Found ourselves wrapping up 2015 a bit like we started the year with a trip to the Cairngorms National Park in the Scottish Highlands in the snow. Back in January our quest was wintry reindeer shots for a Christmas magazine feature for this month – now safely published and ticked off the ‘to do’ list. This time round our mission was mountain hares – a whole lot trickier to capture than docile deer lured to our lenses by expert herders and a bag of supplementary feed. This one wasn’t a commission so much as a personal challenge and a chance to brush up on our stalking skills and burn up a few calories before the Xmas excess.
Unless you’ve been hibernating this winter you’ll know that the weather story in recent weeks here in the north of the UK has been all about milder than average temperatures and the terrible flooding following a soap opera cast list of storms a whole lot less friendly than their names – Eva, Desmond, Frank – might suggest. The white stuff has been pretty scarce so getting any shots of hares in the snow wasn’t looking that likely.
So, a week or so before the Christmas festivities were due to begin, as soon as we heard there had been snow in The Highlands, we headed off. For once luck played into our hands. The roads into the glens were just about passable and the weather was fine and fair. Wrapped up against the minus five temperatures we parked our car and climbed and climbed, and climbed and climbed, following hare tracks here, there and everywhere. It’s tiring, toe-numbing stuff – but what a place to be and what a view all around us.
Eventually after considerable slogging we spied a couple of hares resting up a little bit higher on the steep face of the mountain. They were watching us as keenly as we were spying on them. Time to go into hare stalking mode. If they don’t scarper straightaway – and a fair few do – then slow patient progress is the way with these subjects. Take it steady and very slow and you may be lucky enough to get quite close as some hares will tolerate you if you don’t push them. We found our new best friend, Canon’s 100-400mm zoom, proved a perfect piece of kit for the job with a 1.4x contender on hand for when you need to work at longer range.
We managed to get shots of one fairly confiding hare on that morning’s stalk. You could be lucky and photograph several or not get close to any at all. That’s how it is with mountain hares. Frustratingly we had to make do with photographing stock material at the nearby Highland Wildlife Park on the next two days because an overnight fall of snow made it dodgy for driving into the glen.
We did resume our mountain hare quest later on in the trip, as soon as we were able. But the return of the unseasonal mild weather meant that, when it came, the thaw was just a bit too thorough. The snow disappeared completely – as fast as a fleeing hare – even from the high ground. We did find plenty more mountain hares and took lots of pictures, but charming and characterful as these hardy creatures are, somehow it’s just not the same without the the snow…