There are hares in Somerset apparently, but I have yet to see one. Stephen Moss in his book Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: the natural history of an English village, reckons that you need to go very slowly to see a hare – he happened to be on a bicycle when he saw his first March hare. I have read Stephen’s book, plotted the location on a map (we live a few miles away) and walked very slowly through the fields for months, but despite all this effort I have not seen a hare in Somerset.
It has taken a trip to the Cairngorm National Park and the local knowledge of Steve Reddick who runs Highland Wildlife Safari to fulfil my hare ambition. Going out with a wildlife guide was a new experience for us as we normally just grab a map and go walkabout. But on this occasion it was obvious, even to us, that if we were going to find anything interesting in a very large and mountainous national park we were going to need some local knowledge.
Steve has been an enthusiastic wildlife watcher for decades and has been guiding visitors in and around the Cairngorm National Park for the last eight years, so rather than give him an unrealistic list of wants we deferred to his considerable local knowledge and asked him to show us ‘his’ Cairngorms. The plan was to visit several spots that he thought might be interesting and just see what, if anything, showed.
It never really gets dark in the highlands of Scotland during the summer so we took the opportunity that early light brings by starting out at 4.30am, much to the evident disbelief of the dogs who would only be tempted out of their beds by the prospect of an early breakfast. With the dogs very comfortably installed on Willow’s big matt in the back of the 4×4 and the cabin full of waterproofs, thermos flasks, sandwiches and what seemed like a disturbingly large amount of camera equipment (How did we end up with all this kit?) we headed up into the mountains and the high moorland in search of Black Grouse.
With spring and summer so late starting this year the courtship ‘lek’, which normally occurs through April and May had extended into June so we thought that there was a very slim chance of seeing a few males still at it. They ‘Lek’ all year, but the crucial time is the spring and probably the only time you will see them doing it. For the rest of the year they disappear and are rarely sighted until the following spring lek. Despite sightings a few days before and with three pairs of binoculars on the job we couldn’t even find a single Blackgame just practising. Despite the initial no-show, by lunch time we had watched and photographed Crested Tits, Red Squirrels, a Slovenian Grebe and a pair of Osprey. Encouraged by our mornings efforts and surprisingly chipper considering the early start we decided to head up into the Findhorn Valley, eat our sandwiches, and spend the afternoon looking for Golden Eagles.
The Findhorn Valley is a massive glacially formed river valley that starts where the river rises in the Monadhliath Mountains above Strathdearn. The River Findhorn is fed by numerous tributaries as it tumbles over rock and gravel towards the Moray Firth at Findhorn Bay. The valley is stunning, unfolding from wild and mountainous moorland to rocky tree-clad gorges ending, finally, in a few miles that would once have been tidal salt marsh and are now flat farming land before the sea. The guide books say that in the summer it is renowned among salmon anglers for … ‘its pools and streams’ that ‘produce exhilarating salmon fishing from the first springers through heavy runs of grilse in May and June to a steady supply of summer and early autumn fish’. I can’t help thinking that if much of the fishing was done by wolves, rather than wealthy business men who take the fish out and leave nothing, the entire ecosystem of the valley would benefit? The chances of any kind of reintroduction anywhere in Scotland looks, for the foreseeable future, unlikely. All attempts so far have been blocked by vested interests and ignorance.
So, hares, the reason for this post and not Golden Eagles, as promised earlier, I am already five paragraphs in and the hares have had barely a mention. I have always had a huge respect for the wildness of these creatures without really understanding why – and I still don’t. Throughout history the hare has been written about, hunted, sacrificed and revered in effigy as an embodiment of our relationship to the wild. Sadly in the last hundred years or so our relationship with the hare has been emblematic of our fracture with nature – very few remaining in too few places.
The photographs are of European Hares, not Mountain Hares as we first thought. European Hares have a black stripe along the top of the tail and are slightly bigger than their mountain cousins.