A change of hare colour

March and April are great months to watch brown hares ‘boxing’ and chasing each other in the fields – we saw some only recently in Perthshire.

There are two kinds of hare in Britain, and we’ve come across them in many different places:  brown hares squatting like fat pancakes in the fields of Islay, only getting up and making off reluctantly if you take too much notice;  and pure white mountain hares, picking their way through the deep snowfall on the mountain slopes of Glenshee, or sheltering in the lee of a rock and enjoying the weak sunshine.

I thought I’d find out some more about both species…

Mountain hare (Lepus timidus)

Body length:   430 – 610 mm

Weight range:   2 – 6 kg

Also called the ‘blue hare’, the mountain hare is adapted to living in polar and mountainous regions, and its range extends from Ireland in the west, up to Scotland and Norway, right across to eastern Siberia.  There is also a population in the Alps.

In Britain, the mountain hare is considered to be a sub-species (Lepus timidus scoticus). Bones discovered in Devon and the Thames Valley have proved it was present here over 100,000 years ago, before the last Ice Age.

Numbers apparently peak every ten years, for reasons that aren’t fully understood;  the current UK population stands at about 350,000. These are mainly confined to Scotland, but there is a small population in the Peak District of Derbyshire and also on the Isle of Man.

Some sources will tell you that the mountain hare is only found above 500 metres, but we have seen them in the south-west of Mull in sand dunes close to the sea.  Their preferred habitat is heather moor, high scrubby grassland, dry rocky hills and new forestry;  if they have the opportunity, they will also venture down to graze on lowland pastures and crops.

Surprisingly, in view of the mountain hare’s harsh environment, mating takes place at the end of January, and the leverets are born from March onwards.  Successive litters can be born throughout the summer, until August.

Mountain hares are most active in the evening and at night, and prefer to feed on short, young heather, as well as bilberry, birch, willow, juniper, gorse and grasses.  They’re smaller and more compact than brown hares, with shorter, black-tipped ears.   The males are slightly smaller than the females.

Mountain hare in transition

From October to January, a mountain hare changes its coat or pelage from russet brown to white or grey;  and from February onwards it starts to turn brown again in preparation for the spring and summer.  The tail remains white.  A mountain hare in transition between its two coats looks somewhat mottled and a bit scruffy – a surprising sight if you’ve never seen one before!  However, the Irish population (Lepus timidus hibernicus) rarely develops a white coat, and there are reports that mountain hares in some regions of Scotland only turn partly white, as well.

A mountain hare’s main predators are foxes, birds of prey and stoats.  The species appears to be dwindling in some parts of Scotland where it was previously abundant.  This could be the result of a combination of factors including excessive cattle grazing, loss of heather habitat, and human interference.

Brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

Body length:  520 – 595 mm

Weight range:   3 – 4 kg

Brown hares are widespread throughout central and western Europe, and they are thought to have been introduced into Britain by the Romans, who also brought us rabbits. I don’t wish to cast the Romans as soft-hearted bunny-cuddlers, so I should add that their furry companions would have been a source of food, not a comforting gift to people who weren’t all that keen on being conquered.

The hares bred like – well, like rabbits – and by the late 19th century, there were about 4 million of them in Britain. However, over the past 100 years their numbers have dropped by more than 80%, and this alarming process is still ongoing. I was surprised to learn that, in the south-west of Britain, brown hares are scarce.  They are absent from parts of north-west Scotland, but this is because the terrain and climate are too harsh for them.

Like the mountain hare, the brown hare has probably suffered with the spread of intensive, mechanised agriculture. Many thousands of miles of hedgerows have been uprooted to make way for large fields, and this has destroyed important sources of food and shelter.  Hay meadows have dwindled since the Second World War, with most farmers now preferring to make silage.

The brown hare is a Priority Species under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, which aims to maintain and expand populations. It does not have a close shooting season, but it does enjoy some limited protection from the Hares Preservation Act of 1892. Its main predator is the fox.

Brown hares are easily distinguished by their reddish-brown coat and very long, black-tipped ears. Their powerful hind legs can help them accelerate to speeds up to 45 mph, but if they are threatened their first instinct is always to sit tight and imagine that they’re invisible.

