Just off the north coast of Northern Ireland, Rathlin Island is famed for its birdlife. It hosts a spectacular seabird colony, ravens, peregrines and corncrakes. It’s also home to some very unusual mammals: golden hares. There are usually a small number of these living among the island’s hare population.
This photo of one of the hares was taken by Nature’s Home reader James McDowell, who is also a regular residential volunteer on Rathlin and Coleraine RSPB Local Group Leader.
Golden hare - photo by Nature's Home reader James McDowell
There’s something quite magical about the appearance of these animals, which have inspired artists and poets. They remind me of Masquerade, the famous book by Kit Williams published back in 1979. Through a series of clues hidden in words and drawings invited readers to search for treasure buried by the author: a jewelled golden hare. The puzzle was solved and the hare found – not on Rathlin this time, but in Ampthill Park, Bedford. We have our very own golden hare accessory for sale on ebay now: a special edition RSPB pin badge.
The golden hares on Rathlin Island are a form of Irish hare, which is itself a type of mountain hare. Unlike the brown hare, thought to have been brought to the UK by the Romans around 2,000 years ago, these animals are native to UK and Ireland (although they were introduced to Rathlin).
Mountain hares aren't as large as brown hares – and they have smaller ears. On a brown hare the ears are incredibly long – twice the length of the animal’s head! Brown hares have bright amber coloured eyes, whereas mountain hare’s eyes are brown. The Rathlin Island golden hares have blue eyes!
left: brown hare (Chris Gomersall), right: mountain hare (Tom Marshall), both from rspb-images.com
Elsewhere in the UK mountain hares can be found in the Scottish Highlands, the Peak District, and some Scottish islands. They have a brown coat in summer, changing to white fur to blend in with the snow that normally blankets their mountain home. Thick fur on their feet helps spread their weight on the snow.
Climate change, leading to warmer winters and a lack of snow will make life increasingly difficult for mountain hares. Their white winter coats, once the perfect camouflage, will stand out against snowless hillsides making them easy targets for predators.
But a changing climate isn’t the only threat these animals face. Unregulated culling of Scottish mountain hares led to a dramatic drop in their numbers. Thanks to the campaigning work of the RSPB and other wildlife organisations they were given greater protection in Scotland in June this year.
Whether they’re golden, colour-changing, or have supersized ears, hares are remarkable animals. While Masquerade’s hidden jewel was unearthed 38 years ago, hares are still out there in the countryside for us to enjoy watching. And for me, finding and watching a wild hare is just as magical as discovering buried treasure.
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