Friday, 4 May 2018

Specieswatch: conservation effort is under way to save our mountain hares

Spring is risky for mountain hares; to avoid predators, they have to time their change from white to brown carefully

Tue 24 Apr 2018 21.30 BST Last modified on Tue 24 Apr 2018 22.00 BST

Britain’s mountain hare Lepus timidus should presently be turning from white to grey-brown with a blue tinge as the breeding season starts. Spring is a dangerous time; the snow disappears and adults need to blend in to avoid hungry eagles or a fox.

Unlike brown hares and rabbits the mountain hare is a true native species, but is increasingly threatened by climate change as it has to climb higher to find a suitable habitat. There are mountain hares as far south as Derbyshire and on the Pennine Hills, where they have been introduced, but their true home is in alpine Scotland.

Not all mountain hares turn white – the temperature seems to be the trigger. In Ireland, where it snows less and is warmer, there is a sub-species that stays mostly brown – a better survival strategy.

Numbers in Scotland vary enormously, with peak populations on a 10-year cycle, the cause of which remains unexplained. When they are not shot by gamekeepers they gain from grouse-moor management burning because it provides suitable heather habitat for them, too. There are fears for the future because in some areas hares have almost disappeared. A count is under way as the first stage of a conservation effort.

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