Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Great Hare Day

I’ve endured the icy winds of Antarctica in order to photograph wildlife for my paintings. But nothing in that cold climate compares to my ordeal of watching courting hares on the Yorkshire Wolds one Christmas.

As the country came to grips with one of the iciest cold snaps in decades, I spent 10 days trudging through thigh deep snow, sometimes for eight hours a day.

When it snows up here, it really snows, and when it blows, it really drifts. Getting close to the hares in these conditions was one of the harshest consignments of my career.

Hares don't just box and breed in spring, although this is the climax of the season, it can happen at any time of year and they can have three or four litters a year.

They seem to favour specific fields for their courtship, which they return to time and time again, and if you happen to discover the spot I’ve always believed it worth the effort it takes to watch them.

 Hares are solitary animals and when I saw a couple together in the snow shortly after a heavy snowfall, I knew they had to be courting and I couldn’t miss out on the chance to photograph them, despite the weather.

I had been out on a drive through the white wintery landscape looking for owls and had already taken a great picture of a tawny owl roosting in an ash tree: a dusting of snow around its hole and a few flakes on its head.

The hares, sat tight in individual dug out holes in the snow and facing away from the biting wind, were a little far from the road so I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed across a large arable field. The snow was particularly deep and it was heavy going.

As I struggled through the drifts, which were above my waist on the edge of the road, I spotted four more. They shuffled down deeper into the snow as I approached and flattened their ears to their bodies until only their eyes were visible, peeking above the snow line.

I took a few shots of the courting couple and then the snow seemed to explode behind them as they leapt up and dashed away into the distance.

The other four hares took chase - there was a female in season and the males weren't going to let her out of their sight.

It was difficult getting close enough for a good photograph, but I found that if I took heed of the wind's direction and moved slowly, sniper-like I could get surprisingly close. Whenever the hares looked alarmed I would stay still and resume my tentative approach when they settled down again.

But it took up to an hour to get really close and it was bitterly cold out on the exposed field. Whenever a large snow storm came over the hares hunkered down with their backs to the wind all in a line, but in between the storms males would go around the group testing the female’s receptivity. They were usually quickly rebuffed with a swift box from the female, who lay partially hidden in snow dugouts.

I used the blizzards whiteouts to get a little bit closer still. But as the weather cleared they spotted me and were uneasy with my proximity.

In my habitual green camouflage gear I stuck out like a sore thumb in contrast to the pure white landscape.

The hares dashed through a hedge into the next field. I used the hedge as cover as I approached them and then peered over into the next field. I spotted a larger group out in the middle of the field - there were eight in this new group and I could see still more in the distance – 20, perhaps 30 hares in total.

With so many pairs of eyes looking out, I was quickly spotted and they dashed over the horizon.

I followed them to the bottom of the field and was on the brink of giving up when I spotted a few doubling back on me.

As well as using the same field again and again, hares also like to court in the same place on a specific field and it turned out that spot was just behind me.

From my hiding place I counted 24 hares bouncing over the horizon towards me and then they joined into a group of 32. Hares seemed to be coming from all directions.

Within 20 minutes there were 51 hares in front of me - I couldn’t contain my excitement. To see so many at one time is extremely rare and this was the most I’d seen together in Yorkshire. This meant there must have been at least 20 females in season. I might have been alone on a bleak hill top in the middle of a blizzard witnessing, but I was delighted.

I pushed the biting wind to the back of my mind, but when another heavy snow storm came in and the light faded for the day I headed for home.

I needed to come up with a plan of how to get back there and photograph them again - but this time unseen.

A hide I decided wouldn't be practical; I needed to be able to move about quickly. So it came down to getting the right clothing - white clothing.
I decided to make myself and my camera a little outfit out of a white tonne dump bag held together with a few cable ties and some string.

This rig up worked well on the camera and tripod, but my attempt at making a jacket and trousers rustled noisily when I walked. I did however make myself quite a convincing 'balaclava' out of a (white) pillowcase and I cunningly swiped our (white) oven gloves from the kitchen.

Then I had a brainwave - an all-in-one spray suit (in white, of course) - is what I needed. So the following morning I headed into Yates of Malton and bought myself an XXL suit which was large enough to go over all my layers of clothes.

I drove out to the field, with my snow camouflage outfit in the back of my car. I was just putting my gear on when a tractor approached so, feeling a little self-conscious, I hesitated, until he had gone by.

But the tractor kept coming and going so I decided to venture out in the field and put the gear on once I spotted the hares.

I soon located them again, but getting changed in 18” of snow and a ripping wind was easier said than done. I had to lie on my back with my boots off trying to control the white spray suit which was trying to fly off in all directions.

I did look a bit of a sight in my white kit, but I quickly 'blended' into the general whiteout.

I counted the hares: there were 14 in the group and more on the horizon. I set off after them with the confidence of invisibility, but much to my annoyance they spotted me straightaway - I was silhouetted in white against a dark woodland background.

I let the hares settle and re-planned my approach to blend in with a white backdrop of neighbouring fields. Each time a snowstorm came over I edged closer and now had a coating of snow to add authenticity to my outfit.

Behind me my footprints had already been covered by drifting snow. My camouflage had got me within 25 yards of the hares.

They spent much of their time hunkered down with the snow whipping around them in great swirls. I spent day after day photographing them, mainly in overcast or blizzard conditions and sub-zero temperatures.

On the first sunny day of the week I headed off with a great expectation, despite the fact that it was -14C when I set off. But actually the crisp calm conditions proved more difficult as the hares could hear my every footstep crunching through the snow and the sun played havoc with the auto-focusing on my camera, due to a sort of heat haze coming off the snow.

It was fascinating to watch courting hares in such harsh conditions and such a marvellous end to my wildlife watching year. The leverets from this courtship may be among the first to be born in the New Year.

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