The Lammermuirs – Snow, Red Grouse and the Elusive Mountain Hares

I awoke on Boxing Day in East Lothian to the sight of what was possibly snow or frost on the Lammermuirs. 24 hours of heavy rain had obviously turned into the white stuff on higher levels.  So it was a no-brainer to head to the hills in search of red grouse and mountain hares.

The hare population on the Lammermuirs has been decimated by estates protecting their grouse (according to the One Kind website, RSPB Scotland received evidence that between 1500 and 1700 mountain hares were shot by landowners across the Lammermuirs in the spring of 2014) and I knew before I set out that the chance of finding any mountain hares as happy to let me close as those I normally photograph was extremely low – however, just to see the hares would be great!!

To my delight the moors were covered in a thick blanket of fresh snow.  I photographed some red grouse from the car then my Dad and I went a walk round a hill where the only tracks were of wild animals (and sheep).

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A red grouse sat close to the car and unusually didn’t fly off as I walked past, so I took a few more images and was able to get down lower than I would from the car.

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The hills looked gorgeous with tree branches hanging low from the weight of the snow and views over to the equally white Pentlands in the distance.  Grouse flew up around us, but there was no sign of physical hares.  Stunning though.

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After posting a red grouse photograph on Twitter and mentioning the lack of hares someone kindly got back to me and offered to give me a good location to spot them.  Unfortunately this didn’t arrive until too late for my second day.  My parents suggested a spot on a road where they have seen dead hares.  My Dad and I duly set out but again hundreds of tracks but not a hare in sight, not even running in the distance.  They were obviously close by but hunkering down.  The ground was covered not only in snow but also in long grasses that folded down to create dry, sheltered tunnels and there were lots of old burrows too, so plenty of places for hares to remain out of sight.  We stayed on the path. A few more red grouse images were all I managed from the car on the way home.

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It transpired that the area recommended to me was exactly where I’d been the day before, just further on.  So on the third day my Dad took on dog walking duties and I headed out alone for one last try, jokingly remarking that I wasn’t coming back until I’d seen a mountain hare!  I walked up to the location keeping my eyes peeled, but surprise surprise nothing.  I stopped a couple of times in sheltered shooting bays and scanned the hills for 30 minutes or so each time – still nothing!  These hares are completely different from those I photograph in the Scottish Highlands which although in their forms are moving about and far more visible.   I comforted myself with the fact that this was a good test run for my March Highland trip – my new boots were both cosy and comfy and I was pretty much snug in my winter clothes.  So all good on that front.

On the way back I stopped at an area that had attracted my attention, a stream in a gully with running water and sheltered banks covered in long grass and high heather.  There had to be hares here, it was perfect!  Sitting and waiting hadn’t worked before so I adopted a new technique – wander through the gully (and heavy snow) and see if I disturbed any hares and… it worked!  One dashed out from under me and sped away.  I didn’t have my camera out, but at least I now knew I’d found a good location!  Camera in hand and bag stowed I tried again and dislodged another couple managing a few shots of them running away and sitting in the distance.

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I tried sitting again and looking for them in the grasses, but other than a group of grouse flying over my head so close that had I not had 2 hats on I’d have felt the breeze from their wings, no sign of hares.   Finally after I’d moved on slightly I spotted one still semi-hidden and took about 3 photos quickly before it too ran off.

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That was it.  Obviously nothing like my highland hares, but I’d never expected anything like those experiences.  It would probably be easier to spot them in the winter when there was no snow, but I’d be very surprised if any sat and groomed etc whilst I watched on.   I was pleased mind you – I hate to be defeated and I did what I had set out to do.  I’m also delighted that there are still some hares left on the Lammermuirs!

 

2017 Highlights (July – December)

What a year!  I’ve already written about the first 6 months, so I won’t repeat myself, but it’s fair to say that from a photographic/wildlife watching perspective 2017 has been brilliant. From the bucket list I’ve now landed on the Bass Rock amongst the gannets and photographed fishing ospreys – both unforgettable experiences.  I’ve learnt a lot: photographic techniques, field craft and wildlife behaviours.  My ambition for 2017 was to focus entirely (okay… so I did venture South of the border to the Farne Islands), on Scottish wildlife, learning as much as I could about a small number of locations and the animals living there.  Personally I don’t want to be the kind of photographer who just ticks species off, I want to get to know them intimately and in doing so take better images that capture the essence of the animal I’m photographing.  On top of all this I just love being out sharing airspace with these amazing creatures, it’s a real honour.  If anything my love of wildlife, Scotland, the outdoors and photography has increased during 2017.

