Out of all the creatures with which we share Scotland’s hills, for me there are none that can match the charm of the mountain hare. Whilst on most encounters we walkers only manage to get a fleeting glimpse of their rear end as they skip gracefully away over the snow or through the heather, a close encounter with a relaxed hare reveals their endlessly endearing facial expressions and gestures. When it comes to photographing these magical creatures there’s one man who has risen to prominence as the pre-eminent hare photographer in recent years – Andy Howard – so this book was opened with some anticipation.
It doesn’t disappoint. There are chapters showing the hare’s habitat, the predators that prey on them, and then the main part of the book illustrates mountain hares and their changing appearance and behaviour all through the seasons. There’s a superb set of shots of quite impossibly cute leverets (young hares), their quizzical expressions peering out from the heather or next to a boulder. There are sets that show the changing coat and colours of the same hare photographed at different times of year. There are hares captured in every type of light – including some magical back-lit shots. There are hares running, sitting, mating, boxing, sleeping, cleaning themselves, rolling in the snow or huddling down as they site out the winter storms. Hares don’t live in burrows, they just rest in a dent in the ground called a form, so they have to be tough creatures to cope with the worst the Scottish hills can throw at them. The photographer who hopes to capture their lives has to share in these hardships too – a huge amount of time, patience and field-craft is needed to be in place to photograph a sodden hare shaking itself off at the end of a rain shower, or becoming slowly plastered by snow and ice during a blizzard. All aspects of their life and behaviour are illustrated with stunning photographs.
A bigger surprise is how enjoyable I found the text. Andy describes how he came to become a professional photographer and developed a special interest in mountain hares, a species which hadn’t received a great amount of attention at that time. He includes his first ever hare photograph, of a hare with its ears pinned back, and he explains how he now understands that this shows an animal in distress, and that we should really retreat from any hare showing this behaviour to allow it to relax once more. Rather than a dry scientific description of the species, this book is a very personal account of a man increasing his understanding and appreciation of these creatures and their lives, as well as capturing them on camera. Field notes tell the story of how he managed to obtain some of the most memorable images. Wider topical issues are touched on too – the increasing intensification of many grouse moors is lamented, but Andy is refreshingly optimistic that change is coming and that hare populations will eventually be protected.
Some hares run at the first sign of man, whilst there are others happy to sit for the very patient photographer with good field-craft. In the final section we are introduced to three hares that became particularly special to Andy through repeated observation over the years. The photos in this section are a remarkable and rare portrait of three individual animals observed going about their natural lives over a sustained period of time.
In the introduction to the book Iolo Williams writes of how great a pleasure it is to spend a day in the field with a person who is a true expert and enthusiast for his subject. With its engaging text and lavish photos, this beautiful book is the next best thing to enjoying a day on the hill with Andy and his hares.
The Secret Life of the Mountain Hare by Andy Howard, published by Sandstone Press. Available from Amazon and all good bookshops, or signed copies direct from Andy’s website at andyhoward.co.uk; RRP £25.