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
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.