I’ve been on the look out for mountain hares for a few months now. I went out in October, November and December to look for these illusive little fluff balls. After numerous scouting sessions into the Cairngorms, we finally had a little luck and found these terrifying beasts amongst the undergrowth.

The mountain hare is a cousin of the larger brown hare. The latter tends to live in “edge” habitat between woodland and open fields where they graze on shoots – and thoroughly annoy farmers. Brown hares are actually the UK’s fastest mammals; reaching speeds of around 40mph! Mountain hares by contrast prefer the undulating territory of (unsurprisingly) mountains. They’re smaller, with shorter legs and ears. They sacrificed the long ears so that they don’t lose as much heat and as a result, their hearing is *slightly* worse than that of the brown hare. Mountain hares actually change their outfits for summer and winter and until December/January they were in their camouflaged brown coats – which made them very difficult to spot in the heather.

However! by January they are in their winter colours and bright white. Which makes them substantially easier to spot at a distance at the moment because this Scottish winter has been remarkably mild. There is so little snow on the peaks at the moment that these skittish mammals stand out in stark contrast to their environment.

It’s a pretty sad sight to see the little white dots of mountain hares on an otherwise brown landscape. It’s also a stark reminder of climate change in the area. 25 years ago, brutal winters would batter the highlands, and the coastal areas around where I now live in Burghead would see snow settling until late April. While we may yet see snow come through the Cairngorms, there is a well documented rise in annual climate in Scotland and this is undoubtedly having an impact on the species which have, until now, been well adapted for the snow. You can read a little more about climate trends here:

https://www.adaptationscotland.org.uk/why-adapt/climate-trends-and-projections

The lack of camouflage for the hares makes them vulnerable to predators like eagles, foxes, stoats and weasels. On top of this, there have been reports of some farmers and land owners poisoning hares because they can spread disease to the grouse which are shot in the area for profit.

The area which we visited over the last few months used to be alive with mountain hares. One used to be able to step out of the car and see hares from the carpark on the mountain sides. Now you’re lucky if you spot one or two in the rocky outcrops. There is some hope though… as eco tourism takes off in the area, landowners are gradually realising that there could be regular income from wildlife lovers who will travel and pay to have the privilege of seeing and/or photographing animals in their natural habitat. If the outlook of landowners can change then there is a good chance that more will be done to protect dwindling populations of these amazing and beautiful animals.

As a little plug, I’m offering wildlife tours around the cairngorms. In these trips, we will of course be on the lookout for mountain hares (I now know some great little spots). We will also be able to find golden eagles, white tailed eagles, osprey, seals, red deer, red squirrels and LOADS more. If you’d be interested, have a look at this link or drop me an email:

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