He’s a man who has fallen in love with nature, the Cairngorms and Scotland’s remote islands, but Andy Howard has occasionally had to suffer for his art.
For more than a decade, this intrepid photographer has been meticulously gathering images and creating resplendent books about pine forests, mountain hares, eagles, squirrels, winter landscapes and summer solstices.
And he has brought the same attention to detail in his new work about the esoteric existence of otters around the north-east of Scotland.
There have been a few occasions where Andy found himself rather too close to nature, which greeted him with tooth and claw.
There was the painful episode when he was bitten by a rogue red grouse, another time where he was chased out of a forest by a “mad” capercaillie and a third experience where a ptarmigan befriended him for a day.
But, as he said: “The ability to gain the trust of a wild animal is what drives me on, because getting to know a mountain hare or red squirrel over a matter of years as an individual with its own personality is a very special thing.”
Mr Howard has spent countless hours in the wilds, alternating between sun-drenched mountains in the midst of summertime and frozen snow-capped peaks at the height of winter.
But even he was tested when he accompanied a group of television film-makers to the region during the “Beast from the East” back in 2018.
He recalled: “During the storm, I was guiding for a crew from National Geographic. Their brief to me was that they were filming for a series called ‘Hostile Planet’ and they wanted to film slow-motion footage of a mountain hare in really severe conditions.
“Well, their wishes came true, because we had winds gusting in excess of 40mph and a wind chill of well below minus thirty degrees.
“I positioned the team just 10 metres away from a mountain hare that was hunkered down with its back to the wind.
“We patiently waited and then, suddenly, I noticed its nose started to twitch. This was our moment. I warned the cameraman that something was imminent and, just 30 seconds later, the hare stood up and shook itself to remove the coating of snow and ice from its fur.
“The cameraman immediately gave me the thumbs up. He was happy that they had got what they had come for.”
He added: “Once we were all back in the van, and out of the brutality of the weather, we reviewed the footage and discovered that the hare was even more dramatic when viewed in slow motion at a tenth of its real speed, so the cameraman turned to me and gave me a ‘high-five’.
“The footage of that day in the Cairngorms did make it into the final edit of the series. And even if it was just for a few seconds, it was worth it.”
This was just one of myriad days and nights when Andy demonstrated that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains and being prepared to wait.
As he acknowledges, nature doesn’t run to a timetable. There will be some instances where animals elude him or the perfect shot remains uncaptured.
But, as his work amply highlights, there have been plenty of other times where his perseverance and tenacity have reaped a rich dividend.
A life spent mulling over the wonders of nature
Andy hasn’t been overly hampered by lockdowns or the restrictions which have been imposed by social distancing.
After all, he is accustomed to working methodically with only his camera for company in the great blue yonder.
He said: “My family have owned a home on the island of Mull since 1965, and ever since I can remember, I have loved spending time there.
“I cherish my childhood memories of the carefree times spent there, searching for wildlife and collecting shells on the beautiful and unspoiled beaches.
“As I grew up, my attention was drawn towards wildlife photography and I made regular trips to the island to photograph its abundant wildlife.
“In recent years, Mull has been very kind to me and every trip has rewarded me with some of my most memorable wildlife encounters and images.”
Andy also spent a significant period recording and photographing the Cairngorms in all their majesty and, whether creating panoramic vistas or illustrating the region’s abundant wildlife, he was in his element.
Andy has had some otterly absorbing experiences
His new project revolves around the secretive life of otters and Andy has spent countless hours recording the antics of these popular little creatures.
As usual, he hasn’t been deterred by their ability to blend seamlessly into the landscape. Because, in his world, almost everything comes to he who waits.
He said: “One of my passions in life has been otters and, with the amount of time I have spent in their company, it made perfect sense to write a book about my many encounters with them.
“Ever since my first glimpse of an otter, as a wee boy on Mull, they have fascinated me and I treasure every moment in their company.”
He continued: “Tracking and photographing otters can be frustrating at times, because they have a brilliant habit of just vanishing, an ability to melt away into the habitat.
“But experience has taught me to be patient and, more often than not, they will reappear close by and sometimes closer than I would like.
“In fact, on a couple of occasions, I have had otters so close to me that they have actually sniffed to see who or what I am!”
Otters are natural born thrillers for Andy
When he’s on his photographic assignments, Andy tries his hardest to avoid scaring the animals transfixed in his camera lens.
But there have been times during his recent work when inquisitive otters have decided he is worth trampling all over in their pursuit of excitement.
He recalled: “I’ll never forget the experience of having an otter walk straight towards me on a beach and walk down the side of me as I lay flat and still.
“I was worried that the otter would be able to hear my heart pounding, because to me, it was deafening.
“But, as well as close encounters, watching the intimate bond between mother and cubs gives me the greatest reward; it’s at moments like that when I become less of a photographer and more of an admirer and observer.
“It’s sometimes difficult to stifle my giggles whilst watching the cubs at play because their antics are often quite comical and amusing.”
Andy has seen wildlife thriving in lockdown
As a huge aficionado of the rugged parts of Scotland, Andy hasn’t paused his work in the last year, despite having to restructure his schedule.
He said: “The lockdowns have curtailed me travelling to Shetland and the Hebrides, which are my normal haunts for otter spotting.
“What I have been doing is systematically checking the coastline close to home, which is something I don’t normally have the time to do.
“So far, I have monitored by foot and, with the help of static trail cameras, approximately 30 miles of coastline and have been absolutely delighted to find evidence of otter activity in all the areas I have searched.
“It is very positive to see good numbers all around the UK with the population increasing year on year.”
As one of life’s enterprising individuals, Andy has no intention of resting on his laurels or slowing down his journeys into the woods and forests.
In the contrary, he will be among the first people to capitalise on the easing of restrictions in the coming weeks.
You might not spot him on your travels, but he’ll be there, methodically chronicling the often gasp-inducing splendour of the Scottish landscape.
The Secret Life of the Otter will be published by Sandstone Press on May 3.