Indigenous to the British Isles, the Mountain Hare Lepus timidus is also known as the Blue Hare, Scottish Hare, or colloquially in winter as the ‘white hare’.
The species is found right across Europe to eastern Siberia, and Mountain Hares in Britain are considered to be the same species as the Arctic and Greenland Hares.
Unlike other European lagomorphs the Mountain Hare’s coat changes from brown in summer to white in winter (though this is dependent upon temperature, so not all individuals will turn completely white). Its long ears are shorter than those of the Brown Hare L. europaeus and have black tips, but it’s best distinguished by its tail, which is white throughout the year while the Brown’s has a black upperside.
In Britain, the Mountain Hare is restricted to upland areas, but in Ireland the distinct subspecies L.t.hibernicus (which does not turn white in winter) is found at all elevations.
Mountain Hares were listed as a UK Priority species in 2008. In Scotland a closed season was introduced by the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, in Ireland under the Irish Wildlife Act (1976) and Wildlife (Amendment) Act (2000), and listed in Annex V of the EC Habitats Directive (1992) (member states, including the UK, are legally required to make sure that management of Annex V species is “compatible with their being maintained at a favourable conservation status”).
However, the species is widely shot and snared. Over the long-term some populations of Mountain Hares have apparently remained relatively stable, while others (especially on moorland managed for grouse shooting) have declined sharply. Some online figures suggest there was an overall 32% decline in numbers over 25 years to 2010, and annual research published in 2013 by the BTO indicated a 43% decline since 1995. It should be acknowledged though that the species is known for shorter-term cycles of abundance and decline which may see ten-fold swings in numbers.
When can Mountain Hares be shot or snared?
- England and Wales: the Mountain Hare can be shot throughout the year on enclosed land, while on moorland or unenclosed non-arable land, it can be shot between 11 December and 31 March.
- Scotland: Under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 the Mountain Hare can be shot between 01 August and 29 February (shooting by day during the open season does not require a licence). It is an offence to injure or take a Mountain Hare in the closed season (1 March to 31 July) and the control of Mountain Hare in the closed season requires a licence from Scottish Natural Heritage. Permission to set a snare for a Mountain Hare requires a licence.
- Northern Ireland: the Mountain Hare can be shot between 12 August and 31 January.
- Ireland: the Mountain Hare is listed as a quarry species and may be hunted (shot; coursed at regulated matches using muzzled greyhounds; hunted with packs of dogs) between 26 September and 28 February.
How many Mountain Hares are shot or snared every year?
No official data is collected on the numbers of Mountain Hares killed each year, but besides being shot for ‘sport’ they are widely killed to protect Red Grouse.
This is because Mountain Hares can carry Sheep Ticks Ixodes ricinus which are known to transmit Louping Ill Virus to grouse (though the primary tick host is of course sheep), and the massive intensification of the grouse shooting industry in recent decades (especially in Scotland) has resulted in an increase in the ‘management’ of Mountain Hares to control the ticks. This despite a recent study conducted by the James Hutton Institute which concluded that there was no compelling evidence to suggest culling mountain hares might increase red grouse densities”.
The Hare Preservation Trust say on their website that “the Habitats Directive requires member states to ensure exploitation of Annex 5 species is: “compatible with their being maintained at a favourable conservation status.” Since there are no official records of the number of hares being killed it is difficult to see how this requirement can be met. But anecdotal evidence of culling levels strongly suggests that EC wildlife law is being broken in Scotland.”
Throughout the latter half of 2014 images of piles of dead hares received widespread coverage in the media and on the internet (see for example http://www.robedwards.com/2014/09/revealed-landowners-massacre-mountain-hares-in-the-lammermuir-hills.html), with some commentators suggesting that hares are also killed to remove a food source for birds of prey like Golden Eagles (juvenile eagles, especially, are dispersive and will move out of existing territories in search of new sites).
This additional scrutiny apparently led to a press-release from Scottish Natural Heritage calling for a ‘voluntary restraint’ on large scale hare culls in December 2014 (see the influential website Raptor Persecution Scotland for comment). A 38Degrees epetition calling on Scottish Natural Heritage to Protect the Mountain Hare was launched in January 2015.
- For more information see the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Mountain Hare Position Statement
Update 14 April 2015: “Ten conservation groups call for 3-year ban on grouse moor mountain hare slaughter” Raptor Persecution Scotland
Page updated April 2015
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