IN centuries past, the prospect of encountering a hare on this lonely mountain path would have filled travellers with dread. Feared as a shape-shifting witch or a fairy that had snatched a dead child, the animal was considered a harbinger of doom. Fishermen refused to set sail after glimpsing one, seafarers thought it bad luck to mention the creature by name and a pregnant women who saw one could expect to give birth to a hare-lipped baby.

Wildlife photographer Andy Howard has no such qualms as he guides me around the lower slopes of Inverness-shire's Monadhliath hills. “There will be hares watching us right now,” he says, glancing towards the cloud-enshrouded peaks. “We're probably talking a dozen or so, sitting underneath boulders, in ditches or among the juniper scrub on the leeward side of the hill.”

Having spent the best part of a year photographing those elusive animals for his beautiful new book, The Secret Life Of The Mountain Hare, Howard appears familiar with every inch of this heather-clad terrain and he shows me places where the animals have dug their “forms”, or rounded shelters.

In all likelihood, he says, these forms have been inhabited by several generations of mountain hares, Scottish natives which are thought to have been here since the end of the last ice age.

Agriculture and the introduction of larger brown hares, probably for sporting purposes around 2000 years ago, have since driven these fleet-footed creatures up into the margins of the Grampians and Southern Uplands, as well as parts of Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides. In recent years culling on grouse estates has been blamed for drastically reducing their numbers. Recent research by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the RSPB showed that the mountain hare population on Eastern Highland moorlands had shrunk by 99% since 1954, with the decline escalating rapidly between 1999 and 2017.

The animals' reluctance to reveal themselves today should not, therefore, be surprising. But Howard, who runs wildlife photography tours, has an uncanny ability to detect heavily-camouflaged fur and feathers. “This will blow your socks off,” he whispers, pointing towards a patch of burnt heather that on close inspection harbours several beady-eyed grouse.

“And this is where Sandy lives,” he says, indicating a scrubby bank. Hares, which are mainly nocturnal creatures, tend to stick closely to their territories and over the years Howard has developed close relationships with several individuals, sometimes spending whole days in their company. Braving wind-chill factored temperatures that have sometimes dipped below -30C, he's achieved rare and astonishingly intimate pictures of these notoriously shy creatures nibbling grass, washing their faces, yawning, stretching and indulging in those famous pre-mating “boxing matches”. He's even given some of them names: Bagpuss, Mrs G, Rita, Sandy ...

“There she is!” he exclaims. And sure enough, what looked like a patch of scrubby bank turns out to have a furry coat, brightly shining eyes, two pointed ears and a whiskery nose.

“Hello Sandy,” murmurs Howard as he reaches for his camera. “You've grown a bit since I last photographed you.

“It's so nice to see you, Sandy, I'm glad you are OK,” he adds, positioning his lens and keeping up a long, low conversation with the hare he first photographed as a newly-weaned leveret.

This constant babble is deliberate. Hares, Howard will later explain, tend to reward wildlife-watchers who approach them face-on and speak steadily until their voices blend into the natural soundscape: “With otters, you wouldn't want to be seen, smelled or heard. With hares, smell doesn't come into it. They like to see and hear us and to be in control of their destiny.”

“She definitely winked at us there,” he says now. “And look, she's twitching her nose and moving her mouth from side to side. That means she's going to do something.”

And when Sandy begins washing her face, I can hardly contain my excitement at being this close to an animal I've only ever previously glimpsed bounding towards the horizon.

“What is it about mountain hares that melts people's hearts?” Howard wonders aloud.

Well, what does he think? “I can't put my finger on it,” he says. “But everybody melts with them. I've had clients in tears.”

Born in rural Yorkshire, Howard has been fascinated by wildlife since early childhood. On family trips to Scotland, little Andy would be glued to the sleeper train window from first light, scanning the passing fields for deer or grouse. When he was 10, the Howards moved to the Black Isle and upon receiving a camera for his 18th birthday, he began photographing dolphins near his Fortrose home. After taking a particularly successful shot of two dolphins leaping at the base of a rainbow, he started selling his photographs for “pin money” and took out a £500 bank loan to buy a professional camera lens.

