In the northern reaches of Scotland, the higher you go the more inclement and changeable the weather. Here, the conditions can resemble the Arctic, with temperatures well below zero and winds buffeting in from the Atlantic that make it feel even colder. At any time an explosion of snow and low cloud can suddenly envelope the unsuspecting walker, reducing visibility to just a metre or two.
But there are also days, even in January, when the cobalt blue sky, the sleeping wind and the low bright sun combine to present the perfect conditions for stalking and photographing the elusive and enchanting mountain hare. Unlike their better known and more widely distributed cousins, the European brown hare, the mountain hare clings to the mountain tops for survival. Here, on Britain’s highest mountain plateau, the Cairngorms, the environment and topography are more akin to the Arctic tundra of Scandinavia, Lapland and Siberia. But it is here that you can expect to find Britain’s greatest proliferation of mountain hares, along with those hardy iconic birds of the Arctic, the ptarmigan and snow bunting.
Elsewhere, wildlife is either hibernating or has flown south long ago for the winter, but in their white winter coats and plumage, the mountain hares, ptarmigan and snow bunting provide subjects for the photographer to capture images that resemble scenes from the higher, Arctic latitudes. Today this hardy leporid is confined to Scotland, where it is indigenous, and to the Isle of Man and the Derbyshire Peak District where it was reintroduced in the 19th century for game hunting. They have also been introduced to the Scottish islands of Shetland, Hoy, Lewis, Harris, Skye, Raasay, Scalpay and Jura.
FIELD CRAFT BASICS
Mountain hares are smaller than brown hares, and their ears, while still long, are also shorter. They are sometimes called blue hares because their fur has a blue-grey tinge during spring and summer. But come October, the fur begins changing to the snowy white that makes them such a challenge to pick out on the icy hills and moors during the winter months. But capturing one of these endearing creatures – white on white – has become something of a wildlife photographer’s holy grail in recent years. A successful capture with the camera is a measure of field craft skill, subject knowledge, technical ability and compositional aesthetics.
It is important for the photographer to understand the habits and behaviour of the hare and to master the field craft required to get close enough for photography. When it comes to their diet, mountain hares are unfussy foragers: they prefer short, young heather, but will resort to older woody plants if necessary. They will also feed on gorse, willow, birch, rowan and juniper.
Knowing their eating habits increases the photographer’s chances of locating them – often a tell-tale sign is the sight of an outline of large ears above the heather. On other occasions, while still in their white winter coats, they will stand out against snow-free slopes after an early thaw. On the snow, the broad feet of mountain hares act like snowshoes, spreading their weight and thereby making it easier for them to move at speed when taking cover from predators.
LOOKING UP THE SLOPE
Naturally, spotting a mountain hare on a snow-covered hillside is not an easy task, even for the most experienced photographer. Binoculars are therefore an essential item to take for your excursion. Of course, finding a mountain hare is one thing, getting close enough to take a worthwhile photograph is quite another. Because of the terrain and conditions they frequent, mountain hares usually stay low and well sheltered throughout the day.
For the first-time hare photographer, it is important to research the methods used by others who have succeeded in their quest before you. One behaviour the hares adopt which can influence your approach is their habit of sitting with their backs to the slope. Therefore, when approaching from the base of the slope, move slowly and keep watching, camera ready. With their faces visible you’re able to detect the signs of behaviour and expression that indicate what the hares might do next.
One sign that a hare may not be comfortable with your approach is when they start to twitch. Constant twitching often precedes a decision to bolt, and when a hare decides to take flight they disappear quickly in a puff of powder snow. Another clue is when they lie close to the ground, almost flat, with their ears pressed firmly back: this is a sign of unease and fear, so you need to remain still and make no attempt to move. When tracking mountain hares, be prepared to spend many hours lying flat on your stomach!
Probably the subtlest sign of a mountain hare’s unease and impending exit, is when it starts to turn its head. This means it is checking its escape route – usually uphill and at great speed. It is on higher ground and flat plateaus where you are most likely to find mountain hare ‘forms’; these are small scrapes or depressions in the ground, often behind large rocks, where they like to sit and shelter during the day. It is when they are hungry that they will move down the slope to forage, thus presenting photographers with the best chance to see them.
When approaching a hare it is best to walk slowly and directly. Make no sudden movements or noise. If there are two of you making the approach, walk together (rather than from separate directions), so the hare only has to check in one direction and is more likely to feel at ease. If the hare continues to behave in the same way as you approach then continue moving forward – slowly and quietly. If it starts twitching, stops foraging and begins looking around, it is clearly nervous, so you need to stop, sit down and wait until the hare settles down and returns to whatever it was doing.
