The Mountain or Blue Hare Lepus timidus is thought to be Britain’s only native lagomorph. It may have survived in southern Britain during the last glaciation, when the ice sheet extended south over the whole of what is now the North East region and ended in the east more or less in line with the current political boundary on the northern edge of the North York Moors. It was certainly common in the warmer interlude (The Windermere Insterstadial) towards the end of the last glaciation, where it was larger than present day specimens and regularly hunted by Paleolothic humans (Yalden, 1999). Post glacial remains of the species have been recovered from Teesdale Cave in Upper Teesdale and the North York Moors (Simms, 1975).
It is one of the most widespread hare species across the world, ranging from Scandinavia to the Pacific coast, although in Western Europe it is naturally occurring only in the Alps, Scotland and Ireland. Globally it inhabits tundra and open forest, but in Scotland it is principally associated with heather moorland (Flux and Angermann, 1990). Mountain Hares feed extensively on young heather. They therefore do well on grouse moors where the practice of burning heather encourages new growth. Mallon et al. (2003) estimated hares at a density of 60/km2 in heather in the Peak District but only half that density in the grassland there.
It is smaller than the Brown Hare Lepus europeaus with relatively shorter ears and a more compact body form. Its coat colour varies seasonally being blue-grey in summer and often white in winter, and it lacks any black markings on the upper side of the tail. The latter is a useful distinguishing feature as pale Brown Hares have been recorded (see Brown Hare account).
Mallon et al. (2003) note that where Mountain Hare occurs in the Peak District it is found in different areas to Brown Hare. Mountain Hare are found on the moorland and Brown Hare in the valleys and farmland but interestingly, outside of the Mountain Hare’s range in the Peak District, Brown Hares are found on moorland. Nevertheless they consider that this may be due to different habitat preferences in the two areas rather than the Mountain Hare out-competing the Brown Hare. It has been postulated that the contracting distribution of Mountain Hare since the last glaciation might be mediated by the Brown Hare both through interspecific competition and hybridisation (Thulin, 2003). If this is the case it may be that there is little in the way of a vacant habitat niche for Mountain Hare in the North East, as the authors have observed Brown Hare on the top of Cheviot, the highest point in the North East, and also on heather moorland on the North York Moors.
In Scotland it is found chiefly in the eastern Highland region though it has been introduced to a number of places including the Borders. A survey of landowners and gamekeepers in 2006/07 (Patton et al, 2010) found that the hectad closest to the North East, where it occurred in more than 10% of the hectad, was grid square NT51 with between 40 and 70% of the area positive for Mountain Hare. The study did not present results for hectads with less than 10% Mountain Hare presence so may have missed hectads where the species occurs at low density closer to the border. On the other hand, a study by Kinrade et al. (2007) found Mountain Hare as close 15 km from Cheviot and only separated from it by moorland, and Tegner (1969) records a nearly all-white one, a road kill, above Liddle Water at Carter Bar on the Scottish/English Border in March 1966. In England and Wales it is known to have been introduced in the Peak District, Snowdonia, the Lake District and the Cheviots, though other than the Peak District all of the introductions are supposed to have died out (Hewson and Yalden, 1995).
The exact history of introductions to Northumberland is not known but they are believed to have stemmed from releases in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a previous Duke of Northumberland (Tegner, 1972). Mennell and Perkins (1864) did not know of any records of the species in the North East though they noted that it inhabited Cumberland and Westmorland. They also reported a particularly unsuccessful introduction of Blue Hares to Castle Eden, recounted by Rev. H.B. Tristram, in which all of the hares were dead within a year. A letter in the archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria from L. MacLean, ex-head keeper of the Duke of Northumberland, states that Blue Hares were turned down at Kielder in about 1902 and that the stock came from the Inverary Estate. There was also an introduction at Freemans Gap pond in Alnwick Park although this stock had become extinct by the time of writing. The letter notes that they were originally released to divert foxes away from the grouse.