Until a few years ago, however, it was only an increasingly absorbing hobby. When Howard told his wife he was thinking of giving up his job managing a garden centre to become a full-time wildlife photographer, the couple worked together on a business plan, the upshot of which was that if Howard couldn't make it work financially, he'd be stacking supermarket shelves. “Don't think you'll be flouncing around the hills taking pictures of mountain hares,” his wife told him.

Actually, until a few years ago, Howard had yet to get close enough to a mountain hare to take its picture. “At that point,” he says, “they were almost mythical to me because like most people, I'd only ever seen their arse-ends running over a hill.”

Then one day, he spotted two dead specimens at the side of the road and decided to explore the neighbouring peatland, where he soon found himself looking through a lens at the face of a live hare.

Today, Howard recognises that that first shot – of a hare with its ears back – shows an animal in distress and he regrets his “clumsy” approach. Now, after years spent patiently observing the creatures, Howard teaches his clients how to enter their world without causing alarm and though he doesn't kid himself that his conversations with Sandy, Bagpuss et al are anything other than one-sided, he has developed a deep respect for a species he says has been “pushed to the absolute margins of mountains and moorlands” by human activity.

“The thing I think is an absolute privilege, is that this is a wild animal and she is entrusting us with her life,” he says, as Sandy carefully removes a pellet from her behind and begins to munch. (Hares, like rabbits, eat their own droppings as part of their normal digestive process.) “We wish her no harm but to others the hare is just quarry, a target to hit.”

Up to 38,000 mountain hares a year are culled on grouse moors like this one, supposedly because they spread disease-carrying ticks to game birds. Howard is unconvinced. “It's not a scientifically proven theory,” he says, and in his book he suggests the hare has been used as “a sort of fall guy” when “other animals, including game animals, must be held equally responsible”.

Last year, he watched a hare cull from a distance. “I saw the guns lined up, in their all-terrain vehicles,” he says now. “It broke my heart and made me angry but I know these guys are only doing their job.

“On a personal level I would never like a hare, or any animal, to be shot, but I live in the real world and I know, from the way some people manage the ground that they own, that will involve hare culling.” Given the recent decline in their numbers, however, theirs is “a fragile population”.

Do we risk losing them altogether? Howard doesn't think so, but he insists that a species that's been on our planet at least as long as humans has “an absolute right to be here. I find it appalling that someone could buy an estate and decide they don't want a particular species on that estate, when it's been there for 10,000 years”.

Ironically, the mountain hare's timid, elusive nature is partly responsible for its vulnerability. Because few people ever see them, we don't know what we stand to lose. “I sincerely hope that in a small way, the book will help to raise awareness,” says Howard. “[Scottish environment minister] Roseanna Cunningham and Nicola Sturgeon have both got a copy. I'm not an expert and it's not a book of science, it's a book about me and my hares. But I hope that by reading it, people will grow to love them.”

His photography tours and workshops also have an awareness-raising function. Far from the popular stereotype of the introverted, social-phobic naturalist, Howard – a one-time skiing instructor who lives near Inverness – is a garrulous, sociable character who gets “a huge buzz” from sharing his skills and enthusiasm with aspiring wildlife photographers. He also makes time for his own photography and is working on a second book of wildlife pictures.

So what does the future hold for Sandy, whose coat is already lightening towards the mountain hare's winter white? Hopefully, says Howard, she's chosen a good spot to survive her first snows. Older, weaker hares can get hypothermia and perish during cold, wet conditions but Sandy is only four or five months old and “a chunky girl”, so all being well, she – or perhaps he (Howard admits he's only guessed at the gender) – will begin boxing and breeding in January and February. Capable of conceiving again while still pregnant, hares can produce up to four litters every spring, which presumably explains their folkloric association with fertility and even promiscuity.

