Taking a walk up the Chew access road at Dove Stone in the recent snow I could clearly see that I wasn’t the first to have done so that day.  Other tracks had been made,  though we’re talking four rather than two legged.  I am,  of course,  talking about Mountain hares.

The Mountain hare ( Family Leporidae, Rabbits and Hares ) is also known as the White hare, Scottish hare and Blue hare.  Unlike the Brown hare,  which is thought to have been introduced by the Romans, the Mountain hare is native to Britain.  Whilst the Brown hare is more common and found throughout UK the only population of Mountain hares in the UK ( outside of Scotland ) is in the Northern Peak District,  Saddleworth and Derbyshire moors. 

It’s likely that the Mountain hare you see in this area is descended from releases in the northern Peak District made for sporting purposes in the late 19th century.

Smaller than the Brown hare (Lepus europaeus) though bigger than a rabbit the Mountain hare has large long ears with black tips.  The tail is very short with the upperside being white all over;  Brown hares have a black centre to the tail.  The fur is a grey brown colour in summer but is white or creamy grey white in winter.  In high level areas that have snow throughout the winter the Mountain hare is well camouflaged. 

Here at Dove Stone,  when there’s no snow the Mountain hare in its winter coat really stands out against the dark gritstone.  The winter coat is longer and thicker than the summer coat and lasts through until about March.  The change back into the summer coat is a gradual one but come May they’ll be mainly brown again. The moults are triggered by daylight and temperature changes. Although Brown hares moult as well there is no great difference in coats.

There are some really lovely images of Mountain hares on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/search/show/?q=mountain+hare

Mountain hares are usually found above the cultivation line,  around 1000ft locally,  living in areas of heather and mixed moor, wet heath,  blanket bog,  mixed heath and grassland as well as at sites below rocky moorland edges. 

They often lie up in a temporary form.  This can be in various places:  amongst rocks,  in shallow heather,  in clumps of vegetation such as bilberry or crowberry,  in runnels,  between tussock grasses or in the open on the side of exposed peat hags.  In severe winter weather they may also shelter in oak or birch woodland and coniferous plantations.

Their diet is almost exclusively vegetarian.  Grasses, bark, heather and grain are supplemented by Lichen in winter.  They will dig down into shallow snow to feed but not when it’s piled deep.

Unsurprisingly,  Mountain hares are fast running animals.  At Dove Stone you may see them on the move when disturbed.  Sometimes running away in an arcing curve they can also just move away then lie flat in the classic pose to escape detection. In contrast, the Brown hare more often zigzags away.

The Mountain hare is generally solitary although from February to April they can often be seen in community groups.  You might even see females fighting or boxing away males before being ready for mating.  Around the rocky outcrops above Whimberry moss and around Alphin Pike during the Spring months up to ten individual Mountain hares have been seen at one time, including boxing behavior.  Another good vantage point at Dove Stone is from the Chew Road,  walking up towards Chew Reservoir.  On a sunny winters day they are easily seen warming themselves on the rocks which receive the afternoon sun, clearly standing out as white against gritsone. They will sometimes allow closer inspection, but binoculars or telescope make viewing simpler and more detailed without disturbing such a beautiful wild creature.

So how is the Mountain Hare faring as a species ?  Numbers have been rising for over 40 years after a crash due to the severe winters of 1962/3. Estimates of the local Pennine population range from around 1,500 to a few thousand, with around 35,000 in Scotland.  In terms of predators the Mountain hare’s main local predators are foxes and stoats. The main threats to their survival though are prolonged bad winter weather and the small size and isolation of the population.  However,  the population is gradually increasing although it will be limited by suitable moorland habitat size.  The good news is that despite the area of moorland in the Peak District declining during the 20th century some of these losses are now being reversed through reductions in sheep grazing, replanting and similar conservation measures,  including the work that is being undertaken by the RSPB-United Utilities partnership at Dove Stone. 

Many thanks to Ken for both suggesting this post and sharing his knowledge about,  and experience of,  Mountain hares.  Good one !