A Hare for All Seasons

January 03, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

With the new year now upon us I'm looking forward to my photography plans for 2015, but it also seems an opportune moment to pause and look back on what was probably my favourite project of the past year.

On reflection, 2014 was a pretty good year. I got to see wild otters in Shetland, soaring gannets (again in Shetland and also on the east coast), red squirrels, foxes and more red kites than you could shake a stick at.

Coming into 2014 though, I resolved to put concerted effort into another species. Living on the edge of the Peak District, I'd known for a good while that mountain hares were to be found up on the moors (indeed the one location outside of the Scottish highlands where they exist in any numbers), but I'd never managed to see one myself.

After a fair amount of research and many hours criss-crossing the peak district moorland in a variety of weathers, patience started to pay off. There's a moment, I find, when out with my camera when after a number of hours of no-shows your heart starts to sink a little and you feel that today might not be your day.

But then you'll spot some movement on the horizon and suddenly everything changes.

Mountain HareMountain HarePeak District mountain hare on the skyline This was taken from one of my first trips at the beginning of February and with no snow covering the ground, the hares were quite distinctive in their white winter coats against the moorland grass and heather. Getting close enough was a different matter though. If the wind is not in your favour and they catch your scent, see your distinctive human form against the skyline or hear you coming with those radar-like ears, you've had it. I ended up with plenty of blurry images of the backs of hears disappearing into the distance.

Gradually, I was able to work out a way of getting closer without disturbance. By the beginning of March, their summer coats were starting to come through on a few individuals.

Laying upLaying upA few more from a couple of weeks ago. I'm hoping to get out and spend some more time with these guys tomorrow. Had a go today but strong wind and low cloud meant an early bail-out Finally, a couple of weekends later, the patience finally paid off with a cooperative subject, good light, time and a healthy dash of luck.

Mountain HareMountain HareAfter an aborted attempt last weekend, defeated by driving winds and low cloud, I was out early again today on the trail of mountain hares. While native to the highlands of Scotland, they were introduced to the Peak District in the 19th century and although they're fewer in numbers than they were, a reasonably healthy population still hangs on in certain places.

The cloud was slow to lift just after sunrise, so I used the time to recce out a few places. A few sightings at distance at first, and then I was able to work out where a good number of them were hanging out.

It takes patience and a lot of luck. Most will bolt as soon as they get wind of you but I was lucky to find this chilled out dude. I carefully got as close as I dared, although it still required my longest lens and he was well aware I was there, but tolerated me - even going so far to have a wash and a snooze at one point.

I must have spent a good forty five minutes or so in his company, before backing off and leaving him be.
Mountain hare in winter sunlightMountain hare in winter sunlightPeak District mountain hare, captured in the low winter's sun

With being away during the summer, and other demands on my time, I resolved to go back and see how they were getting on as autumn set in. As the autumn colours took hold, they were a little difficult to pick out from amongst the bracken and heather, their summer coats still in place, but it at least made for a nice splash of colour.

Hidden HareHidden HareGiven the good weather forecast for today, I thought I'd head back up into the Peak District early this morning and see what I could see.

With the sun low in the sky, autumn and winter light, when we get a good sunny day, is arguably the best time of year to be out with the camera.

Having had some degree of success with the mountain hares last winter, I was up and out early this morning to see how they were getting on. Rather than heading off to my usual site, I decided to give another place a go - somewhere I'd been before that's great for red grouse but not somewhere I'd seen hares before, although it was likely they'd be around.

It was beautiful morning, the grouse were out in force and I spent a good ten minutes watching a pair of buzzards soaring over the moorland.

In the end, I only found one hare, and he wasn't coming out of his warm spot in the heather for anything. Keeping my distance so as not to spook him, I managed to find a couple of angles where I could see through the heather where the light was decent.

With the heather being quite thick and the hares clearly not out of their brown summer coats yet, it wasn't surprising I only saw one. I probably walked past a dozen without realising.

Interestingly, it looks like the white winter coat is starting to moult through from around his eyes. I noticed towards the end of last winter and into spring that brown patches around the eyes were the first sign of the winter coat to go, so I wonder if it works the same in reverse.
Finally, as the year came to a close and we saw the first snows of winter, their trademark white coats were once again back on show.

Winter Is ComingWinter Is ComingAlthough the weather is still quite mild, with it being December next week I decided to have a hike up to my mountain hare site in the Peaks to see how they were getting on, and whether they were in their winter coats yet.

Low cloud, mist and drizzle didn't make for great conditions, but managed to spot a dozen or so individuals in fairly advanced stages of moult, which bodes well if we get any snow cover before Christmas.

Photographic opportunities were limited, but managed a short session with one cooperative individual
The first snow of winterThe first snow of winterMountain hare from early this morning in the Peak District.

A bit better light than last week, though it didn't last very long as a weather front with low cloud and mist rolled in mid-morning.

There was a light dusting of snow up on the moors which meant the hares were a little more difficult to spot than normal, as they've not completely turned white yet and so were in pretty good camouflage.
I really enjoyed the time that I spent in the company of these beautiful animals this year and despite whatever else I get up to this year, if a winter or early spring weekend morning brings some sunshine, frost or, even better, a covering of snow, it's more than likely I'll once again go and try my luck.

Thanks a lot for reading and more hare photos can be found in my gallery from the photography link at the top of the page.


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