Mountain hares

Mountain hare, Dove Stone
Mountain hare, Dove Stone

The mountain hare is found in the Alps, as well as in other parts of Europe including Britain and Ireland. In French, it's called a lièvre variable or blanchot. Although it is not always easy to spot, the mountain hare's distinctive tracks are often seen in the snow.

Mountain hares: classification

The scientific name of the mountain hare is Lepus timidus; the brown hare is the Lepus europaeus. Rabbits and hares all belong to the order Lagomorpha.

Mountain hare compared with brown hare

Mountain hare vs brown hare
Mountain hare vs brown hare

Mountain hares are slightly smaller than brown hares, and have shorter ears. 'Unlike brown hares the ears of mountain hares would not reach the tip of the nose if pulled forward', according to the Hare Preservation Trust. The Trust also says that in both species, females are slightly larger than males.

Mountain hares have probably lived in Britain for around 120,000 years (Hare Preservation Trust). Brown hares were introduced to Britain by the Romans, around 2,000 years ago (Britain's Mammals, a Concise Guide, by the People's Trust for Endangered Species).

Mountain hares: distribution

Mountain hare, RSPB Dove Stone
Mountain hare, RSPB Dove Stone

Mountain hares are found in Finland, Norway, Sweden, and parts of Russia, according to Wikipedia. There are also 'isolated mountain populations' in the Alps, Ireland, Scotland, the Baltics, north-eastern Poland, and on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

The mountain hare has been introduced in places including New Zealand, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands; and in Britain, it has been introduced to Shetland, Orkney, the Isle of Man, and the Peak District.

Mountain hare, near Dove Stone reservoir
Mountain hare, Dove Stone

On their distribution in the UK and Ireland, Britain's Mammals says: 'In prehistoric times, mountain hares were probably found across much of Britain but today they are widespread only in Ireland and parts of Scotland. Irish hares are an endemic subspecies of mountain hares, native to Ireland, and more closely related to European continental populations than to those in Scotland. In the C19th [around 1880], Scottish mountain hares were introduced into England and the Isle of Man for hunting.'

'In the Alps, the mountain hare lives at elevations from 700 to 3,800m, depending on biographic region and season' (Wikipedia).

Mountain hares: description & behaviour

Mountain hare, RSPB Dove Stone
Mountain hare, Dove Stone

Mountain hares are 45-60cm long, and 2.5-4kg in weight (Britain's Mammals). In the Alps, they rarely exceed 3kg (La Faune des Alpes, Daniel Girod). Their tails are 4-8cm (Wikipedia).

They live above ground, not in burrows like rabbits, and lie in slight hollows in the ground called forms. They are mainly solitary, but sometimes graze in groups (Britain's Mammals). Mountain hares are mainly nocturnal, but can be active during the day (Britain's Mammals). They can be seen at dawn or dusk. Their hearing and sense of smell are better than their sight; if a mountain hare is coming towards you and you stay motionless, that's the best chance of observing it from close at hand (La Faune des Alpes).

When alarmed, a mountain hare will crouch motionless, ears down, then dart away at the last minute, usually uphill (Britain's Mammals).

Mountain hares: diet

Mountain hare eating lichen off a rock
Mountain hare eating lichen on a rock

They eat heather, moorland grasses, and other plants (Britain's Mammals). Mountain hares' diets vary from region to region: in northern Scandinavia where there is snow on the ground for many months, they may graze on twigs and bark, while in places where snowfall is rare, such as Ireland, grass may form the bulk of their diet (Wikipedia).

They will also eat lichen off the rocks.

Mountain hares excrete pellets which are about a centimetre long, and cylindrical and flattened at each end (La Faune des Alpes). They eat these pellets, to have another go at extracting the nourishment from them.

Mountain hares: colour change

Mountain hare, Dove Stone
Mountain hare near Dove Stone reservoir, January, ©ValThorensGuide

The mountain hare is brown-grey in the summer, but becomes white in winter. Its tail stays white throughout the year, and the ends of its ears are always black. In this clip of a BBC programme, Bill Oddie encounters mountain hares in their winter coats.

The change in colour is achieved by moulting the old coat, with the new colour growing to replace it. Mountain hares moult three times during the year - in late autumn (November), March, and again in May. The change to white comes in autumn, and is triggered by the lower number of daylight hours. Scienceblogs explains photoperiodism in relation to the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) as follows: melanopsin in the retina is photo-sensitive, and stimulates melanin production in the fur, which grows brown; when the days are shorter, the melanin production slows, and new fur growth lacks pigment (and is therefore white).