The closer you get to the hare the slower you should approach. If all goes well and you get to around 50 or 60 metres away, then sink to ground level and start crawling. Assuming your lens is long enough, it may be best at this point to stop and slowly get your camera and lens into position to start taking pictures.
It is worth noting here that the ‘rustle’ factor of your clothing can play a part in how the hare reacts to your presence. Fabrics that are noisy will increase the likelihood of the hare taking flight, so be prepared to lie low and keep still for a long time while watching and framing your subject through your camera.
WHITE ON WHITE
While approaching a mountain hare close enough to take pictures is difficult and patient undertaking, making an accurate exposure of these white fur balls against a background of snow-covered terrain isn’t straightforward either.
Most of us like to use an automatic exposure mode such as aperture priority, shutter priority or a fully programmed setting, but white fur against snow demands a different approach. You need to focus on the eyes of the hare and take a spot meter reading from its brown-tinged face, making sure to lock this exposure using the automatic exposure lock, then check focus again before firing.
Alternatively, take a spot meter reading from a non-white surface such as a protruding rock or clump of heather and set this value manually before re-framing. The neutral colour tones of these natural features will give a more accurate overall exposure and ensure details are rendered and highlights not blown out.
Remember also to set an ISO rating that ensures you maintain a fast shutter speed: hares move at great speed so if you’re after a burst of action-freezing frames, you need to set a shutter speed to match. A wide aperture value is advisable to not only maximize the light hitting the image sensor (and so keep the shutter speed fast), but to also narrow the plane of focus, thereby making the eyes and face of the hare stand out even more from the surroundings.
Finally, a prolonged period in the mountains in the middle of winter will inevitably mean sub-zero temperatures, so dress appropriately with plenty of layers and a well insulated jacket, hat and gloves. Expect your camera batteries to drain faster, so keep spares warm and close to you, and switch off any unnecessary functions that require power, such as lens vibration reduction systems and Live View. And take heed
of the weather forecast: if gales and snow are on their way – always give yourself time to get back to your starting point before dark.
Wear proper clothing for sub-zero temperatures. You will be exposed to the elements for several hours so wear plenty of layers with well insulated outer garments such as a down jacket and thermal hat and gloves.
Add a teleconverter (1.4x, 1.7x or 2x) to your telephoto lens if you need greater image magnification. These are lightweight, very compact and easy to handle when lying on the ground.
Use binoculars to spot mountain hares from a distance that doesn’t give your presence away. Hares have acute hearing and sense of smell, so try to stay downwind when making your approach.
Make any sudden movements or noise when stalking mountain hares. Always watch their faces for signs of nervousness and stop, crouch down and wait before moving on again. Patience is key.
Take a tripod or monopod. These are impractical for photography when you’re likely to be shooting from a prone position on the ground. Instead, use a beanbag to rest your lens and absorb movements and vibrations.
Switch on the image stabilisation system or Live View. Extremely cold conditions drain batteries fast, so save power by switching off non-essential camera and lens functions. Pack spare batteries and keep them warm next to you.
The Hare Book, by The Hare Preservation Trust, Graffeg, £9.98, hardback
Mountain Hares, by A. Watson and R. Hewson, Sunday Times Publications, £12.50, softback
Wild Land: A Photographic Journey Through the Cairngorms, by Peter Cairns and Mark Hamblin, Birlinn, £16.99, softback
Lens option: Telephoto zoom
A telephoto zoom with a 600mm focal length is rare but Sigma has the 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary (£1199). It uses one FLD and three SLD glass elements to minimise chromatic and other optical aberrations throughout the zoom range. It’s also dust and splash proof for reliable use in the field and features a detachable tripod socket for more convenient handheld photography.
Accessory option: All-weather backpack
Camera backpacks are plentiful but few are designed for the harsh treatment of that comes with prolonged use in alpine winters. Ikigai’s Rival backpack (£270) features a configurable padded camera cell and is made to carry pro DSLRs, lenses, flashguns, a laptop and all the accessories you need.
Clothing option: Walking boot
You can expect a long, hilly walk to get into mountain hare country so don’t take short cuts with footwear. Stout, durable and waterproof walking boots are a must, such as the Keen Liberty Ridge hiking boot (£150). This is a tough, supportive, high-performance leather boot for long trips on those gnarly rocky trails that are the ultimate test of a boot’s strength and comfort.
This article was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.