in hir­ing Andy as a guide: he of­fers one-day moun­tain hare pho­tog­ra­phy trips for one or two peo­ple, start­ing from £275 ( andy­howard.co.uk). While you’re up on the hill, keep your eyes peeled for the many other au­tum­nal res­i­dents of the moor: the stags, clash­ing antlers as they fight over the hinds; the ptarmi­gan – an­other crea­ture cur­rently colour-chang­ing in prepa­ra­tion for the win­ter snow; and young ea­glets, now fledged but still learn­ing the skills of hunt­ing from their par­ents. Travel with some cau­tion: the shoot­ing sea­son is by now well un­der­way. Check whether stalk­ing is hap­pen­ing at your in­tended lo­ca­tion on­line us­ing the Head­ing for the Scot­tish Hills in­ter­ac­tive maps ( www.out­doorac­cess-scot­land.scot). The grouse sea­son runs un­til 10 De­cem­ber; stag sea­son un­til 20 Oc­to­ber, there­after the hind sea­son starts and runs into Fe­bru­ary. Moun­tain hares tend to do par­tic­u­larly well on grouse moors, where preda­tor num­bers are ‘con­trolled’ (culled), al­though some es­tates also con­trol moun­tain hares too, some­times shoot­ing them for sport, other times to limit the spread of tics car­ry­ing dis­eases that af­fect the grouse. Around 25,000 moun­tain hares are shot by es­tates each year. These culls hit the news in March, when First Min­is­ter Ni­cola Stur­geon de­scribed large scale culls of hares as ‘un­ac­cept­able’ – and noted that new leg­is­la­tion and a li­cens­ing scheme were un­der con­sid­er­a­tion. The an­i­mal rights pres­sure group OneKind has also col­lected more than 14,000 sig­na­tures in a let­ter to En­vi­ron­ment Sec­re­tary Roseanna Cun­ning­ham and Scot­tish Na­tional Her­itage CEO Francesca Osowska de­mand­ing an end to the prac­tice. Such culls are a risk, says Andy, be­cause hares, a pro­tected species, rarely travel more than a cou­ple of miles from their birth­place. A lo­cal crash in their num­bers may see the species van­ish from that area for many years or decades, lead­ing to the frag­men­ta­tion of the hare pop­u­la­tion more gen­er­ally. So be care­ful out there on the hill, stay alert – and with a lit­tle bit of luck, you’ll find Le­pus timidus is not such timid com­pany af­ter all.

Dusk: A moun­tain hare in its sum­mer liv­ery at sun­set.

Clock­wise from top left: Moun­tain hares box­ing; win­ter moun­tain hare run­ning through the snow; the moun­tain hare is a mas­ter of cam­ou­flage when the snow comes; pho­tog­ra­pher Andy Howard. Above: A hare shows off the well-furred and large hind foot that makes run­ning through the snow a breeze.

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