Last spring, Howard captured a rare sequence of images of a pair of mating hares, but he's yet to secure a picture of a leveret suckling. Are there any other shots that have so far eluded him? “I'd like to get an eagle actually taking a hare,” he says, “because that would show the full circle.”

But he loves hares. “I love everything about hares,” he agrees, “but hares are part of the ecosystem and the food chain, so they have to be taken. Eagles have to feed and I love eagles as well.”

Howard was once tempted to intervene when he saw a stoat killing baby rabbits and stashing them away to feed its own young, but he reminded himself that it wasn't his place to interfere with nature.

What, I ask, if the eagle's quarry wasn't any old mountain hare, but little Sandy? “Then I would probably intervene,” he admits. “I would go back on my principles. I think when you have a relationship with an animal, as with this one … I would probably react from instinct rather than principle.”

“Look!” he says softly. “She's flicked her paws and is going to settle down now, like a cat in front of the fire.” What do hares dream about, the photographer ponders, in The Secret Life Of Hares. “I like to think,” he answers himself, “that from the deep wells of species memory, there might arise images of ice sheets and glaciers, of polar bears, musk ox and bison, the arrival of the first humans.”

What about Andy Howard? Does he dream about mountain hares? “Oh, God, yes. After a day spent on the hill, if you don't close your eyes at night and the last thing you see – apart from your lovely wife or husband – is the species you've been photographing all day, there's something wrong. It's such an emotional experience.”

Has he ever witnessed a hint of the animal's supposed supernatural hinterland? He shakes his head. Not a superstitious man, he clearly has no truck with the old Gaelic notion of an da shealladh, or second sight. Sixth sense is another matter and time and again during our hare-spotting afternoon, he draws my attention to a whisper on the wind or a ripple in the water: scarcely audible signals that turn out to indicate the presence of a flock of crossbills or a passing salmon.

Those extraordinarily acute perceptions have allowed Andy Howard to get close enough to nature to illuminate the secret life of one of Scotland's most elusive and precious wild animals.

And whatever he makes of those old legends, it is clear that the magical mountain hare has the photographer in its thrall.

The Secret Life Of The Mountain Hare is published by Sandstone Press, £24.99

Hares in Scottish culture

Witches' familiars

The fact hares are most active during the night may have sparked the belief in its sinister nature and Celtic folklore is replete with stories of hares as witches' familiars. According to Robin Hull, author of Scottish Mammals, “the hare, known in Scotland as Maukins, Mawkins or Malkins, a name also applied to lewd women, became symbols of the witches' craft”. (“I come, greymalkin,” says the First Witch in Macbeth.)


Hares were widely thought to be witches in disguise and there are many tales of the animals being shot or injured only for the same injuries to later be found on an elderly woman. A young man who shot a hare on Lismore is said to have heard it emit an unearthly scream, before remembering that there were no hares on Lismore, and later encountering a reputed witch with a broken leg.

Infant fears

The notion that the hare is a fairy that has snatched a dead child from its coffin, or a changeling that has escaped from its home, may stem from the fact the skinned animal – once a familiar sight in the kitchen – supposedly resembles a new-born human baby. A pregnant woman who encountered a hare was thought to be at risk of giving birth to a child with a hare lip.


The expression “mad as a March hare” probably originated in sightings of the animals apparently going bonkers around the breeding season, when these normally little-travelled animals move around and their elaborate courting ritual sees males repeatedly approach and be rebuffed byfemales. The Darwinian explanation for this “boxing” behaviour is that only the fittest males get to pass on their genes. Associations between hares and the full moon are common around the world, perhaps because of the animal's nocturnal habits, though in the West this only took on sinister connotations in the Middle Ages, when the moon was linked to lunacy and the devil.

The Easter hare

Before Christ, the animal that represented the pagan festival of spring wasn't a bunny but a hare, which was the companion of Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. The animal's association with fertility and even promiscuity may relate to the fact the females can conceive again while still pregnant and give birth to up to four litters each breeding season. Theories that the animal could change sex every month may relate to the fact the mating ritual of “boxing” was long thought to have involved two males.