Tales From The Hare Hill Part 1: A First Magical Encounter

I was sitting in the Aigas Field Centre hide a week or so ago awaiting the elusive pine marten on a wet and stormy evening with clients and wrote this blog in my head. Hopefully I’ll be able to replicate now I’m in front of my pc.

The follow-up to my e-book “My Red Squirrel Family” is going to be entitled “Tales From The Hare Hill” and will feature stories and images of some of my many mountain hare encounters. These animals are so incredibly special and I can look at any of my photographs of them and remember the story of that day – there’s no other species that I have felt such a special connection with (even red squirrels!).

Back in 2014 or thereabouts I joined Queen’s Park Camera Club in Glasgow. At this point I had an entry level Nikon DSLR (D5000) and although I enjoyed photographing wildlife I hadn’t specialised in it. Every Thursday the club had a guest speaker, and on my very first evening there a young wildlife photographer called Fergus Gill did a presentation. Being the son of esteemed photographer Lorne Gill, he’d been out taking photographs for many years already. His talk was excellent, and very inspiring, but the image that made the greatest impression on me was of a mountain hare, high up in the Cairngorms sitting on a blanket of snow. Fergus talked of how he had camped out over night on the mountain in order to take this photograph. It was such a beautiful animal but, given his description, one I never really expected to have the opportunity to photograph myself.

Fast forward to July 2016. After having visited the Aigas Field Centre in 2015 for a general wildlife week and falling in love with the location and area, I booked to return, this time to participate in a week long photography masterclass with Laurie Campbell. I’d done a day’s workshop with him a year or two before at the SOC in East Lothian and was keen to learn more from him. Although the maximum number of participants on this course was 6, I was pleased to discover there were only three of us – myself, David and Angela. Such a small group gave us more flexibility in what we could photograph and one-to-one time with Laurie.

The week was brilliant, I came away so inspired and began to find myself as a photographer, deciding that wildlife was what I wanted to specialise in and confident enough to develop my own style. There were many highlights, but one stood out above all others – my very first mountain hare encounter.

We drove to the location along a single-track road which wound its way through a grouse moor hoping to spot and photograph red grouse. We found a few, but far more thrilling was a mountain hare. And, not just a mountain hare, but a young leveret (baby hare) sitting in a form in one of the peat hags at the side of the road. It was an absolutely gorgeous fluff ball with ears, beautiful big eyes and button nose. I was in love.

We then drove on to the spot where Laurie hoped to find more hares. A stunning location with gorgeous views down the valley. We trudged up a horrible path but, if memory serves me correctly, I bounced up it enthusiastically, excited at the prospect of finding hares. (I hate that path and I don’t think I could ever use the word “bounce” to describe my future walks up it). About halfway up Laurie, David and I left the path and started climbing up through the heather. Soon we spotted a hare and to my absolute amazement and delight managed to get into a position close enough for photographs. A youngster. It was awesome and absolutely gorgeous.

David’s knee was bothering him, so he returned to the path whilst Laurie and I looked for more hares. We spooked one that effortlessly bounded up the hill, and then found another to sit with. In the summer of course the hares are brown, not white but they were still very beautiful. This one was an adult who was very relaxed and ate some grass (sucking it in like a straw) and stretched. I was amazed at how big they are, how short the ears are (in comparison to brown hares) and how large their back feet were.

It’s hard to find words to describe how this experience affected me. Being on that hillside, sitting in the presence of these incredible animals as they sat doing their thing was such a thrill. So many photographic wildlife experiences involve baiting of some sort, or staying out of sight / downwind of the subject. This had none of that. The hares knew we were there, they allowed us into their space and accepted our presence. This trust and connection with the animal was indescribably special, and remains so every time I sit with a hare, even now 7 years later. There was no bait, no hide. Again, with the ability of hindsight, having experiences like that in the summer months are few and far between, and even more so now given that hare numbers in that location are now very low. In winter, mountain hares are trying to conserve energy and prevent heat loss, so it’s often possible to approach them. In the summer months however, this isn’t an issue and they are more likely to run, not to mention that they can be hard to spot in the brown heather. The fact we had two close encounters that day was therefore even more special.

I realise that saying an experience like this was “life changing” may seem like an exaggeration, but truly it’s not. I’ve sat in the presence of many species of wildlife both before and since this, and although all are special and I always feel privileged to have the opportunity to see them up close, none have moved me the way being with a mountain hare does. The crazy thing is that it’s rare to be able to describe a mountain hare as “dynamic”. For the most part they just sit, watching me, watching them. Even a pellet grab is exciting! Yet each experience is still memorable. That day cemented my desire to relocate to the Scottish Highlands, it sowed the seeds of my now career as a wildlife photography guide. It helped me do my bit to, over the years, to introduce social media followers and clients to mountain hares and their welfare and need for protection. I met other like-minded photographers and wildlife lovers.

I do sometimes wonder if I’d be where I am now, doing what I do, if I hadn’t had that day on the hill back in 2016.

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

3 thoughts on “Tales From The Hare Hill Part 1: A First Magical Encounter

  1. Hi Karen

    I think that you should offer the option on your prints as to whether or not your customers want your watermark or not – after all most artists sign their work 🙂 I would actually have preferred your logo in the corner of the lovely print; as it is it is not even attributed on the back, which is a pity. Just a thought.

    Best wishes Nigel Perels


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