It’s a miserable day. The mist is making it hard to see a Mountain Hare never mind photograph one and the conditions are so poor it’s hard to make out my lone human compatriot cresting the hill towards the plateau not far in front.
Ever since I first visited this area in February I always planned to return to photograph them in their summer coats, something few photographers do, and with a free weekend to spend in the Cairngorms I was excited to return to their now very different mountainous habitat to try and capture some interesting images.
What was previously covered in crisp white snow is now a mosaic of heather passed its peak, a brownish colour primarily but with a hint of pink. The hares should also have moulted. Instead of being as white as their winter surroundings they should now be brown and rock-like. It is obviously very effective as I haven’t seen one yet.
As the drizzle continued to fall I slowly soldiered up the steep path finding myself in a physical oxymoron, sweating under my thickly lined waterproofs but with a cold and wet face.
Stopping to cool down not far from the main plateau I began to wonder, “If I had the eyesight of a Golden eagle would it make my day in the mountains easier? They easily spot Hares from lofty heights before diving down to prey upon them but would such vision improve my chances from a ground perspective?” It’s then I noticed the twitch of a nose and an outstretched hind paw being preened and the thought evaporates.
Making the short climb I am eventually able to crawl close enough to take my first picture unimpeded by the conditions.
The Hares rest during the day in ‘forms’, naturally shallow depressions in the land which shelter them from the elements. They stir only when threatened or to stretch, preen and eat so a patient slow approach can afford you great access into their wild lives unlike most animals. How close you can get is Hare dependent, each animal has it’s own personality and comfort level. The key is to being able to know when you’re edging to close for an individual’s comfort and restraining yourself from moving closer.
After sitting with this perfectly content individual for about 20 minutes it woke up and moved further up the hill to eat. With it fast approaching my lunch time I thought I should do the same.
Moving further up the hill the abundance of Hares grew substantially and before I could find a suitable area for lunch I found myself crawling along the edge of the path before sitting with an even more confiding individual.
With the Hare sitting in quite an awkward area that was not photogenic and showing no signs of displaying any interesting behaviour, I shimmied away. Picking up my back pack I turned to find the Hare had followed me part of the way down the slope and stopped reasonably close before venturing into the heather on the other side of the path.
Unlike Brown Hares and Rabbits, who were introduced to the UK, Mountain Hares are native but are by far the most rare. Once widespread in mountainous regions they are now only found in small geographical pockets across the UK due to persecution as part of upland moor management and for the “sport” of hare coursing. Even though these cruel practices potentially breach EU law they are allowed to continue due no effective data or method measuring the Hares population density and distribution and a lack of political appetite to take significant action to make a change.
Reaching as high as I would go I stopped to have lunch and a chat with the other photographer, Peter, who had made his way down from the plateau due to the poor visibility about all things Mountain Hare. After eating I explored the area for more individuals to photograph but they are far more jittery at this time of year as they begin to transition back into their white winter coats with all the individuals I came across choosing to leg-it before I can even begin to think about making an approach.
After an hour of no luck out the corner of my eye I could see Peter waving at me in the distance. As I got closer it was clear he had came across a very relaxed and sleepy individual.
This hare was so content with our presence I was afforded a unique close up from an unusual angle below looking up the hill through the heather.
It’s level of trust and level of lethargy reminded me of ‘Beardy’ a very trusting and aptly named individual with unique beard like markings below it’s chin which I spent a lot of time with in the winter. Although there was no beard to be seen this hare’s behaviour and more so it’s trust makes me almost sure we had met again.
The suspected Beardy slept for a good hour and a bit before eventually deciding to move. Waking up, he scratched and started to scavenge as the mist once again began to set in.
As he moved further away from me he became less and less visible and was eventually lost in the mist.
With visibility the worst it had been all day, and tiredness and hunger beginning to kick in, now was a good time to make my way back to the car.
The sky cleared as I followed the path back down. As I did I couldn’t help but notice the outline of a pair of eyes protruding from the edge of the hill.
It was a leveret, or youngster. Unpacking the camera I approached slowly. The leveret unsure of my presence stood to attention.
A stand off ensued with neither of us prepared to make the next move. Unlike the adults the leveret never settled and eventually disappeared into a burrow rather than up the hill.
At this stage in their early lives Leveret’s are prey to a wider range of predators including foxes, buzzards, stoats, cats and eagles, where as an adult is typically only preyed upon by the Golden Eagles, so reside in burrows for improved protection.
Reaching the car was a relief from the wet weather but it is always hard to leave these resilient creatures. Their confiding nature really makes a day watching them incredible (whatever the weather!) and I am already looking forward to sitting with them again in 2018’s snowfall.
Thanks for reading.