Their preferred habitat is open farmland, where they feed on grass shoots and cereal crops. Brown hares don’t make burrows, but instead they scrape away any vegetation and lie flat against the bare earth, making a shallow depression called a form.

Between two and four litters are born every year, between February and September.  In March, the ‘boxing’ behaviour that’s so entertaining to watch is usually caused by females fending off prospective suitors. Leverets are born in the open, and each is left in its own separate form. The female, or doe, leaves them alone in the daytime, returning to suckle them in the evening.

Footnote:   A reader from the Hare Preservation Trust has commented that there is, in fact, a third species of hare in the British Isles – the Irish hare.  This was formerly thought to be a sub-species of the mountain hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) but recent DNA studies suggest the Irish hare should be accorded species status in its own right.  My thanks also to Mike Rendle of the Irish Hare Initiative for identifying these (below) as Irish hares, photographed on Mull.

Irish hares on Mull

Sources:

All images copyright © Colin Woolf

Spot the mountain hare!

Comments

  1. Very interesting, I’ve never seen a completely white hare but I’d love to. Have you seen them in their winter coats on Mull? There seems to be a fairly healthy population of brown hares in Perthshire, I quite often see them scampering through fields. I’ve never seen them boxing either, but it must look very odd. My sister, who lives at Loch Rannoch, says she saw some boxing the other day so I’m hopeful that if I keep a look out I might see that some time. A friend of mine who lives in London was telling me recently that hare is a bit of a prize food for dinner (it was what she was given for a meal one evening at a friend’s house) and I was shocked as I thought they were protected, but apparently that only applies in Scotland and it’s perfectly normal for specialist butchers to sell them in the south east of England.

    • No, we haven’t seen white-coated mountain hares on Mull. The ones in the first pic are the brown-coated ones that we saw in the sand dunes. But we haven’t been over there in the depths of winter – yet! I would expect there are quite a few on Ben More. We usually see lots of brown hares in Perthshire. We were surprised at how many we saw on Islay – two or three in every field! I don’t really think I’d be keen on trying hare as a meat… possibly hypocritical, I know, because game animals have a better life in many ways than domestic ones. In centuries gone by, no one would have thought twice.

      • That’s true, it’s a very modern attitude. I love to see them bounding through the fields, and I’d always prefer that over seeing them dead on a plate.

  2. There is a third species of hare in the British Isles – the Irish hare. This was formerly thought to be a sub-species of the mountain hare (Lepus timidus hibernicus) but recent DNA studies suggest the Irish hare should be accorded species status in its own right.

    • Thank you for that – all the sources seemed to suggest it was a sub-species, so I will make an amendment or footnote.

      • Hi Jo. The hares on Mull are almost certainly Irish hares, introduced to Mull from Ireland during the nineteenth century. Mull is the only place outside Ireland where Irish hares are known to live (confirmed by DNA typing). Whist some Irish hares may turn white during severe winters, I think a white hare on Mull would be very unlikely. Hope this helps. Mike Rendle, Irish Hare Initiative.

      • Hi Mike, Wow, that’s really interesting! I had no idea! Thank you for telling me this. Was there any particular reason why they were introduced to Mull? And are there no mountain hares there as well?

  3. Great & very informative post. Would have loved to see footage of hares boxing but suspect it is hard to catch that on camera!

    • Thanks, Rayya! Yes, it would be good to catch them boxing – I always remember the video facility on the camera far too late! Next time I’ll have a go, though.

  4. Silver fox says:

    The hares on Mull get white trousers in the winter. Never seen a pure white one here

    • Thanks for this. I’ve amended the text slightly, as I have heard similar reports since writing this article.

    • The ‘white trousers’ colouring is typical of Irish hares in winter (see my previous post above). Pure white Irish hares are very unusual, except during extremely cold weather, such as the British Isles experienced during the winter of 2010/11, when significantly more white or partly white Irish hares were reported across Ireland. Even then, many Irish hares didn’t change colour at all and it was not unusual to see white and non-white hares together.

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