ANOTHER gap in my knowledge came to light this week when I read that mountain hares in the Peak District may be at risk from global warming. (This report, needless to say, was from the BBC and incidentally was by Simon Hare.) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-5570499 I have to admit that I had not realised that we had mountain hares (Lepus timidus) in England – I thought they were only in Scotland. It turns out that they are native to Britain but died out in England during the last Ice Age. They were re-introduced to the Peak District in the 19th century. Meanwhile the brown hare (Lepus europaeus), found all over Britain, was introduced by the Romans or possibly earlier. So the mountain hare is the true British native hare.
It is a bit smaller than the brown hare, and I confess that if I saw one I might take it for a rabbit. This is a brown hare:
And this is a mountain hare:
The latter have white tails like a rabbit whereas the brown hare’s tail is brown and black.
The mountain hare’s summer coat can have a blue tinge, which leads to one of its alternative names, ‘blue hare’. In winter the fur grows thicker and turns more or less white which camouflages it in the snow and protects it from predators, which include the golden eagle (of which there are 400 pairs in Scotland) and foxes. The ear tips remain black.
The People’s Trust for Endangered Species, as reported by the BBC, say that there are 2,500 mountain hares in the Peak District and that warmer winters means less snow cover, so when the hares are white they are more vulnerable to predators. I would say that if a species is introduced, or has to be re-introduced, it’s too bad if conditions are not perfect. In any case it is possible that the population will quite quickly adapt, with individuals which have darker fur in winter surviving to breed and pass on their characteristics. I have been told that the myxamatosis outbreak which devastated the rabbit population in the 1950s was spread in burrows and that those animals which preferred to live on the surface survived to breed and increase, such that many rabbits now live above ground (though I gather they are still a menace with their burrows). This quick adaptation is an advantage of breeding like rabbits.
There are an estimated 135,000 mountain hares in Scotland, but one study has suggested that in the eastern Highlands this is only 1 per cent of the number in 1954. There is controversy over the culling of hares by gamekeepers tending grouse moors, though the hares appear to benefit from the management of heather for game because it results in plenty of young shoots for them to eat. Last year the Scottish Parliament gave the hares added protection.
There are not many videos of mountain hares on YouTube, which may be because they tend to be nocturnal. Here is a brief clip of one in the summer:
and here is one in the winter.
Here is a clip of mountain hares ‘boxing’ in the winter.
Finally a brood of cute leverets.
Footnote: A subspecies of the mountain hare lives exclusively in Ireland. The Irish hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) does not grow a white winter coat, is smaller, and lives on lowland as well as in the mountains.
We are braced for some very cold weather this week (max 1C, 34F during the day, well below freezing at night). As I write this (yesterday) cold rain is already coming in from the east, which is quite unusual; it normally comes from the west.