I’m already three weeks into a 7 week stay in the Scottish Highlands – two weeks leave with a five week work attachment sandwiched between. I was excited to be up at this time of year to hopefully photograph some of the iconic species of the region in snow – I’d watched BBC Winterwatch the week before and seen the incredible weather they experienced and I arrived at my week one base in Tomatin, to be greeted with a snowy driveway and winter landscapes.
Unfortunately after two snowy days on the hills with the mountain hares the temperature rose dramatically and strong winds became the norm. The snow disappeared almost overnight. This threw me a bit, as not only did the snow vanish but so did the cresties and snow buntings and my plans of those plus red deer and red squirrels in the white stuff were snuffed out. Still, fab to be here, and I love the hares with or without snow, so I’ve spent every possible day when not working, or when the winds not excessively strong on the hillside in their company.
Mountain hares are fantastic creatures, and so very hardy. As I sit with an animal in about 6 layers of thermals and warm jackets, still feeling extremely cold and questioning my sanity, they are hunkering down in a sheltered spot in their gorgeous thick white coat. I can’t begin to imagine the conditions they have to cope with. Sadly the weather this past few months has been of the sort that hares find hardest to deal with and there are far fewer on the hillside than in years gone by. This is partly because many of the leverets didn’t survive the hot, dry summer and because mild, wet winters aren’t great for them either. Sad news during my first week was that the most celebrated hare on the hillside Mrs G had passed away of natural causes. Many of my favourite hare images both my own and by others, were of this incredible animal who was so accepting of respectful photographers and always made sitting with her worthwhile. She’ll be missed.
It takes a bit of time to figure out how to approach mountain hares and to learn which ones are worth approaching in the first place. It’s hugely frustrating to spend half an hour edging closer to an individual only for it to run, so you also need to be able to figure out what is the closest the hare will allow. There’s a lot of trial and error! Going with a guide can be helpful, although for the most part I’ve learnt by experience. I usually use my Nikon D500 paired with the Tamron 150-600mm which gives me a focal distance of 900mm on the crop frame camera, so I can stay a long way back. On my last two trips up the mountain I’ve switched to my Nikkor 300mm F4 in the hope that the wider aperture will soften the background a bit more. Although the focal distance is half that of the Tamron, it hasn’t been much of an issue because if using a prime you have to stay a bit further back anyway in case the hare decides to stretch, otherwise you lose half the animal! It’s also a bit lighter so I’m actually enjoying using it up there more than I had expected to. As I mentioned, approaching takes patience. Once I’ve spotted a potential subject I generally put my bag down (I often regret this!) and start edging forwards very slowly, often on my hands and knees (I always wear waterproofs). I stop regularly and also pause for a while if the hare becomes too aware. In this way I am fairly successful at reaching the hares, which is good. I just wish I was better at picking those that are going to do stuff! It’s also worth saying that you need lots of layers as sitting in one spot for an extended period (often a few hours) can be very cold. I’ve walked up the hill in three base layers and a jacket plus warm thermal trousers and on reaching the top added waterproof trousers and another one or two top layers – even then I feel cold after a while. Hand warmers help too. Mind you, I feel the cold!
My first day was a little frustrating although it was gorgeous and it was great to see a white-tailed sea eagle fly overhead on the trudge up the hill.
I sat with an inactive hare until I became so cold I had to move and then failed to find another accommodating animal. I have a few wide angle images I like though.
Day two was much better, there’d been a fresh covering of snow overnight and the hillside looked gorgeous. I went up to the plateau hoping for some mobile hares, but spotted one digging itself a snow hole a fair distance away.
Once it was settled I very slowly, as there was no cover, approached and sat with it for a few hours (again until I became too cold to stay put). This hare did a bit of grazing and then treated me to a full on roll in the snow – fab! Every time it turned over it would look at me as though to check I was capturing the action on camera. Loved it.
A few more of that hare and some others from that day:
On day three the temperature rose and the winds picked up so it was still pretty cold on the hillside. I didn’t find any particularly active hares, but did locate a spot where the afternoon light was shining on the far hills giving the images a lovely orange glow. I was so well hidden that a second hare came over and sat in front of me.
After that I had a difficult, again windy, day when all the animals I sat with were fairly inactive and also had grass in front of their faces which was really annoying! It wasn’t until the Saturday that I had a memorable encounter. I was heading down the slope intending to start the descent back to the car, when I saw two hares that were beginning to chase one another. I was trying to close in on them when I quite literally stumbled over another hare, but rather than run away it began to graze at my feet – it was really small, not much bigger than a large rabbit and totally fearless. I saw with it until the sun went down, a lovely experience. Sadly I haven’t found that hare again.
The last two weeks whilst I’ve been at work the winds have died down and the weather has been warm and sunny… except at the weekends! On the middle Sunday I went up to the hares but although I sat with six separate individuals they were resolute in their intention to do absolutely nothing. On a positive note I found the walk up the hill much easier as the wind hadn’t yet awoken and I was chatting to James Roddie and his client.
This weekend the winds again have been strong – gale force in fact. But I was up on the hill bright and early on Saturday before they really picked up. The walk up was a bit harder but it was a nice sunny day so I didn’t mind too much. I decided to concentrate on a different section of the hill for a change and immediately spotted a hare in a dip ahead of me. Unfortunately it immediately ran up the hill a bit before I had a chance to try and approach. So I walked up, a little to the right of it and was standing contemplating whether or not to try the same hare again or find another (given that it had run the first time, I would have expected it to do the same again) when I noticed it had started grooming. So, as I always do I abandoned my bag and edged very slowly closer while it was occupied with its ablutions. This was the right decision! It was a fantastic hare. Where all the others have sat, hunkered down, with the odd stretch, twitch or graze, this one was very keen on keeping clean, and groomed every 10-20 minutes, even treating me to the high-four back paw behaviour 4 times
…and shaking regularly which resulted in some very funny photographs!
We sat together for a few hours, and although I could have stayed with it, I had spotted some very frisky hares on the next section of the hill so decided to go and investigate them. Disappointingly they kept getting further and further away but it was entertaining to watch from a distance. Boxing hares are still on the wish list for this trip!
By 1pm the winds were very strong and it had begun to rain, so I decided the safest thing to do would be to head for home. But I felt okay with that having had my favourite hare experience of the trip so far!