In her latest piece from the Cairngorms, Anna Fleming finds herself in furry white company.
Fresh snow lies thick on the ground. Heather, grass and rocks have disappeared under a smooth Christmas cake icing. A freeze-thaw cycle has yet to happen, condensing the crystals into a crusty snowpack, and so with each step, my foot plunges into soft, slippery white. My legs are immersed to the ankle, the calf and, where the snow has drifted into small ridges, the knee. There are no human prints to follow: I am the trail-breaker, and wading through these shallow seas is hard work. I shorten my steps and adjust my ambitions. Geal Chàrn (the white hill) eludes me today.
I am alone in time but not space. Creatures have written their crossings into the snow. Delicate plunging hooves show a roe deer trod the track. Pairs of prints the size of my little finger are separated by a faint line: a mouse scuttled out of the bank. A fox paced along the track leaving clawed diamonds. The front three toes of a grouse trace a meandering line like the trail of birds in flight.
And suddenly I have company. The track rounds a bend, and lumps of snow lift and scatter across the hillside. The mountain hares are dressed in their winter coats of blue-grey-white camouflage. Some are timid and bolt out of sight. Others are less concerned by my presence – they lollop across the slopes, front feet running, powerful hind legs following in paired leaps. Then they stop and sit up on their rear legs; ears pricked and dark eyes open in wide lenses. I am being observed. What will the human do next? I continue walking and the hares scamper again. The dance continues: with each twist in the track I disturb more hares. Scatter, pause – scatter, pause. I am a child chasing pigeons.
The hares are better equipped than me to travel over the glittering powder. They distribute their weight across four paws and their wide, furry back feet act like snow shoes. Their energy seems boundless; I soon tire and long to rest.
A Scots pine rises from the snow, sturdy russet trunk and luxurious green needles. I lunch beneath its boughs, piling on layers to settle for a while. The sun warms my cheeks and chin; my back cools against the pine. The December sun is low in the crisp blue sky and the snow shines. Hills, hummocks, slopes and dips – the waves of the earth – are illuminated by shadows caressing the crystal carpet. The earth soars in shades of blue: not the grey-edged tints of the sea; but a clear radiance that cuts the air. Sitting in this entrancing cold light, it is as though I have fallen into my smartphone.
Across the burn to my right, a hare sits on a low ridge. Like me, it also faces south into the sun, its left eye on the nearby predator. I stay seated, and as time passes, the hare relaxes, slumping onto its front legs, rounding into a cat-like ball. Occasionally the hare twitches, nuzzling and fidgeting. Between these moments of restlessness, the hare is still, facing the sun.
We are sun worshipping.
I often meet hares out on the hills, but the encounters are rarely this peaceful or convivial. When I wintered in a cottage on the hill, there was a point on the drive home from work that I learnt to take particularly slow, right foot braced over the brake. Just after a sharp corner, hares often bolted across the lane from one field to another, a chunk of brown fur hurtling through the headlights.
I also meet hares in the heather. To ground myself in the Cairngorms and get to know this vast, rolling landscape, I wander into the hills. Paths are scarce in remote moorlands. Wading through swathes of thick heather, my feet stumble on the rough ground – now sinking into mossy bog, now tripping through heather twigs, now lurching over a hump. On this terrain, an animal path can be a blessing, a faint line of direction and purpose worn into the scrub.
Suddenly the ground explodes below my feet. The jolt is so shocking my gut lurches, sending a reverberation up through lungs and lips and I shriek! My entire nervous system is set alight. I have disturbed a hare, hiding low in the heather, still and poised. The hare sprints away, vanishing into another refuge. As my heartbeat settles, I examine the ground. There is a round enclave in the heather:
I have stumbled upon the hare’s form. Parting the twisted stems reveals a mossy oval with an opening at one end where the hare enters and exits its home. From this ‘front door’, a path tunnels through the heather, leading the hare out onto the moorland.
White fibres are snared on the edges: soft wisps from the hare’s winter coat.
There is something arresting about hares. I am by turns surprised, enchanted, in awe and confused by them. Science struggles. Knowledge of behaviour, life cycles, breeding and population remains fuzzy. Is the mountain hare population surging? Are they declining? Recent research suggests that their population is cyclical, going through strong and weak periods over several years. The cycles can vary between four and eleven years and there are distinct regional differences. There is a lot to learn.
Mountain hares thrive on grouse moorland, where predators are reduced and the heather is burnt to provide nutritious shoots for grouse. In these areas, gamekeepers also manage the hare population. As images of culls (mounds of fluffy white bodies) are shared online, mountain hares become political. They are a challenging discussion point for Scottish estates, organisations and government. Land management strategies struggle to find a middle ground between increasingly polarised perspectives
The controversy and uncertainty around hares is perhaps a new iteration of the ancient, complex relationship between man and hare. ‘The Names of the Hare’, a Middle English poem from the thirteenth century (translated by Seamus Heaney) highlights conflicting human attitudes and understandings of the hare. The poem is a huge litany of hare names: ‘the jumper, the rascal, the racer’; ‘the hug-the-ground, the lurker, the race-the-wind, the skiver’. Like an annual for a disruptive year group, the names capture the multiplicity of the hare’s character and behaviours. The poem also gestures to our troubled relationship with hares, a long cultural history of not quite knowing where to place them. With this uncertainty comes superstition – tales of omens, hauntings and fire. I suspect that the wealth of hare nicknames is because their proper name was taboo. Like Lord Voldermort, perhaps direct naming was considered dangerous – a linguistic avoidance that in turn increases the hare’s enigmatic power. In the Cairngorms, Gaelic place names refer to many animals: Allt Bheadhair (Burn of the Adder), Creag a’Chait (Cliff of the Wildcat), Creag nan Sionnach (Rock of the Foxes); there are none for geàrr or maigheach, the hare.
George Ewart Evans, a writer who collected hare folk stories from around Britain, suggests that our troubled relationship with hares exists because they are an archetype. Hares crop up in ancient art and stories all over the world, dating as far back as 12,000 years ago, when someone etched a hare into the limestone walls of Grotte de Gabillou. Evans proposes that the hare is an ancient mythical symbol that humans used to understand themselves: hares play ‘an interpretive role, being as it were mirrors wherein [man] sees his own moods, his own virtues, his own vices.’ (The Leaping Hare, p. 239).
Recently, I met Bill Carslake, a composer and hare enthusiast who is starting a new project marrying his two interests: composing music inspired by mountain hares. At the start of his research journey (seven days of hiking and camping in hare-country), we walk into the hills, talking hares, behaviour, superstition and gamekeepers. We settle on a boulder – a solid lichened lump in a sea of brown heather – and share stories of profound personal encounters. I point to the Scots pine where I lunched with the hare.
As we sup tea in the cold wind, Bill asks, “How would you represent a mountain hare on the stage?” I pause, turning the unusual question over like a pebble in my mind and a surprising metaphor leaps out. A disco ball. Hares catch the eye in a dazzle of (almost ridiculous) movement. The hare’s myriad nature – running, hiding, watching, relaxing, frisking, quaking, yawning, bathing – are flashes of a thousand glittering faces. And beneath this reflective exterior, something is hidden. There is always an aspect of the hare that remains unseen, unknown. They are creatures of the mountain.
[A note on hare species: unlike the brown hare (lepus europaeus), mountain hares (lepus timidus) change their blue-brown coat for white in the winter. Mountain hares are native to Britain; the larger brown hare was introduced during the Iron Age. Brown hares are widespread across lowland Britain; whereas mountain hares are only found in Scotland and the Peak District. Both species are common in the Cairngorms.]