The Mountain Hare is a beautiful and charismatic mammal, symbolic of bleak upland landscapes in the UK, yet often overlooked in favour of larger carnivores or cuter, cuddlier mammals. It most definitely deserves more appreciation, protection, and far less persecution
A new year and a new feature – ‘Mammal of the Month’. The concept isn’t too difficult to grasp, a featured mammal from the UK or Western Palearctic each month with a bit of info on ID (where necessary) status, where and how to see it, and conservation. Feel free to request a species, though I will try and keep them representative of the season.
Winter in the Scottish uplands can be seriously hard going, and there are very few animals that stick it out but the Mountain Hare is one. The white winter pelage and their ability to sit motionless for hours can make detecting them almost impossible. Photo: Chris Townend (www.wisebirding.co.uk )
So to kick off it feels very appropriate, given the weather, to start with the Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus). A brilliant and charismatic species that frequently goes under the radar of naturalist and suffers massively at the hands of land managers and keepers. In the UK they occur throughout the higher areas of Scotland (population approx 360,000), and have been introduced into England where they are still present in the Peak District (although the population may only number 500). Introduced populations in North Wales have all become extinct. In Ireland they are distributed throughout, from sea-level to the highest peaks, whilst on the continent they are distributed across northern Europe, a range that extends right across to the Pacific. Further south they are restricted only to high ground (up to 3000m) in the Alps.
Robins brilliant shot nicely illustrates the amazingly dense, and long haired paws (https://www.facebook.com/RobinHoskynsPhotography and http://www.robinhoskyns.co.uk/)
The mortality among hares is very high, if you’ve ever driven along the A9 you cant help but see road-kill Mountain hares every few miles. However if they make it to adulthood their dispersal abilities are pretty remarkable. One animal was recorded moving 300km! Whilst generally solitary, they can aggregate into groups in excess of 100 animals during the winter months. Mountain Hares are predominantly active at night, and encounters in the day are often of animals flushed from a sheltering spot in a peat hag, or from under a boulder.
Mountain Hares are well known in the UK for their transformation between summer and winter coats. They are perfectly adapted to cold snowy winters, moulting in a thick white coat, whilst in summer this white coat is lost and replaced with a schisty-brown pelage, better suited to the earthen and rocky tones of the Scottish peaks during the ‘warmer’ months. Interestingly very few of the Irish animals moult into a white winter coat. Camouflage is crucial in Scotland where Mountain Hares form a substantial part of the diet of Golden Eagles.
The transition between Winter, Spring and Summer can be a tough one for Mountain Hares as their perfect camouflage takes a while to adjust to the receding snow lines. Photo: Robin Hoskyns (http://www.robinhoskyns.co.uk/) and (https://www.facebook.com/RobinHoskynsPhotography)
A summer Mountain Hare can be equally difficult to spot as a winter animal. The white tail is a dead giveaway though!
Mountain Hares and Grouse moors have an intricate relationship and one which frequently betrays the hares. Hares prefer the areas of recently burnt heather adjacent to longer heather for cover, identical to the optimal requirements for grouse management. The decline in grouse moors has had a strong negative effect on the abundance of Mountain Hares, and this coupled with the frequent intensive persecution of hares by estate managers to reduce competition with grouse, can cause local declines in the population. Raptor Persecution Scotland have blogged about this issue on several occasions with the latest last autumn:
There’s even a petition currently circulating endeavoring to end these intensive culls:
Indeed even away from intensive grouse moors I’ve been told that in the 1990s and early 2000s there was a concerted effort, at least on some of the Argyll hills, to reduce Mountain Hare and Rabbit numbers. The cull was so successful that both species are now extinct in the areas I’ve worked and maybe not coincidentally Golden Eagles at certain territories have failed to produce any young for at least 10 years.
An Eaglet in Argyll surrounded by a surplus of Mountain Hares and Rabbits in 1981
The same Eaglet a few weeks later, fat on lagomorphs. Now both Rabbits and Mountain Hares are virtually extinct in the area through human persecution
If you want to enjoy these cracking Lagomorphs whether in their winter white or summer schist, sites worth a visit include Long Gutter Edge, Derbyshire; Findhorn Valley, Highland; and Cairngorm Ski Carpark. For more information see ‘Where to Watch Mammals: Britain and Ireland’ R Moores 2007.
You’ll also have the added bonus of enjoying a few classic upland birds as well, especially at the Scottish sites.
Shorter ears and a greyer, more schisty-colouration to the pelage separate Mountain Hares from Brown Hares
Run Rabbit Run! If the camouflage fails then they still have the ability to out-run any predators or photographers!