A bad hare day?
During a lull in bookings last week we took the opportunity to get out onto the hills with our cameras in the hope of seeing mountain hares. This time of year they are not easy to spot, as unlike the brown hare often seen in open fields in spring, mountain hares change their colour according to the season. Their snow white pelage which gives them camouflage protection from their main predators, golden eagles, during the winter, begins to moult and by April they are developing their summer grey/brown fur. This makes it easier for them to hide among the heathers and grasses of the hillside. A late snowfall earlier in the week had also left patches of white across the slopes which left us continually wondering "Is that a hare? No just a patch of snow beneath a rock!"
We stumbled on over the ridges, knee-deep in snow, continually on the look out for a pair of black-tipped ears or the glimpse of a hare out for a graze on the grassy patches bare of snow. But they seemed to be hiding well and remained elusive despite us seeing all the signs that they were around, footprints in the snow and pellets among the heather.
The image above was taken in January 2017 when the snowfall was quite light. However the hardy little hares will snuggle down in their forms and wait it out through the most horrendous blizzards, often being completely covered in snow. After a rest they will yawn and stretch their long legs before moving out to find more grass and heather shoots. Mountain hares are larger than rabbits but smaller than the brown hare with shorter ears but still with black tips. Hares do not make burrows, but instead find refuge in small depressions or "forms" in the peaty hillside usually sheltered from the wind by a rock or a peaty bank. Here they will rest and digest their grassy diet, passing pellets which they then eat again to get the most nutrients from this meagre fare.
Hares vary in the amount of change in their fur and when they moult. In March 2017 we went to the same spot and found a beautiful male hare who seemed very anxious to make himself look his best for our cameras. There was little snow at this time but his fur was still the purest white. We watched him groom himself from top to toe and after about 30 minutes he sat up in this pose as if to say "Make sure you take my good side!"
Back to our hare hunt...After a good hour and a sit and a piece of cake, Jim eventually spotted a very grey hare sitting in his form with his face to the weak spring sunshine. We managed to approach to within about 30 feet and although he was aware of us with his huge eyes which give almost all-round vision and his sensitive ears picking up our conversation, he was happy to sit for a while. Some hares are very patient and accommodating to the local wildlife photographers and as long as you are calm and they can see where you are coming from they are content to carry on their business of digestion and stretching. Others are not so …. We spotted 2 or three other hares who were off like a shot, zigzagging across the snow at the sight of us.
It is amazing that we are able to share this beautiful location with these hardy creatures which are native to the Scottish Highlands and which are sadly persecuted by certain landowners in order to "protect" their grouse moors. Hares live on average about 3 - 4 years and a female can raise up to 4 litters of 1-3 leverets each year. Many of these fall prey to golden eagles and stoats and sadly to the shotgun. However the hares on this particular estate are protected so we should be able to visit them again soon.
So - a bad hare day? Not at all! The weather was beautiful, sunshine and blue skies and there was no wind. We even found some feral goats to keep us company on our trudge up the hill! All in all a very good day indeed!
If you would like to find out more about these fascinating animals and their mountain lives look out for a beautiful book written by our good friend and photography mentor Andy Howard "The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare" . Andy has developed a very special relationship with the mountain hares of the Cairngorm National Park over several years as a wildlife photographer and guide and tells their story with his fantastic images.