Conquest of polar conditions

It's been harsher than Antarctica for a wildlife photographer on the Yorkshire Wolds. Robert Fuller reports on a successful pursuit, and the art of winter camouflage.

I've endured Antarctica to photograph wildlife but nothing there compares to watching courting hares on the Yorkshire Wolds this month.

I spent 10 days trudging through thigh-deep snow, sometimes for eight hours a day. It was one of the toughest assignments 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 and they can have three or four litters a year. They seem to favour specific fields for courtship, which they return to time and time again.

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

I had been out on a drive 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 were sitting tight in individual snow holes and facing away from the biting wind. I grabbed my camera and tripod and headed across a large arable field where deep snow made for heavy going.

Struggling through drifts above my waist, I spotted four more hares. They shuffled down deeper into the snow as I approached and flattened their ears 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.

The other four made chase – there was a female in season.

Although it was difficult getting close enough for a good photograph, 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 lay still and resumed when they settled down again.

It took an hour to get really close and it was bitterly cold. Whenever a large snow storm came over the hares hunkered down with their backs to the wind, all in a line. 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 whiteouts to get closer still. But as the weather cleared they spotted me and were uneasy.

In my green camouflage gear I stuck out like a sore thumb in this landscape.

The hares dashed through a hedge which I used as cover as I approached them and then peered over into the next field. A larger group were 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. With so many pairs of eyes on look-out I was quickly spotted. I followed them to the bottom of the field and was on the brink of giving up when a few doubled back. Hares like to court not just in the same field but the same spot in that field – and that turned out to be just behind me.

I counted 24 bouncing over the horizon towards me, then 32. Hares were coming from all directions. Within 20 minutes 51 were in front of me and I couldn't contain my excitement. Seeing so many together is extremely rare – certainly the most I'd seen in Yorkshire. There must have been at least 20 females in season. Alone on a bleak hill top in the middle of a blizzard all I felt was sheer delight.

I pushed the freezing wind to the back of my mind until another heavy snow storm and fading light drove me home.

How to repeat this – but this time unseen?

A hide was impractical; I needed to move quickly. Bespoke clothes and camera kit were the answer. For the camera I fashioned a little outfit out of a white dump bag held together with a few cable ties and some string.

This rig-up worked well on the camera and tripod. But my tailoring skills with the same material came unstuck because the snow jacket and trousers rustled noisily when I walked. I had more success with a balaclava made out of a pillowcase and I cunningly swiped our (white) oven gloves from the kitchen.

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

I drove out to the field, with the outfit in the back of the car. I soon located the hares again, but getting myself camouflaged in 18in of snow and a ripping wind was easier said than done. I lay on my back with my boots off trying to control the white spray suit as it tried to fly off in all directions.

I counted the hares: 14 in the group and more on the horizon. I set off after them, confident of my invisibility. Much to my annoyance they spotted me straight away. I realised I was was silhouetted in white against a dark woodland background.

Each time a snowstorm came over I edged closer. Behind me my footprints had already been covered by drifting snow. I spent day after day photographing them, mainly in overcast or blizzard conditions – a marvellous end to my wildlife watching year.

Robert's gallery in Thixendale is open every day up until Christmas Eve, 11am to 4.30pm.

CW 11/12/10