Mat Bingham braves the testing Highland conditions to capture Mountain Hares in their white winter coats.
Words and pictures by Mat Bingham
Dave told me I had my best chance of seeing Mountain Hares in their winter coats between December and March. I decided to meet him in the Scottish Highlands in early February. The depth of snow on the mountains can be anywhere up to 8 feet at that time of year. The hares follow the snowline up the mountain using their white coats as camouflage. I planned my trip around work, so I would have to take my chances with the weather. I arranged to meet Dave at the end of a narrow track in a remote part of the Cairngorms where I abandoned my four wheel drive in favour of his much more robust Landrover Defender. Stowing my camera gear in the back we set off into the mountains. The snow cover was quite variable and the ground was soft even though the temperature had been dipping to minus eight at night. It didn’t take long before the Landrover became bogged down, it was going nowhere.
We were heading into the Ladder Hills and needed to be much higher than where the Landrover had given up if we were to have any chance of getting good shots. Before me, lay a four mile hike in wet snow carrying twenty five kilos of camera gear uphill, the name Ladder Hills understating the steepness of the climb. The weather had held so far but the wind was starting to get up as we set off on foot.
Following the line of a gully that could just be made out in the snow, it was heavy going with the ground unpredictable. One foot could be on firm rock followed by a second step disappearing into three feet of snow. The weight of the camera equipment was making it difficult for me to pull myself out every time I hit a deep patch. Soon my legs ached and my lungs were burning. I focussed on the next ten feet and then the next ten, not wanting to look at our goal; it didn’t seem to be getting any nearer. There wasn’t much conversation on the way up; I preferred to concentrate on breathing.
Slowly moving upslope we flushed out plenty of Red Grouse, confused by the melting snow and warmer daytime temperatures they seemed to think it was time to start courtship displays. The weather can rapidly change and within hours the landscape can be back firmly in winter’s grip. Spring doesn’t really get underway until late April but nobody seemed to have told the Red Grouse this.
After several hours we stopped for a breather, we were high enough now to traverse along the contours and look for our prey. I set my camera up ready and we started picking our way between the heather and juniper bushes. There were tracks in the snow so they were here, the hares sit in scrapes downwind under the juniper and heather. When they sit still they can be very difficult to spot. We flushed one out. I stood and watched, too far away to photograph him as he ran effortlessly across the snow spooking two more as he went. It seemed like they were gliding across the snow as they bounded away from us, we had no chance of keeping up with them.
I had got my eye in now and moved more gingerly along the slope, I spotted a hare ahead, stopping fifty meters from him I took some shots to get something in the bag. Then starting to work my way slowly forwards I paused every ten meters to frame him in the viewfinder and take a few more photographs. I moved in closer working with the terrain trying to keep as low as I could. I was downwind of him, their eyesight is acute so he had probably spotted me long before I saw him. He seemed content to stay where he was sitting hunkered down in a clump of heather. At twenty meters I concentrated more on the composition of the picture, he didn’t appear to want to bolt from his scrape, giving me more time to think about the shot. Satisfied with what I had taken I left him alone, not wanting to flush him from his cover. I tracked around to the left, catching movement from the corner of my eye I noticed a hare stood up on its hind legs looking at me not more than ten meters away. His reactions were much quicker than mine and before I could lock the focus onto him he was off, I managed to take some panned shots as he headed off at speed. These animals are in their element here, they are quick, they have to be if they are to escape their main predator, Golden Eagles.
We worked our way higher up and then traversed along the contour. It was then that I noticed a hare actually running towards me. He stopped in his tracks not more fifteen feet from me. He seemed unsure of what to do next as I stayed perfectly still. To my surprise he started grazing on the green shoots of a juniper bush. Slowly, I eased myself down into the snow and began taking photos using my leg to brace the camera.
The wind was now starting to numb my senses and the feeling of being exposed was reinforced by my uncontrollable shivering. I struggled to keep the camera steady and my feet and hands were numb. We decided to head down to the Landrover. On the journey back I took some more shots of a hare that seemed content to feed in front of me. It took several hours to reach Dave’s Defender and during that time the wind reached gale force, the weather had really closed in. My face felt raw from exposure to the wind but I couldn’t stop grinning on the slow drive back.