The brown hare was probably introduced to Britain around 2,000 BP (years before present), but the mountain hare Lepus timidus has been here much longer. Mountain hare bones between 114,000 and 131,000 years old have been found in the Joint Mitnor cave in Devon and in the Thames Valley. Today, the mountain hare is confined to Scotland where it is indigenous and the Isle of Man and the Peak District of Derbyshire where it was re-introduced. Mountain hares were also introduced to the Snowdonia district of Wales, but died out.
Mountain hares are smaller and have a more compact shape than brown hares, but vary geographically depending upon habitat and altitude. In Britain they are only found above 500m and global warming is likely to increase this limiting altitude in the short term. However, eventual weakening of the Gulf Stream could make Britain colder and increase habitat for mountain hares.
Total body length ranges between 430 and 610 mm. and the black tipped ears from 60 to 80 mm. Unlike brown hares the ears of mountain hares would not reach the tip of the nose if pulled forward. Like brown hares, males are slightly smaller than females. There are three moults and during the second from October to January the coat changes from russet brown to white or grey and back to brown from February to May. Both tail surfaces remain white. Mountain hares can become very conspicuous if still in their winter coats when the snow melts or if there is unseasonable snowfall.
The current number of mountain hares in Scotland is unclear but the latest annual research published in 2013 by the BTO has indicated a disturbing decline of 43 per cent since 1995. Population densities are known to vary at least ten fold, reaching a peak approximately every ten years. The reasons for these fluctuations are unclear, but may possibly be related to parasite burdens. Mating begins at the end of January and pregnancy lasts about 50 days. Most leverets are born between March to August inclusive.
Mountain hares are less fussy than brown hares regarding the quality of their forage and this is a major reason why mountain hares have the competitive edge at high altitudes. On Scottish moors they prefer short, young heather, but will resort to older woody plants if necessary. They will also feed on gorse, willow, birch, rowan and juniper. But in spite of their adaptable diet they prefer to eat grasses when available during the summer months.
There is increasing concern about the status of the mountain hare with reports of it being virtually extinct in some parts of Scotland where it was previously abundant. In some areas excessive grazing by deer, sheep and cattle have depleted the heather so that less food and cover is available for the hares. However, they have also declined on moorland devoid of deer and sheep, leading to the conclusion that human interference is responsible for the decline in hares.
The mountain hare is listed in Annex 5 of the EC Habitats Directive (1992) as a species: “of community interest whose taking in the wild and exploitation may be subject to management measures.” This means that certain methods of capture such as snaring are prohibited, except under licence. Mountain hares have historically been considered as “small game” but shooting is becoming increasingly commercialised. In one case a refrigerated van had been brought over by a party of Italian guns who intended to shoot 1,000 mountain hares and sell them in Italy to pay for the shooting holiday.
While the mountain hare is persecuted directly for sport it is also snared and shot in large numbers because it allegedly carries a tick borne virus which kills grouse chicks and is therefore seen as a threat to the grouse shooting industry. The Habitats Directive requires member states to ensure exploitation of Annex 5 species is: “compatible with their being maintained at a favourable conservation status.” Since there are no official records of the number of hares being killed it is difficult to see how this requirement can be met. But anecdotal evidence of culling levels strongly suggests that EC wildlife law is being broken in Scotland.