By Tesni Ward
Ever wondered what it’s like to take on your very own wildlife project? Here’s an update from OLYMPUS Ambassador Tesni Ward on her ongoing mission to photograph the mountain hares found in the Peak District, and the results of this year’s extension to capture the hares found in the Cairngorms.Having worked with and photographed the Peak District population of mountain hares for some time now, this year I was extremely keen to travel up to Scotland and photograph the hares found in the stunning and expansive Cairngorm National Park. I was eager to see if there were significant differences between the two populations, and also to photograph and observe them in true, winter conditions, where their white coats blend into the snowy environment.
With a 7-hour drive ahead of me, I was intending to make the most of my time up in the mountains. Setting off long before the first signs of dawn meant I was able to reach the mountains by midday, and headed straight up the nearest slope in search of the first hare. It seemed I had missed the best snowfall by a day, with heavily trampled or melted snow along many of the paths and hillsides, and strong winds violently blowing the snow from the tops.
Things didn’t quite go as I’d hoped, and I was only able to grab a few fleeting glimpses of hares. I unexpectedly bumped into a couple of friends and from their reports, it seemed I wasn’t the only one struggling – the conditions had the hares spooked and skittish. But I didn’t let this put me off: how often does everything go perfectly to plan on day one?
Over the next two weeks, I spent almost every day up in the mountains with these beautiful and charismatic animals, and the project only got better and better. The weather conditions were unpredictable and highly changeable, but snow would fall and melt almost instantly, disappearing overnight despite the huge quantities that fell and settled. Rain and high winds would often pelt the mountains and valleys, proving once and for all that my ‘waterproofs’ were far from capable of keeping the weather out, but these conditions kept the crowds away.
It was clear from the outset that these hares were far easier to approach and work with than their Derbyshire counterparts, most likely due to being more used to people’s company. The variation of coat colours between individuals was noticeable; some hares were ice white, while others were grey or even oak brown. I regularly saw them box, fight and chase each other, but frustratingly always at the wrong time when rain would be pelting the front of the lens.
Over the two weeks I was able to identify and work with six individual hares. I would usually be able to find them within a small territorial patch, and would work with each one depending on the conditions and the types of images I was after. While some hares would be highly dynamic and active, others would spend the majority of the time sleeping and relaxing. It was clear that these hares were easier to approach and work with, but their behaviour didn’t differ noticeably from the individuals I worked with in the Peak District. What struck me was how open their habitat was, and how closely-knit the individual territories were. As an additional bonus, behaviours like fighting and mating were much easier to observe due to the relatively flat and clean terrain.
I’ll definitely be returning to Scotland to photograph the Cairngorm hares again; working with a combination of individuals from different environments and habitats allows me to expand this ongoing project in an exciting and challenging way – but with the Peak District only an hour away from my home, this will always be where I focus the majority of my time.