The mountain hare (Lepus timidus) is a native species found in the highlands of the UK above 500m. These compact little characters live in remote landscapes, moulting through the year to blend in with their surroundings. Brown in the summer months when the heather and grasses keep them concealed and white in the winter when the snow should coat them in a protective blanket of camouflage. Perfect when the weather is seasonal and a sitting target when the weather is warmer or colder than required. The Scottish mountain hares are decreasing in numbers although the reason is not clear, however on Coignafearn Estate the numbers are thriving.
Following the Findhorn Valley away from Tomatin the wide open valley floor gradually narrows. The mountains enclose the Findhorn River as it meanders towards the open sea. The peaks become higher and ragged with rough black rock as the road heads inland. Dotted with stags and separate but within sight are the hinds, black against the skyline. After passing through heavy rain and rainbows we reach the start of the track to the higher ground. Rain replaced by squally winds and sunshine. From here it is a steep walk through rough heather and grass to find the hares.
This estate is wildlife friendly and aims to re-establish the natural ecology of the land. Many estates are focussed on grouse and anything that may affect the development or number of grouse is eradicated. This includes hares, despite not being any threat to the life cycle of a grouse. Golden eagles circle overhead, hunting the abundant small mammals that flourish in this balanced landscape. It is such a shame that other landowners in the Highlands don’t have the same attitude towards their vulnerable land.
As we head away from the rain there are signs of deer and otters passing along the track. Small otter runs through the marshes are visible alongside the river, wallow pits are higher up and used by the deer. The signs of life are everywhere. Slowly we reached the area where the hares are found. One lonely hare is spied, but as soon as we are spotted he is up from his form and running. Hares do not burrow like rabbits, they spend their entire life above ground. They do however dig out a sheltered platform called a ‘form’. These are not personal and hares will move from one form to another. However, once they have a comfortable form it takes quite a bit to evict them!
Coming around the curve in the path another hare is spotted. This time content in his form. He knows we are there but doesn’t have the instant need to run. This winter season the hares are easy to spot. A lack of snow has left them exposed and vulnerable to predators on the mountainside. Getting down low we work our way towards him. Slowly and gently. There is no rush. Finally we drop to our knees and shuffle ungracefully towards his little platform. When we are 30metres away we decide it is time to stop. To talk and to give him time to adjust to our presence. We settle in for a while. Chatting and watching him. He is very aware of us, but as time passes he starts to doze. We begin to blend into his landscape and are able to slowly move a little closer.
Eventually we are in the perfect position. He is chilled and trusting and takes the risk of eating a pellet. This is a vulnerable moment as his head goes down and he loses vision around him. We are still there, not moving when he lifts his head. Our little test of trust is passed. He stretches, has a little groom after the rain, a nice yawn and settles down to watch the world go by.
Every hour or so he has a pellet (or 7). A little shuffle and a rearrange. Phased only by approaching walkers disturbing another hare and the gamekeepers heading up the road he is chilled and mellow. We sit with him for a good few hours. Watching his response to the Easyjet flight in and out of Inverness Airport and a golden eagle soaring high above us on the thermals. He was more aware of these disturbances than we were. Time with this chap really makes you realise how much of our environment we filter out when we have no concerns about being eaten. The routine of pellet, grooming, yawn, stretch and snooze becomes clear and we are able to predict with a nose twitch when he is about to start a little fidget.
Eventually the light was fading. We had watched the sun briefly peek above the surrounding mountains, a sign that the seasons were changing but the majority of the day was in shadow with gusting winds and freezing temperatures. Slowly we packed away, careful not to disturb him after a day of interaction. Backing away leaving him where we had found him, totally chilled was the perfect end to the day with this chap.
All of these images (apart from my phone snaps!!) were taken with a Canon 70D and a Canon 600mm f4/L lens. I was lucky to be ‘lent’ this beastie for the day. This was mounted on a Lens Master gimbal head giving really easy movement. Other than that everything was down to the hare, good positioning and sunshine moments. We didn’t need to be quiet once we were in place. Our voices became part of the hares environment. Crisp packets, sweet wrappers and velcro did cause a few moments, but talking over the noise worked perfectly. Ensuring we moved as a group and kept together for comfort breaks, leaving one person in place kept the hare content and calm. My favourite images from the day are in my mountain hare gallery. Hopefully next year there will be snow and the hares will blend in with the landscape a little better.