The harsh unforgiving winter landscape of the Cairngorms is home to one of our most exquisite, yet heavily persecuted, mammals the mountain hare. Mountain hares are well adapted to their cold, snowy environments. Their winter coat includes heavily furred hind-paws which act like snowshoes, spreading their weight over a larger surface area to stop them from sinking too far into the snow. They moult twice a year, changing pelage (coat) colour to blend into the environment around them.
Mountain hares are indigenous to Britain, unlike the other lagomorphs, the rabbit and the brown hare, which were introduced by man. Although elsewhere in its broad circumpolar distribution, the mountain hare mainly occupies Boreal forest. In Britain it is associated with heather moorlands, particularly those that are managed by a patchwork of burning to boost numbers of red grouse. In Scotland, mountain hares are widely persecuted as they are thought to carry a tick-borne virus that has a negative affect on red grouse numbers; this brings them in direct conflict with man’s interest.
Preferentially mountain hares are nocturnal, resting during the day in hollows or scrapes called ‘forms’ which provide shelter. Their runs usually pass directly up slopes, rather than traversing slopes like those of sheep and deer. With their stunning white winter pelage, mountain hares are a sight not to be missed. While usually solitary, during periods of snow cover they gather on leeward hill slopes, in groups of 10 or more, to shelter or feed where shallow snow permits scraping to reveal underlying heather. The young hares or ‘leverets’ are preyed upon by several predators including foxes, stoats, wildcats, buzzards and eagles; eagles are also major predators of adults.
While their population fluctuates on a ‘natural’ 10-year cycle, since 1999 the numbers of mountain hare has crashed at an alarming rate, mainly due to persecution. The mountain hare is a species of Conservation Concern and an integral component of Scotland's mountain ecosystems.