August found me back in my spiritual home – the Scottish highlands.  Basing myself again in Tomatin I had a brilliant week.  It began with Aviemore Ospreys early on the Sunday morning.  I’ve wanted to experience the thrill of these magnificent birds fishing for as long as I can remember but I’ve never quite got my timings (or bank balance) right.  I only just made it this year as the birds were already packing their nests up to head South, but fortunately a few were still around and I was treated to a great show.  Admittedly it was a little on the dark side, but my D500 coped well (just as well as I bought it for this experience) and I’m pleased with the images I took in the conditions.  That said, I fully intend to return in summer 2018, earlier in the season to try again in better light.  This is a link to my blog about the ospreys & the D500.

I also spent a day in Neil McIntyre’s new red squirrel hide set in the magnificent Caledonian pine forest.  There was non-stop squirrel action from early morning until approx 4pm with 4 or 5 visiting continuously.  The setting is gorgeous and at that time of year it was carpeted in glorious pink and purple heather.  Beautiful.  Red squirrels are entertaining to watch, the time passed so quickly.  Definitely a highlight of 2017.

I made three visits to Chanonry Point to see the dolphins.   Chanonry Point itself isn’t one of my favourite places.  Personally I like being out alone with nature and you’re anything but alone here!  Still, if you want to see dolphins close to the shore this is still the place to be.  I was fortunate to see quite a lot of breaching, although sadly not on my evening visit when the light was glorious.  Not easy to photograph as it’s difficult to know exactly where or when breaching will occur, but I did pretty well, again I think the speed of the D500 helped a lot.

And, of course, I visited the mountain hares a couple of times. They aren’t nearly as active at this time of year as in March, but there’s still much to observe and photograph, plus quite a few sweet little leverets.  The heather was blooming up here too, and the midges for the most part stayed away.  I love little more than sitting on the mountainside in the company of a hare as it accepts my presence and gets on with the daily business of grazing, grooming, stretching and (mostly) snoozing.  Sitting in a hide is all very well, but the satisfaction of being out in the open with a wild animal where there’s no cover and no baiting really appeals to me.

It’s difficult for me to get away from Glasgow due partly to a full-time job, but also because I have a rescue dog who doesn’t travel and is a little complicated so I can’t just leave him with friends.  I have to plan weekends well in advance so I can book him in with his very popular dog sitter.  It’s hugely frustrating –  I love him but…   Anyway, I did plan a weekend down in Dumfries and Galloway although as luck would have it, it coincided with the tail end of two massive storms and the weather was pretty awful.  That however didn’t stop me from having two enjoyable days.   I visited the Bellymackhill Farm red kite feeding station en route down. My second time here and it’s a fabulous place to see these birds up close.  Challenging to photograph them diving for food though, because there are so many of them!  Beautiful birds and exhilarating to watch as they all suddenly decide it’s time to feed and swoop down.  Blink and you’ve missed it!

I also spent a day at the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide as I’d never had a chance to really see or photograph sparrowhawks up close.  Great to see some red squirrels here too.  Sadly the male sparrowhawk was a no-show but I was treated to a juvenile female making a kill and pausing just long enough for me to rattle off a few frames.  I stuck around for the evening tawny owl visit too which was great.

My final big trip of the year was a return to Mull, this time on an organised otter workshop with Andy Howard and Pete Walkden.  I’ve only just recently written about this, but suffice to say I loved every minute of it, even lying on seaweed in torrential rain when it was too dark and wet to take photographs anymore.  Otters are my favourite mammal and wonderful to watch, especially when there’s a family unit – of which we saw many.  I was lucky to have 5 and a half great days of otter experiences many of which will stay with me for a long time.

So it’s been a fantastic year.  What’s next?  Well, I return to the Scottish Highlands for a week in March, and Mull in late April/early May, hopefully little owls (although I’ll have to cross the border for those!!), more ospreys and I’d like to spend a bit of time in Bamff with the beavers.  After that who knows.  On the wish list black grouse, ptarmigan and capercaillie.  However, my primary focus will be on the species I’ve spent time with this year – mountain hares, red squirrels and hopefully otters trying to work on locations and lighting to achieve better images using the techniques and experiences of 2017.   Stay tuned!

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