April Mountain Hares

What a difference a few weeks make! It was hard to believe as I walked up the hill in glorious warm sunshine to the mountain hares on Saturday 14 April that 6 weeks earlier I’d struggled with heavy ground snow and blizzard conditions (as described in this blog).


Although there were a few large patches of snow remaining for the most part it was all gone and the hares, still more white than brown, shone like beacons in the heather. I’d made the mistake of dressing in warm clothing including my thermal waterproof Decathlon trousers and wished I’d brought sunscreen and worn less – even the wind was almost warm.

I drove up from Glasgow on Saturday morning arriving at the hare hill early afternoon. As I trudged up the path regretting my clothing choices and remembering how hard it had been to walk through the deep snow in March, it was lovely to hear the birds (pipits) sing and the grouse call out (because yes it is possible to have grouse and hares on the same moorland without culling!!)



There were hares everywhere bounding across the heather full of the joys of life – it must be such a relief for them to finally have some decent conditions too.


I eventually reached the top and spotted quite a few hares close to the path so spent a fair amount of time stalking them. Tricky though – in fact it was tricky all day – it seemed as if Saturday was grazing day. Almost every hare was actively feeding and therefore quite flighty as they were already mobile. I suppose in March, with the freezing, snowy conditions it was more important to conserve body heat than move away from photographers. I soon figured out the distance with which they were comfortable though and did manage a decent number of photographs during the seven hours I spent on the hillside.

There were two lying in the heather right next to the path. One of them was mostly obscured except for its feet which made me chuckle.


The second hare then presented me with a whole succession of wonderful facial expressions


Then flopped down close to me for a snooze. Unlike March, it wasn’t curled up in a tight ball, but spread out to benefit from the rays of sunshine. If I’d come across it already like this I think I’d have thought it a dead hare!


I left her to sleep in peace after a while and pursued other options. All quite challenging and I did a lot more walking than normal when with the hares. Great to watch though! It’s good to see new behaviours and study the animals – it was so interesting to observe how different they were from March – it’s all part of the learning experience for me. They also looked lovely in their part winter/part summer pelage. The ground was covered in clumps of their soft white hairs blowing in the breeze.


Eventually I decided to head down the hill and see if I could find Rafa. Rather than take the track I crossed to the other side of it and walked over the hill – far further round than I had intended. The advantage of this though was that I came across the herd of feral goats. Two were locking horns whilst the others grazed or sat in the sun.


I found three hares near a patch of snow at the bottom. One was sitting on the side of the hill on what was the greenest part of the whole mountainside.


The other two were far more interesting. It was a male and female. The jack jumped the jill (slightly obscured and came as a surprise to me, so no decent images) then sat whilst she rolled in the snow and groomed next to him. She moved up the hill, the male followed and mated with her – she let out a yelp and moved off. Seconds later they were grazing contentedly next to one another. I think it might have been Rafa (the jack) and Ginger (the jill) but can’t say for sure.


This was an entertaining end to the day. After 4 hours of driving and 7 hours on the slopes I found my hotel and collapsed!

I was back on the hill by 10 the following day and had dressed in slightly lighter clothing which was a blessing as the sun shone again and although there was a much stronger wind it wasn’t cold. Truth be told the walk up the hill into the wind was hard work, my legs really weren’t enthusiastic to do it all again. There was a fair amount of stopping to admire the view and listening to the sounds of spring. Surprisingly I spotted no hares on the way up the path on Sunday, compared to at least a dozen on Saturday, but as soon as I arrived at the top I could see plenty on both sides of the track. There was one a couple of metres off to the right sheltering from the wind so I stuck with it. The hare relocated but, as with the day before, I quickly sussed out how close it would tolerate me, and with a 900mm focal distance on my Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm it wasn’t a problem to stay far back. Unfortunately though this was one of those hares that did very little. The odd stretch or nibble at the grass and that was it. I remained with it figuring that given how much time I’d invested in it already it would have to do something eventually. But after three hours I called time.


Whilst sitting with this hare I was monitoring the hillside. One of the big differences I noticed at this time of year in comparison with other visits (March, July, August, October) was that the hares were often in pairs, or more. There were groups of 3 or 4 sitting and grazing together all along the edge of the one large area of snow.


I decided to approach some of these and they gathered in a group of approx 7 animals and that’s where it got interesting. There was a fair bit of chasing and to my delight boxing. One of the hares was the instigator and was chasing the others. The difficulty was that the exposure when they were on the snow was quite different to that on the heather so a few of my photographs where they switched between the two weren’t successful – the problem with manual exposure! Plus, my finger was still in a splint after my March doorbell ringing incident so I had to use a monopod which was difficult to hold steady in the strong breeze. However I do have a few images and it was brilliant to watch. Boxing hares was something I had missed seeing in March due to the conditions.


This was a good spot for photographs, the snow with the distant hills behind was quite photogenic. The hares liked to run along the snow


and sit on the skyline.


I reluctantly called it a day at 4pm knowing that I had to drive back to Glasgow. Still, over the course of the weekend I spent 13 hours on the hillside which is pretty good going and now I know that’s possible I’ll definitely do it again!

A selection of images are available via my website: http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk, if you’re interested in a print or greeting card featuring one not there then please get in touch karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk

Highland based nature photographer and guide specialising primarily in Scottish wildlife but available to cover live music and events.

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