In another letter, this time from Matthew Philipson of Haltwhistle to Ernest Blezard at Tullie House Museum in 1954, it is stated that there were “still a few Mountain Hare on the wild hills of north east Cumberland and up the western boundary of Northumberland. These are all descendants of the number brought from Inverness 50 years ago and released … by Mr Munsay. Naturally they flourished on this mighty expanse of white moorland.” (Tullie House Museum Virtual Fauna website, 2012). According to Philipson these hares were released at Smale, Falstone, which is just east of the current Kielder reservoir. It is likely that there were a number of other unrecorded introductions across Northumberland. Tegner (1972) states that “The blue or original hare, is still to be seen in the North Tyne valley, the northern Pennine range and occasionally in the Cheviots.” In fact it is in the Cheviots where most of the subsequent records have occurred though the species appears to have always been thin on the ground. A keeper on Linhope ground in the Breamish Valley from 1958 to 1968 only saw one animal on Hedgehope in that time; a stuffed, possible Cheviot specimen is in his family (pers. comm. to John Steele, 2012). Similarly a Warden for the National Park from the mid-1970s to 1999 who has lived and worked in the Breamish Valley all his life, was aware of them in small numbers in the area until the 1963 winter snows when he feels they disappeared.
Mallon et al. (2003) state that the introduced population in Northumberland died out in the 1970s. This may have been the case as there appear to be no records for most of that decade other than Tegner who was probably referring to the late 1960s. However they were seen by a forester on the Lint Lands near High Bleakhope when planting Uswayford Forest in 1979 (pers. comm. to John Steele, 1989) and by the 1980s they were “definitely present in the Cheviots” (Ian Douglas, pers. comm. to Ian Bond, 2001). Meanwhile back in the Kielder district in the late 1980s, Mountain Hare were a regular though not common feature among the prey items at a raptor’s nest, though it is possible that these had been brought in from across the Scottish border (Martin Davison, pers. comm., 1980s).
The 1990s again seem to draw a blank for records and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology’s Atlas of Mammals in Britain (Arnold, 1993) shows no records for the North East. The Red Data Book for Northumberland (Kerslake, 1998) states “It was formerly present, certainly until the mid 1980s, in the Harthope Valley. There have been recent unconfirmed sightings. More research is required.” It was not until April 2000 that there was another definite record, when Kevin O’Hara saw one in upper Coquetdale, just round the corner from Linshiels; it was half way through the moult.
It is not until recent years that there has been more than the odd isolated record, again mostly around the Cheviots. The Head Keeper for Lilburn Estate (covering Cheviot, Harthope Valley, Commonburn, Threestoneburn, The Dodd and Ilderton) has been on the ground since 1995 and had not seen any until 2010, when on a grouse drive on his neighbour’s ground at Linhope he saw one animal come through the grouse butt line. His beat keeper saw two animals together near the trig point on Cheviot as recently as December 2011. One was seen by a shepherd in winter 2010/11 on the edge of Cheviot and they have occasionally been reported to Northumberland National Park staff in recent years. A small number were also seen in 2011 around Hedgehope Hill in the Upper Breamish. The only 21st century record from the west of Northumberland appears to be by Martin Davidson from Kielder Village around 2007.
Further south there have been a number of unconfirmed reports. There is a recent report from Allendale (Martin Kitching, pers. comm. to Ian Bond, 2012) and a single, unconfirmed report of a white hare being taken in Upper Weardale in the 1970s (Kevin O’ Hara, pers. comm. to Ian Bond, 2011) There is nothing to suggest that these are more than just isolated cases; there is no history of a population in either of those locations. Ashby (1965) considered that the Mountain Hare occurred on higher ground in Teesdale, which may be the case as more recently there are occasional, reliable-sounding reports from Cross Fell around the border between Cumbria and Upper Teesdale (Terry Coult, pers. comm. to Ian Bond, 2012). In the very south of our region there never appear to have been any records of Mountain Hare in the North York Moors National Park (Oxford et al, 2007; Delaney, 1985): this in spite of it being the largest expanse of heather moorland in England.
Clearly there is not currently a thriving population of Mountain Hare in the North East nor does it appear that there has been a continuous population since the first introductions. Given that it occurs not far north of the Scottish border, certain records, particularly in the Cheviots, could possibly stem from dispersing individuals. Records elsewhere are likely to be the result of a number of unrecorded releases, probably of small numbers of individuals. Nevertheless it would seem that in 2012 the Mountain Hare has a presence in the Cheviots and long may that continue.
Written by John Steele and Ian Bond (last updated Nov 12)