BioBlitz is almost here and the top-10 wildlife countdown continues with Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)
Mountain Hare is an iconic species at Dove Stone. One of the reasons for this is that the northern Peak District, Saddleworth and Derbyshire moors are the few places outside of Scotland where you can watch Mountain Hares and Dove Stone has a significant population. It’s likely that Mountain Hare you see in this area is descended from releases in the northern Peak District made for sporting purposes in the late 19th century. Unsurprisingly, Mountain Hares are fast running animals. At Dove Stone you may see them on the move when flushed. Sometimes they'll run away in an arcing curve they can also just move away then lie flat in the classic pose to escape detection. In contrast, the Brown Hare (Lepus europaeus) more often zigzags away.
Dove Stone is well suited to Mountain Hare of course because of the habitat here. They're usually found above the cultivation line, around 1000ft locally, living in areas of mixed moorland, blanket bog and grassland as well as at sites below rocky moorland edges. Mountain Hares are exclusively vegetarian. Grasses, bark, heather and grain are supplemented by Lichen in winter, when they'll dig down into shallow snow to feed.
Identification is obviously a theme that runs throughout BioBlitz and the question is Mountain Hare or Brown Hare ? Smaller than the Brown hare though bigger than a rabbit the Mountain Hare has large long ears with black tips. The tail is very short with the upperside being white all over; Brown Hares have a black centre to the tail. The fur is a grey brown colour in summer but is white or grey-white in winter.
And in winter identification of course is easy as it's only the Mountain Hare that has a white coat. The winter coat is longer and thicker than the summer coat and lasts through until about March. The change back into the summer coat is a gradual one but by May they’ll be mainly brown again. The moults are triggered by changes in daylight hours and temperature changes. Although Brown Hares do moult as well there is no great difference in their coats.
So, a bit about behaviour. The Mountain Hare is generally solitary although from February to April they can often be seen in groups and around this time females can be seen fighting or boxing away males before being ready for mating. Around the rocky outcrops above Whimberry moss and around Alphin Pike is a good time to observe this boxing behavior. Another good vantage point at Dove Stone to hare-watch is from the Chew Road, walking up towards Chew Reservoir. Hares will often lie up in a temporary form. This can be in various places: amongst rocks, in shallow heather, in clumps of vegetation such as bilberry or crowberry, between tussock grasses or in the open on the side of exposed areas of peat.
During winter, being white, they clearly standing out against the dark gritsone and on a sunny day they can be easily seen warming themselves on the rocks. As with any wildlife, binoculars or a scope are great for getting a more detailed view without causing disturbance.
A key question is how is the Mountain Hare faring as a species ? Numbers have been rising for over 40 years after a crash due to the severe winters of 1962/3. Estimates of the local Pennine population range from around 1,500 to a few thousand, with around 35,000 in Scotland. In terms of predators the Mountain Hare’s main local predators are foxes and stoats. The main threats to their survival though are prolonged bad winter weather and the small size and isolation of the population. However, the population is gradually increasing although it will be limited by suitable moorland habitat size. The good news is that despite the area of moorland in the Peak District declining during the 20th century some of these losses are now being reversed through restoration of the blanket bog that is being undertaken by the RSPB-United Utilities partnership at Dove Stone.
Mountain Hare will very much be part of our records for the estate and it will be interesting to see what other mammals we record this year.
So, that's the penultimate slot to our number one species in the top-10 wildilfe countdown to Saturday's BioBlitz. Final BIoBlitz wildlife countdown tomorrow with the number one Dove Stone species !