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!

 

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