The winter coat includes heavily furred back paws, which act like snow shoes to spread the hare's weight and stop it sinking too far into snow. The back paws land in front of the hare's front paws, so you can tell in which direction the hare was travelling. In the picture below, it is coming towards the camera.

Mountain hare tracks, French Alps
Mountain hare tracks

Mountain hares: life cycle

Mountain hare, Peak District
Mountain hare resting by rocks, RSPB Dove Stone

Mountain hares mate from the end of January, and pregnancy lasts about 50 days (Hare Preservation Trust).

In the Alps, they tend to mate at the end of March, and again in June or the beginning of July. Because populations are not dense in the Alps, there is no 'boxing', but you might see one hare chasing another early in the morning, which could be a male chasing away another male, or a male chasing a female (La Faune des Alpes).

Females have around three litters of 1 to 4 leverets between March and August (Britain's Mammals).

Leverets are born with fur, and are able to see and move within hours of birth. They suckle for 4 weeks, then become independent (Britain's Mammals). Only 20% survive the first year. Mountain hares can live for up to 10 years.

Mountain hares: video

Here's a video of a mountain hare at RSPB Dove Stone one November morning in 2019. Note: it would be more likely to fit into BBC4's Slow TV schedule, than to feature as an action movie anywhere.

Mountain hares: threats

Mountain hares: predators

Fox, French Alps
Fox in the French Alps

Predators include golden eagles and red foxes. Stoats may prey on young hares.

Mountain hares: human threats

Ski resorts

Winter tourism and ski resorts in the Alps can have negative impacts on mountain hares, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Applied Ecology. Being disturbed by people in the winter demands energy at a time when hares have limited access to food due to snow on the ground. This disrupts their physiology and behaviour. The study recommended keeping forests where mountain hares live free of infrastructure, and retaining undisturbed forest patches within ski areas.

Grouse-shooting moors in Scotland

The mountain hare is under pressure in parts of Scotland, and disappearing in places where it was previously abundant. This may be due to over-grazing by sheep, cattle, and deer, but there are also declines where those other animals are not present, and hunting by humans is the likely cause (Hare Preservation Trust).

Red grouse, Peak District
Red grouse, RSPB Dove Stone

It is thought that many mountain hares are snared or shot on grouse shooting estates, because gamekeepers think this will increase the density of red grouse to be shot. The Hare Preservation Trust states that 'anecdotal evidence of culling levels strongly suggests that EU wildlife law [Annex 5 of the 1992 Habitats Directive] is being broken in Scotland'.

In August 2017, Scottish animal charity OneKind produced a report on Mountain Hare Persecution in Scotland.

It says that the mountain hare population is difficult to assess accurately, but is probably in decline. It notes that the mountain hare has favourable conservation status under the EU Habitats Directive, and is a priority species for conservation action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan; and there is a closed season from March to July inclusive, when it is an offence to kill a mountain hare without a licence. In March 2017, Scottish Natural Heritage decided to issue no more licences to snare hares, as snaring causes unnecessary suffering. Shooting will remain legal outside the closed season - although shooting can also cause suffering where hares are injured rather than killed.

Evidence of culling of mountain hares outside the closed season is patchy, because there are no reporting requirements, and the killing is often secretive and carried out in remote locations.

One of the reasons mountain hares are killed on grouse shooting estates is that they can carry ticks with the louping-ill virus. Culling the hares has become part of routine management, designed to produce very high densities of red grouse to be shot commercially. However, according to Scottish Natural Heritage, 'there is no clear evidence that mountain hare culls serve to increase red grouse densities.'

Sometimes large numbers of hares are killed in grouse shooting estate culls. For example, one of two culls in 2016 at the royal family's Balmoral estate killed 500 hares.

Aside from culls to increase grouse densities, shooting mountain hares is offered for sale by shooting estates. One commercial shoot promised 80-100 dead hares per day, at a price of £4,200 for 9 people.

The report calls for new protections for the mountain hare in Scotland, including:

  1. No mountain hare killing except under licence, all year round
  2. Complete protection for mountain hares within National Parks
  3. Transparent licensing arrangements
  4. An end to Scottish government endorsement (through Scottish Natural Heritage and Visit Scotland) of companies that provide recreational mountain hare killing

All photos © ValThorensGuide