An intriguing subject
There is something about certain subjects that seems to get under your skin and, for me, one of those subjects is mountain hare. To be more specific, mountain hares in winter when these charismatic mammals are sporting their white coats and, to my mind, are at their most photogenic. But wintertime presents its own challenges, not only for the hares themselves, who have to deal with some brutal conditions in their often hostile upland environment, but also for anyone wanting to photograph them. And whilst the hares have evolved over millennia to deal with these winter conditions, we mere mortals do not always fair quite so well.
Mountain hares, unlike the brown hare, are native to the UK, but their distribution is restricted largely to the Scottish hills with a small but stable population present also in the Peak District National Park. All of my recent photographic encounters with mountain hares have been in the Cairngorms National Park in northern Scotland, where they can be found on most of the higher altitude heather moors and hills, favouring areas with a rich mosaic of vegetation for feeding. Their numbers fluctuate widely as a consequence of a boom and bust cycle of their natural population and, more significantly, from shooting, which occurs on many upland estates.
As a result, some of the best places to find and photograph mountain hares are around the ski centres where, largely, they are left undisturbed and also, to a degree, have become accustomed to people. In other areas they can be very flighty and often will run away when approached, even at a distance of over several hundred metres. Indeed, getting close to mountain hares is the single biggest challenge and, believe me, I have had plenty of experience of watching them disappear at a considerable rate of knots over a distant horizon.
So what is the best approach for photographing them? There is no magic formula that works every time; each hare seems to behave differently and to some extent it depends also on the sort of images that you are trying to capture. Many of my favourite pictures are actually of the hare quite small in the frame, putting the animal in context with its habitat, which helps to tell more of a story. These pictures need a strong background or surroundings to work effectively but in the right conditions they can be very powerful images which convey a sense of the harsh winter environment that the hares have to cope with.
But, if you are after full frame portraits, then obviously you need to get in close and this is not easy. However, there are two ways to do this, by stalking or by playing the waiting game. Most of the time stalking does not work, the hares simply run away, but, occasionally, an individual will adopt a different strategy and hunker down in the snow and rely on camouflage. If you can spot a hare behaving in this way before you tread on it then you are in with a good chance. The key is to use binoculars to scan an area for hares. Many will stand up and take a look at you before running off, but look for balls of white fur lying motionless; they are often tucked in against a rock or peat hag and can take some time to spot, but it is worth persevering.
Approach resting hares slowly and indirectly by moving in a zigzag direction rather than walking straight towards them and also avoid looking directly at them. Stop every so often and assess the behaviour of the hare. If it sits up then it is almost certain to flee, so resist moving any closer and try to locate another one instead. However, if it remains hunkered down, continue to approach; try to keep low and if necessary crawl along the ground. Using this technique it is possible to get within 10 metres of a resting hare, from where you can fill your boots with close-up images. Do not overdo the motor-drive though, as this can cause alarm. Instead, shoot intermittently and wait for the hare to relax to yield better results.
Creating exciting images
Whilst compliant hares are great for portraits, they do not offer a great deal else photographically and, in the main, are stationary. So this still leaves the problem of how to obtain more exciting images of hares actually doing something or looking more animated. What I have found to work well is to find a group of hares reasonably approachable in the first instance, that allow me to get within say 100m. Still too far away for good images but within striking distance. My approach then is to settle down and wait, usually partially hidden in some way by the contours of the land or a boulder, or otherwise lying prone and thereby making myself appear to be un-human.
By remaining still and quiet, the hares seem to forget or ignore that I am there, or at least do not recognise me as a threat, and continue to go about their business: for the most part, actually, this is not very much for most of the day since they are mainly active by night. Because of this I make my visits usually at dawn and dusk when the hares are livelier. This has worked very well on occasions and I have had hares approach me very closely, apparently unaware of my presence until they are alerted by the noise of the shutter (why cannot anyone make a silent shutter?).
Locating mountain hares
I have found also that hares are very faithful to their own patch. This not only helps to locate them when returning to an area on subsequent visits, but also they have a tendency to return to an area if disturbed. This only holds true some of the time, but it is worth hanging around if you disturb a hare as it might return within an hour or so. This was the case a couple of years ago after I had trudged through thigh-deep snow for a couple of hours to reach a site, only to see several hares disappear from view. Exhausted, I slumped down into the snow pondering my next move. Should I carry on or retreat home for a hot brew?
Whilst still fantasising about the prospect of a hot drink and a sugar fix, a hare appeared over the ridge in front of me and continued to head in my direction. Within seconds it ran past, no more than 10m away. The problem was my photographic gear was tucked up nicely in my camera bag. Much cursing ensued, but having calmed down to a mild temper I got my gear set up, more in hope than expectation. But, to my amazement, a second hare did exactly the same thing, running down the snowfield towards me and coming to an abrupt halt. By now it was filling the frame and I hardly dared to press the shutter, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up so I squeezed off a few captures before it continued on its way.
It was without doubt the best mountain hare encounter I have ever had and despite returning to the same spot and many others, I have not bettered the pictures as yet. But, for me, this is something to keep trying as there are always new and different images to be taken, and time spent out on the hills in the company of mountain hares is always very much a privilege. Just remember to wear your thermals; it can get a tad chilly at times.