White hares

The White Hares of the Peak District

The white hares of the Peak District moors are a familiar site to ramblers, shepherds and visitors to the moors.  They are seen throughout the year, but are most prominent in the spring when they still wear their white winter coats and so stand out against our dark moorland plants and rocks. 

These are prominent animals that will make off in a great arc across the moorlands when disturbed.  Our white hares are rather special.  They are the only British population outside of Scotland and a very small group on the Isle of Man.  It’s thought that the current population were introduced onto our moors between about 1870 and 1880, although the species is native to Britain. 

Numbers appear to have increased in recent decades and stands at between 1500-5000 now.  As a result, they are pretty widely seen on the high moors of Crowden, Dovestones, Bleaklow and Kinder but so too occasionally on the lower moors on the eastern side of the Peak District.   

A great place to see our white hares would be around Derwent Edge in the upper Derwent, but they can be seen anywhere in the moors, typically above 1000ft.  They like the moors just below the gritstone edges and use the craggy rocks for cover. They will lie up in amongst heather and bilberry too.  Our animals are easily visible in their winter coats in these habitats, but in Scotland and Scandinavia their white coats make them well-camouflaged.

The cover that heather, bilberry and cotton grass provide is important, but studies have shown the hares much prefer eating the moorland grasses that grow in amongst the shrubs and heaths.  Given a tough period, hares will feed on the woodier shrubs and there are even some reports that these otherwise vegetarian mammals will feed on small mammals. 

Clearly, access to food is vital for the hares, and so it is thought that the very snowy winters of the early 1960s led to a population crash.  The run of more mild winters allowed the population to recover, although we have had a few tougher winters more recently.

The white hares are more properly known as mountain hares, but are also known as blue, tundra, snow, alpine and Irish hares across their range.  And they’re found pretty much where moorland and polar environments are, from Scotland, through Scandinavia and the Alps to the Baltics and the Far East. 

Our UK populations are something of an outlier, reflecting the more southern distribution of moorlands in the wetter Atlantic-influenced British uplands.  This wide distribution means there is the potential for the population to evolve and diversify. Scientists have looked at all of the sub-species and think there are 15.

The mountain hare is a large species, bigger than a rabbit, but smaller than the more common and widespread Brown, or European, Hare.  They have large long ears about 1.5 times as long as the head, with black tips.  They grow to a length of around 22 inches with a tail of just over 2 inches and can weigh between 5 and 12 pounds.

Females are slightly heavier than males.  In summer, the coat is various shades of brown. In preparation for winter most populations moult into a white (or largely white) coat known as a ‘pelage’. The tail remains completely white all year round, distinguishing the mountain hare from the European or Brown hare which has a black upper side to the tail.

Alongside the piping call of the golden plover and the curlew’s haunting call, the sight of a white hare makes my day when walking the Peak District moors in spring.  We are lucky to have them and they are yet another reason why the Peak District National Park is such a special place. 

Posted on: August 8th, 2015