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The elusive mountain hare: Author tracks master of camouflage through the snow as bird of prey follows their path from the sky

© Andy HowardMountain hare
Mountain hare

I love to walk when the snow falls, and so do mountain hares. American writer Ernest Thompson Seton called the snowshoe hare “a cross between a rabbit and a snowdrift”, and the same is true of its transatlantic kin, the mountain hare.

Here, where the trees thin and give up the unequal struggle of finding sustenance on the steepest land below this small mountain’s rockiest outcrop, there was a trail threading through the first and last of the birches.

The trees are widely spaced and more concerned with a strong grip on thin soil than reaching for sunlight and growing a canopy. The sum of their ambition is just to be.

Birches fit the lie of the land here. They belong. And slowly, and in various parts of the Highlands and Borders, the wisdom of restoring the treeline is beginning to sink in, and here and there the ghosts of past native forests are returning, made manifest.

In an eerie reversal of received wisdom, the snow was shallower at this blasted height compared to the sheltered corners of the glen where it had thickened and drifted.

At about 1,500ft on an outpost of the Cairngorms, the wind had flayed the slope all morning, a scouring air that drove the fallen snow before it. These are conditions to the mountain hare’s liking, for they free up the heather and what’s left of the hill grasses – and these are the mountain hare’s staples.

The same conditions also keep its footprints shallow and quickly blow their traces from the slope, and I am guessing that this state of affairs suits an animal that takes such pains to try to be invisible.

The conditions are to my liking, too, because they keep the ground beneath my feet firm and offer relatively easy walking. And if I do come across a trail then that suggests the owner of the most extraordinary footprints on this mountainside is not too far ahead.

Here is a perfect set of four feet where a hare has paused just inside the last of the trees. The front feet are unexceptional, two smallish teardrop shapes, tapering towards the front, a couple of inches long. But the back feet are the mountain hare’s power source, five inches long and shaped like the sole of a shoe, thickened by a coating of fur.

The trend towards all-but-snowless winters, even here, is bad news for the mountain hare, for a white winter coat on a bare brown hillside is what you might call a sitting duck – both for a hunting eagle and a man with a gun.

Don’t for one moment think that recent legislation from the Scottish Parliament giving hares legal protection will inhibit those men with guns. There is a tendency among some hunters in Scotland to behave as if the laws of the land don’t apply to them. It is not universal, but it is a problem.

But here was a day when this mountain hare might relax. There was no one on this mountainside but me, and I came armed only with binoculars, notebook and pen.

I paused where the hare paused and scanned the slope beyond. The trail was visible for about 50 yards then vanished among rock-strewn furrows. It was nowhere more than around 30ft higher than the edge of the wood.

My cause was best served by staying at the edge of the trees for two reasons. One is that I was not dressed from head to toe in white but rather in dark green and black – so if the hare didn’t already know I was here, it would the moment I stepped out into the open.

The other was that I like the edges of things, and this no-man’s-land where woodland opens out and unfurls and defers to mountain is my kind of terrain.

I had a flask of coffee, some food and a bivvy bag to fold beneath a mat to sit on, so I decided to do what I do best, which is to sit and do nothing but watch and see what turns up. There were three hours of reliable light left, I would use half of one of them to become landscape and let nature come to me.

Half an hour, coffee and food came and went, and it started to become just a touch too cold for comfort. I rose, packed up, leaned against the last of the trees and took a long and painstaking look through binoculars at the open hill and the open sky. No hare stirred.

But low above the skyline, a golden eagle was holding up into the wind with wings curved back from the “elbow” and held in a downward flex that seemed to aid wind resistance and allow it to hold still on the air with no visible means of support.

That in itself could explain the hare’s absence from the open hill, or at least its profound stillness if it was still out there.

The eagle was certainly looking, and with eyesight rather more accomplished and expert than my decent-quality binoculars. If it could see no hare, it had probably doubled back into the wood and was lying very, very still.

There is a rather memorable line in Seton Gordon’s masterpiece of Scottish nature writing, The Cairngorm Hills Of Scotland, where he wrote: “On the path lay the legs of a blue hare.”

He went on: “An eagle had evidently dined there the previous day, and one could see where the great bird had sat, his meal completed, and had perhaps sunned himself on a rock nearby.”

There, in a nutshell, was the hare’s dilemma – how to avoid being dined on by a golden eagle with only its legs left behind for a headstone.

But why the “blue” hare? In that book Gordon referred to a blue hare, a mountain hare and a white hare, and they are all the same beast.

The mountain hare has a second layer of fur beneath its white winter topcoat, and it is bluish, and every now and then – with its coat agitated by the wind and the right kind of light – that fugitive blue shade is briefly revealed, and is striking enough to give the mountain hare that essentially localised alternative name.

But now I had a golden eagle in my glasses and it was January, and that in itself is reason enough to linger a little longer amid the outer reaches of my comfort zone.

Golden eagles are early starters in the matter of mating and, by January, they have already begun to rebuild their huge nests on rock ledges or pine trees.

But the centrepiece of the process is the display flight, a territorial declaration of intent designed to catch the eye and convince any potential rivals that, for the duration, this tract of land is out of bounds.

I focused on the stationary eagle, saw it slip right with a dip of one wing then cruise downwind and low above the ridge. The bird lifted abruptly, steeply, and the speed of the power climb was the reliable indication of what was to follow.

At the top of the climb, it whipped round into the wind and charged along the ridge in a series of dives and climbs, each dive spilling a thousand feet in seconds, each climb teasing out the momentum of the dive so it was sometimes achieved without a wingbeat.

It doesn’t matter how often you see the display flight of a mature golden eagle making that territorial declaration to all the wild world, it never fails to rivet your admiring glance, and to nail into place an unrivalled sense of wonder for anyone who loves to keeps nature’s company.

Perhaps 10 unbroken minutes passed as the ridge was traversed upwind and downwind then the eagle fell away into the west and I turned downhill through the trees as the snow began to fall again and the afternoon light eased down towards dusk.

I love to walk when snow falls.

Into the wild: