Bogs, Hags and Hares

Shetland is a good place to see Mountain hares and, if you’re out on a moor, can afford close up views. “Out on a moor” might mean in a car getting a lucky sighting or, like I was last Saturday, crawling on my hands and knees through a somewhat damp heather moor in the central Mainland. It was a beautiful sunny day though there was a strong breeze, unfortunately coming from almost the same direction as the fairly low sun. The issue there of course was that, whilst I was downwind of my quarry, my visibility was significantly lessened by the glare. However, that was only a problem from time to time since the wily hares had me running round in circles! They do that by each running in opposite directions to almost the same distance as each other, so you never know which one to try and get closer to!

At this time of year Mountain hares are in their winter coat, which is mostly white, sometimes with greyish areas on the flanks whilst still retaining brown on their nose and ears that have a black tip. When there’s no snow this makes them easier to spot against the brown heather, though they still manage to hide under the peat hags and occasionally startle you. All in all I probably saw at least a dozen Mountain hares that day but only got anywhere near 3 and only close enough to photograph 1. Meanwhile, I saw plenty of hindquarters from hares that, had I known were just beside me, could have made excellent photo subjects!

I’ve tried to get a decent photo of Mountain Hares on a number of occasions over the past couple of years and I’ve tried different tactics. Firstly I tried to get a decent shot from the car, using it as a hide. I had reasonable results but I just don’t have  a long enough telephoto lens so I gave up on that approach. The past couple of times, including Saturday, I have practised my field craft, observing what the hares do and trying to use the humps and bumps in the landscape to hide behind, often crawling or walking on my knees over a hundred metres or so, then crawling flat on my stomach for the last few metres. Meanwhile, in many cases, the hare takes advantage of the fact that I cannot see it to do a disappearing act! But, just occasionally, it’s still where I last saw it – though within a second or two of it spotting me it heads for the nearest hill, often running in stages each a couple of hundred metres.

The other difficulty in creeping up on the hares in this way, particularly on the moor where I was on Saturday, is that it’s badly hagged in places (eroded by livestock that causes large gashes, gullies and areas of bare peat) meaning it’s not possible to crawl over these areas. Additionally, it’s quite boggy with numerous pools and small watercourses running through it so it can be quite difficult to keep a low profile over any significant distance.

After about 2 hours it was time to go – I had other commitments that day. But, as sometimes happens, I got my best photo of the day within the first half hour! But I’ll be back some other day, hopefully before the end of this “winter coat” season.

Mountain hare, Shetland

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