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An Eerie Encounter

The mountains are looking particularly majestic just now. Wind-blown ridges bared of winters’ snow, imperceptible gullies forming white stripes, contrast and contour returned to the landscape. This is a time of year I enjoy the Cairngorm Mountains, when the iconic mountain hare is easily visible and walking the hills is less arduous than mid-winter, but coronavirus meant this spring would be a detached experience.

Shunning the sheltered lowlands in favour of wild heights, mountain hares spend most of the year with their thick grey-brown pelts, but come the winter they turn a regal white. They're still white by the time the snow has melted and given way to spring, so this is the best time to find them.

Though mountain hares died out in England during the last Ice-Age, they continued to survive in Scotland and form an important part of the golden eagles’ diet. They are most vulnerable at times when a sudden change in mountain temperature causes untimely snow melt, when a white camouflage pelt disadvantages their ability to avoid the eagles’ keen eye-sight.

Mountain hares have adapted to cold habitats. They've been around in Britain longer than their lowland cousin, the brown hare; bones excavated from archaeological digs have been carbon dated back to 114,000 - 131,000 years old. Once native throughout the UK's montane habitats, they died out through much of their range after the last Ice-Age, 6000 years ago. They continued to survive in Scotland and are present in the Isle of Man and the Derbyshire Peak District following reintroduction schemes. In the 1880's local landowners in Derbyshire translocated 6 groups of up to fifty individuals from Perth, Scotland to the heaths and bogs of the Peak District; an eerie exposed landscape of peat covered moorland, often shrouded in mist, sitting 600m (2000ft) above sea-level.

The mountain hare thrived until recent times and Kinder Scout is a particularly good place to encounter these endearing creatures. However, the increase volume of todays' traffic on modern trunk roads, that dissect the national park, inflict a heavy mortality on this small, fragile population.

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