Mountain hare (Lepus timidus)

French: Lièvre Variable
Spanish: Liebre Variable
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderLagomorpha
FamilyLeporidae
GenusLepus (1)
SizeHead and body length: 46-65 cm (2)
Tail length: 4.3-8 cm (2)
Weight2-6 kg (2)

The mountain hare is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Not protected in the UK (3). Listed in Annex V of the EC Habitats Directive as a species of community interest (4).

The mountain hare (Lepus timidus), also known as the blue hare, or white hare in winter, is native to Britain, unlike the brown hare (Lepus europaeus) and rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), which are thought to have been introduced by the Romans (4). It has a lighter build than the brown hare, and is easily distinguished by its tail, which is completely white throughout the year, whereas in the brown hare the tail has a black upper surface (2). The ears are tipped with black, and the coat is brown in summer, turning white during winter (4). Males and females are generally similar in appearance, but females are slightly heavier (4).

In Great Britain, the mountain hare is native only to the Scottish highlands; it was translocated to England, Wales, the Isle of Man and various Scottish islands, mainly for shooting. At present it occurs in the Scottish highlands, where it is common, the borders, south-west Scotland, the Peak District and the Isle of Man, but the Welsh population seems to have become extinct (5). In England, just six isolated populations are known, and the status of the species in England seems precarious (5). Outside of Great Britain, this species has a broad distribution that covers most of the Palaearctic region (1).

Throughout most of its distribution, the mountain hare inhabits boreal forests, however in Great Britain it tends to be associated with heather moorland, especially where management for grouse is in place (4), which creates a patchwork of heather at different ages (3). They also occur in montane grassland, new forestry plantations and dry rocky hills (5). In areas where brown hares are absent, mountain hares may inhabit pasture and arable lowlands (5).

This species is active in the evening and at night (5), but during the breeding season it becomes more active during the day (5). Mountain hares tend to rest during the day in forms, scrapes or burrows in the snow or soil (4). Although typically a solitary species, occasionally groups of up to 70 individuals may gather in order to feed (5). The diet consists mainly of young heather, but grasses, rushes, sedges, bilberry and herbs are also eaten (5).

The breeding season occurs between February and August (5). During this time, several males may pursue a single female, who may 'box' them away if she is not ready to mate (4). Gestation takes around 50 days (4); between one and four litters are produced each year, consisting of one to five young, called leverets, although up to eight have been recorded (5). The leverets are born with fur, with their eyes open, and are left on their own for much of the time; the mother returns only to suckle them (4). Adult mortality is quite high (5), the main predators are foxes, birds of prey, stoats and cats (4), but adults are known to live to over nine years of age (5).

In Great Britain, the population is fairly fragmented and isolated, which makes the species particularly vulnerable. Adverse weather conditions and other chance events can severely threaten small isolated populations (3). This hare relies on heather moorland, managed in traditional ways for red grouse (Lagopus lagopus). Unfortunately, both this habitat, and the management techniques that benefit this species are declining (5). In some areas, the mountain hare is thought of as a pest (3), as it is believed to compete with grouse for food (5); hares are therefore shot in order to control them (3). Poachers with dogs are a threat in the Peak District (5), and disturbance in areas where recreational pressures are high may also be a problem (3).

The listing of the mountain hare under Annex V of the EC Habitats Directive means that a number of methods of capture are restricted or banned (4). Before direct conservation action can be undertaken, further research is needed into this species in Great Britain (4).

For more information on the mountain hare:

For more on the conservation of Britain's mammals:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Burton, J. A. (1991) Field guide to the mammals of Britain and Europe. Kingfisher Books, London.
  3. Morris, P. (1993) A red data book for British mammals. Mammal Society, Bristol.
  4. The Mammal Society. Mammal Factsheets. (August 2002).
    http://www.abdn.ac.uk/mammal/mountain_hare.shtml
  5. Macdonald, D.W. and Tattershall, F.T. (2001) Britain's mammals- the challenge for conservation. The Wildlife Conservation research unit, Oxford
    http://www.wildcru.org