Mountain hares (Lepus timidus) - also known as snow hares - are found from Scandinavia to eastern Siberia with isolated populations in the Alps and in Great Britain and Ireland. They are native to the highlands of Scotland but were re-introduced to the Peak District about 200 years ago. They are usually found above 300 metres altitude in the Peak District.
While in other parts of its distribution, it is found in Boreal forests, in the UK the mountain hare is associated with heather moorlands. They are mainly nocturnal. During the day they rest in shallow depressions in the ground (called forms) and at night they travel along well-worn paths to graze on woody plants, such as heather, and grasses when they are available in the summer.
They are mainly solitary but do gather in groups to feed during the winter. They are often seen running away uphill when they have been disturbed. Offspring (leverets) are born in March-July and females can produce 1-4 litters per year with 1-3 offspring per litter. Young are preyed upon by foxes, stoats, cats, buzzards and eagles.
Population sizes tend to fluctuate periodically, peaking roughly every 10 years before declining and then increasing again.
Why we're interested:
The mountain hare, as the name suggests, is a species of cool northern and upland climates. Unsurprisingly, therefore, its distribution is projected to decline in the UK as the climate warms. The Peak District is at the southern range boundary of the species. This is the warmest part of its distribution and hence where the species is likely to start experiencing declines first.
In addition, mountain hares change their coat colour from brown/grey in the summer to white in the winter and back to brown/grey again for the following summer. This is so that they are camouflaged when there is snow cover on the ground in the winter. If snow cover reduces as the climate changes and mountain hares are unable to adapt their moulting behaviour to match this, they may spend a longer time “mismatched” with their surroundings, making them more vulnerable to predation.
Research has been done in some closely related species - such as snowshow hare - to suggest that mismatch between coat colour and ground cover may increase with climate change.
Head and body size: Around 50cm
Coat: Brownish-grey in summer and white in winter. All white tail.
Head: ears same length as head with slight black tips.