I can think of nothing I enjoy more than sitting on a heather clad hillside in the presence of one of Scotland’s most iconic native species – the mountain hare (Lepus timidus). It also brings me great pleasure to introduce other photographers and wildlife lovers to these amazing creatures and watching them fall for the hares just as I did a few years ago.
Back in 2015 or thereabouts I joined my local camera club (Queen’s Park Camera Club) in Glasgow. At this time I enjoyed wildlife and photography but hadn’t come close to specialising. The very first guest talk I attended was by young Scottish photographer Fergus Gill. His images were amazing, really inspiring, especially from one so young (even if his father is renowned photographer Lorne Gill). He showed a few slides of mountain hares, sitting, hunkered down in deep snow and told us how he camped out high up on the mountain overnight in order to get the images. I was in awe, and it never ever occurred to me that mountain hares were accessible to “ordinary” people.
Fast forward a year and I spent an inspiring and memorable week at the Aigas Field Centre on a photography masterclass with another renowned photographer – Laurie Campbell. The whole week was an eye-opener but for me the highlight, the event that shaped who I am today, was locating and photographing mountain hares. It was July, a relatively warm day. We found one at the side of the road, a leveret, we then climbed part-way up a path and onto a hill. Laurie spotted a hare sitting a short distance away, I presumed it would run, it didn’t! I also presumed we wouldn’t approach any closer, but we did. And the hare stayed put! I couldn’t believe it. We sat and watched as it groomed, totally relaxed in our presence. It was beautiful. We also spent time with a younger animal. I was in love.
There’s something about being allowed to sit close to a wild animal which knows you are there. It’s even better when there’s no baiting, no hides and wonderful views around you. Now, a few years later I still find it hard to express how it made me feel. The experience had everything I love about wildlife, the outdoors and photography. If I’d had a crystal ball and could look into my future as I sat in blizzard conditions watching the hares though I don’t think, even then, that I’ve have believed it, but that’s the spell the hares cast on me.
I was lucky. Back in 2016, and my first winter on the hill in March 2017, the population of mountain hares on the Estate was healthy. They don’t shoot the hares here, and that is to be commended. I had little experience but was able to locate the hares on the hill without too much trouble. If one hare ran or didn’t do much, there were others to choose from. It was a great learning experience. The week I was there we had some snow, but conditions were relatively easy – a good introduction to winter mountain hare photography. Read more on my first experiences with the hares on this blog.
I’m not going to bore you with tales from all my many trips up the mountain – if you want to read about them all then do check out earlier blogs – I mention hares a lot!
Autumn 2019 I relocated to the Scottish Highlands and was considerably closer to my beloved hares. In December I welcomed my first client to the hill for guiding. It’s much tougher on the hill now. A couple of poor years for leverets and wet, windy, winters, have decimated numbers. I’ve seen many people wandering about looking despondent, unable to find any hares to sit with. Being local has its advantages. I can go up often and therefore get to know the best locations, and in some cases, the most reliable and approachable hares. I always found my clients hares and in many cases this was their first experience of the animals. Folk are constantly amazed, as I was, just how close you can approach if done correctly. I am a great believer in not getting too close to a hare – it’s unnecessary and I’m sure causes some stress when they want to stay put to conserve their energy and heat. But still, it’s a lot closer than clients expect to be able to get to an animal that knows you are there. The wonder and excitement they feel is lovely – soon they forget the cold, the biting wind and snow/rain and are lost in the experience. It’s amazing how a creature who spends so much of its time doing very little can command such love. Here are a few images from winter 2019/20 – I had some very happy clients!
Mountain hares are, for the most part, nocturnal. Therefore during the day you can expect them to spend the vast majority of their time snoozing or sitting gazing into space. Even if you sit with an inactive hare for a few hours you will come away with some lovely images.
Hares have the most wonderful facial expressions, and although you may think you have 100 identical images when you look through them you’ll find some fab ones.
Of course, in an ideal world we want to see a hare grooming, stretching, shaking, yawning, grazing and if very lucky boxing. When any of this happens it is fantastic.
It can take patience though, but that patience is rewarded. For example I sat with this hare for a few hours of absolutely nothing before I was treated to a roll in the snow.
Sometimes you can be sitting with a hare and it decides to approach you! This can be running or grazing. I love it when this happens!
Potential clients often ask me if they need to be fit to photograph the hares. The answer is, that yes, fitness helps especially in adverse conditions. Sometimes climbing the hill (it’s up a landrover track and then onto the hill itself) is really hard work as snow can pile up in little hillocks. The hill itself has quite thick heather and plenty of dips and ditches. It’s up hill! However, we can take it slow, or look for hares in more accessible places. Another advantage of going there regularly is I know a few easy to reach hares, so long, of course, as they are where I expect them to be – it’s not always the case! I also usually crawl the last bit towards a hare so as not to overwhelm it. This isn’t absolutely necessary but it does increase chances of getting closer.
