The mountain (or blue) hare (Lepus timidus) is a charming indigenous animal that can be found grazing the heather moorlands of northern Britain. An unusual distinguishing feature is the hare's ability to sprout a whitish coat. During the colder months, the tips of the mountain hare's ears remain black but everything else becomes a fetching shade of grey or snow-white. This camouflaged coat helps to decrease the animal's visibility in snow drifts, an important defensive mechanism against predators such as foxes, stoats and cats. For the warmer months of the year the mountain hare's appearance is much like its introduced relative, the brown hare1.
The Arctic and Greenland hares are considered to be the same species as Britain's mountain hares. The Irish mountain hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus), does not turn fully white in Winter.
At Home in the Hills
In Britain, the mountain hares, while most at home in the Scottish hills, can also be found in the Peak District moors of northern Derbyshire. They were introduced many years ago to enhance the hunting experience of the local gentry (among others) who, perhaps, were getting bored with limiting their shooting expeditions to grouse. The hares found the habitat so comfortable, they bred like - erm - rabbits and founded a thriving population. By a happy coincidence, management of the moors for grouse-hunting benefits the hares too. Regular heather burns ensure there are plenty of tender young shoots to nibble and the gamekeepers helpfully keep potential predators under control.
Unfortunately, the Derbyshire hills are covered in snow for only a few days each Winter. On snowless slopes, the camouflage is useless and conspicuous white hares can easily be spotted grazing on the moorland scrub. A good time to look for them is in early spring when the snow has melted but the days haven't lengthened sufficiently to trigger the hares' reversion to a plain brown colour. The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust organises annual mountain hare walks to monitor the population and is happy to report a healthy number of creatures still in residence. Long may it remain so.