The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare

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The secret life of the mountain hare is revealed in a new book by Highland wildlife photographer Andy Howard, who spent years observing his ‘endearing’ subject in the Cairngorms.

Now Howard is coming to Oban to sign copies of the book and meet his readers.

‘Among the most captivating of creatures, the mountain hare has inhabited Britain’s upland landscape since the last major ice age,’ the publisher Sandstone explains. ‘Andy Howard introduces them not only as a species to be held as precious within the great wheel of nature, but also as individuals with their own, delightful personalities.’

Howard writes: ‘Moorland has become my second home because mountain hares live on the high pastures that were formerly used for cattle, and the rougher grazing that lies beside them. By choice, they would live in forests but, in terms of habitat, they share the fate of the red deer. Evolved for forest living, they find themselves in a territory denuded of trees.

A hare at sunset. Photograph Andy Howard.
A hare at sunset. Photograph Andy Howard.

‘The word “encounter” became part of my expedition lexicon. Each was different not only because of location, light and weather, but also because each hare is an individual. To look in its eyes is to search and, sometimes, be searched.

‘Their pelage morphs three times a year: from white to brown in spring, brown to grey in autumn, and a return to white for the next winter. Their ears are relatively short, and black tipped, and have four main positions: upright and alert, flat back which displays anxiety, even fear, certainly deep distress, or tucked in to prevent heat loss while they rest.

Photograph Andy Howard.
Photograph Andy Howard.

‘Unlike rabbits, they do not live in holes in the ground, although they may use burrows as bolt holes. Instead, they find undulations where they can turn and make a shape. These locations are called “forms” and some have been used by generations of hares.

‘Their lives mostly consist of drowsing in apparent idleness before they display their chewing, whisker-twitching signs of coming wakefulness. Then they will wander, grazing, but ever prepared for those massive hind legs to take powerful flight. Seasonally, they will have romance on their minds.

‘They are placid in the extreme, wandering outside their inherited territories rarely, if at all. Violence is virtually unknown except prior to mating when they indulge their most famous anthropomorphic feature, known as “boxing”.

Boxing hares. Photograph Andy Howard.
Boxing hares. Photograph Andy Howard.

‘This is done between males and females, when the jack will make his approach only to be rebuffed. He may believe she is ready when, in fact, she is still not quite in season. He sidles behind her, sniffs interestedly, and before he knows it she has spun on those powerful hind legs and knocked him flying.

‘In an instant both are upright, jabbing away, until they either mate or he runs off, usually in the direction from whence he came. The jill might test the strength of several suitors as she comes into season and makes her choice. The wise jack will wait, not spending his strength in idle play. The special hare I named Bagpuss was adept at this, a master of timing.

Photograph Andy Howard.
Photograph Andy Howard.

‘Above all else, mountain hares are survivors, but their presence is also an indicator of a healthy environment where predators and prey live their lives in a constantly shifting balance.

‘There is no legal restriction on the numbers that may be killed during the hare culling season. Although Scottish Natural Heritage has asked for “restraint”, little is demonstrated, and mass culls are organised frequently with horrific pictures bearing witness to the slaughter. This is a heart-rending and surely unnecessary state of affairs.

‘Until recently, they had not been photographed extensively. Other than experts, few people knew all that much about them, or much cared. Public awareness has increased beyond belief and these amazing animals have begun to be appreciated for what they are and the magic they bring to the landscape.’

Andy will be at Waterstones in Oban on Saturday November 17 from 3pm-4pm.