A couple of weeks ago I was lucky to have the opportunity to spend three days in the Cairngorms photographing mountain hares with award-winning wildlife photographer Andy Parkinson.
I was in the midst of trying to convince Kirsten to go looking for hares in the snow this winter when Andy mentioned the opportunity on his Instagram account back in October. Needless to say Kirsten was relieved and quickly helped me make the necessary arrangements for the trip.
Andy has been photographing mountain hares for 15 years and has had numerous images of them recognised in various competitions including Wildlife photographer of the year. He has been working on the site an hour from Kingussie where we spent the weekend for the past 4 years and had been up in the hills every day for nearly 4 weeks before I arrived.
Each morning we would make the hour drive to the sites car park and get ready to make our ascent up the hill.
It’s about a 30 minute walk from the car park in the valley to the start of the hares habitat up quite a steep walking track. Taking a break is a good way to cool down but also gives you time to take in the view.
The hares can be found where the snow line starts. Turning white in the winter they have evolved to blend in with their snowy surroundings to hide in plain sight from predators, mainly the Golden Eagle in Scotland. Unfortunately snowy conditions like this even high in the Cairngorms are becoming more and more rare. There were only 6 days of snow fall in 2016, a sad sign of climate change which we need to halt.
To take advantage of these increasingly rare conditions we would go further up the mountain each day where the snow was pristine and deeper making for better photographs.
Throughout the weekend we encountered lots of hares, each with their own personality and tolerance level. Some would scarper at the sight of you on the horizon
Some were initially disturbed by our presence and would run a couple of meters away only to run back towards us once they had decided we weren’t a threat.
and the odd one wasn’t fussed about you being there at all.
Meet Beardy, a very trusting hare who was more interested in sleeping, stretching and scratching than us.
Throughout the day hares mostly sleep unless disturbed, waking every half an hour or so to graze on the exposed heather among the snow before settling back down for another small kip.
You can’t get this close without having respect for the animal. Andy was always keen to put the animals welfare before our own interests and showed us that by staying together, not surrounding Beardy and moving slightly closer every so often we were able to sit incredibly close to a truly wild animal and take photographs without disturbing him. Andy’s mantra #ethicsbeforeimages springs to mind, it’s an approach that I haven’t seen many people employ but more should!
Across the three days the conditions drastically varied, we experienced bright sunshine on a cloudless first day brightly illuminating the hares as they sat in the sun.
The second offered perfect photography conditions with overcast cloudy skies and the occasional snow storm which allowed us to take some really interesting images.
but could also be quite difficult to work in.
A windy third day with no snow showers allowed us to get some incredible images of a poor little hare getting caught in a spindrift of snow wickedly being whipped around by the wind. Conditions Andy had been waiting 15 years for.
Working with Andy was fantastic. He was a great teacher, keen to share his knowledge and constantly giving advice on field craft, composition and camera set up which helped me to take some of the best shots I’ve ever taken and has substantially boosted my confidence in photographing wildlife.
Hares weren’t the only animal in this habitat. Large herds of red deer could regularly be seen on the hillsides around us;
and on the mountain tops watching us head home as the sun set.
Red grouse were also really common.
flying away in their flocks when you got too close for their comfort.
They were a beautiful but unfortunate reminder of the continual hunting pressure not only the grouse face but also the mountain hares as well.
This is not an uncommon sight across estates in Scotland, thousands of hares like Beardy are shot for “sport” as part of commercial shooting packages or are culled by gamekeepers on the misguided belief that mountain hares carry a tick bone virus which kills grouse chicks negatively impacting the grouse shooting interests. An argument which has very little scientific basis but one which has led to such large numbers of hares being culled that this iconic native species is essentially extinct in large parts of Scotland.
In response to this OneKind launched a campaign in 2016 petitioning the Scottish Government to end the culls and commercial hunting of mountain hares.
Kirsten and I have both signed the petition and are also planning to take part in Kiltwalk 2017 on August 20th to help raise funds for OneKind to help end cruelty to Scotland’s animals like Beardy. If you would like to donate here is our donation page. Any donations would be greatly appreciated.
Andy himself is also giving a talk in Edinburgh on March 30th as part of OneKind’s Defending Scotland’s Wildlife. It’s free and should be a very interesting evening. We already have our tickets!
We hope to see you there!
Thanks for reading.
Elliot & Kirsten.
P.S make sure you check out Andy’s Instagram @Andyparkinsonphoto for amazing photos, solid tips and agreeable rants.