Clothing is a big thing too. Climbing the hill can be hot work, but all being well we’ll be spending a fair bit of time sitting with a static mountain hare. Hares aren’t stupid, and tend to sit snuggled against their form with their back to the elements. For the photographer this means facing into the snow/wind/rain. It’s not very pleasant and can get very cold! It’s worth it though and you’ll forget the pain once you’re home, warm and looking through your images. Camouflage gear is unnecessary, the hares don’t care – they know you’re there whatever you wear. What I would say though is, for the sake of others on the hill, please wear subdued clothes – it’s very irritating to have bright blobs appearing in the backdrop of images!
I feel the cold, so if I can do it, you can too. I wear as many layers as I can to comfortably walk up the hill, and bring at least 2 extra ones. My favourites are an Icebreaker merino wool onesie (I don’t see it on their website right now mind you), a pair of Jack Wolfskin down trousers and my down jacket. Be aware though that many down items of clothing are quite delicate and you could find yourself crawling over rough ground, so protective (waterproof) layers to go over those are essential. I also recommend the Decathlon thermal waterproof hunting trousers. I have both the mens and womens. The men’s version is warmer and they have side pockets, the female version is a much better fit, but not quite so warm and no side pockets. I live in these all winter, very tough too! Keela have some great clothes for winter weather too including decent clothing for women. Warm socks (darn tough are my favourites), at least one pair of gloves, hat/balaclava/scarf… hand warmers and sometimes even feet warmers are a blessing. Top it all off with a flask of something warm and you’ll be fine. Waterproof boots with good support are also essential – or if your boots aren’t particularly waterproof then invest in some waterproof socks. I also bring a walking pole as it’s useful not only for balance but to check snow depth. If snowy/icy crampons or at least studs for boots make a big difference. The day is only as long as you want it to be – if you’ve had enough, then we go home.
Camera gear – you could be walking quite a long way – bear this in mind. Don’t bring more than you can comfortably carry otherwise you’ll regret it – I know, I’ve done it, as have some clients. Personally I don’t use a tripod, but some folk do, it’s up to you. Lens length, at least 300mm, longer is better. Remember extra batteries/memory cards and a cloth to clean any snow/rain/dirt off the lens. Oh, and a waterproof cover is recommended too. I use the Nikon D850 paired with the Nikkor 500mm pf 5.6 lens which is a dream combo, before 2020 I used a Nikon D500 with a Nikkor 300mm lens which also worked well.
Mountain hares aren’t just for winter, they are around all year and in my opinion just as photogenic. In late March/April they go through “the change” – their white winter pelage moults and they turn brown/grey. I adore how they look during this period – all are quite unique and it gives them real character. There’s still the chance of snow and boxing at this time too.
Come June and you may well be treated to the first leverets of the season. These adorable little bundles can be found all over the hill throughout the summer & autumn. For some reason they tend to be easier to find than adults over the summer and I spend enough time up there that I know the forms of quite a few of them.
Finding hares over the summer is really difficult if you don’t know where to look as most adults disappear into forms, thick heather and ditches to avoid the sun and insects. I found a few in August, but in September I only saw leverets who tend to be more confiding than the adults and also more visible. The heather was gorgeous in August – I would certainly recommend this as a great month to accompany me to see the hares!
Quite a few photographers have messaged me to ask if there are any hares which of course there were if you knew where to look! In 2020 I had a great summer on the hill with only 2 dud trips – one of those was far too hot (even in summer mountain hares have quite a thick pelage and don’t like the heat) and the other the midges were out in force and even if I had found a hare I wouldn’t have been able to sit with it. Here are a few of my September leverets.
Not only can it be challenging at times to find hares, it can also take an element of field craft to know which hare to approach and how to do so without spooking it. I can show you how best to do this, and how to read the hare to figure out if it’s worth approaching, how quickly you can do so and how close you can get (within reason – see above!). Obviously not all hares, regardless of how sensitively you approach will hang around, but some will. My aim is not only to introduce you to mountain hares and give you a memorable experience but also to show how best to work with them to primarily avoid unnecessary stress to the animal but also to give you the best experience and also not upset other photographers.
If all this has tempted you then please do get in touch. I currently have availability at fairly short notice and only require a £25 deposit in advance. Due to current Covid-19 Scottish Government guidance I do ask that you have your own transport.
I have mountain hare greeting/christmas cards and 2021 calendars available on my Etsy site.
If there are other species you’d like to photograph then give me a shout and I might well be able to help out there too.