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Mountain hares in the Peak District

Mountain hares died out in England during the last Ice Age. However, during the 1800s a group of landowners reintroduced mountain hares from Scotland to the Peak District for sporting purposes. Other attempts to translocate mountain hares to North Wales, the Lake District and Northumberland ultimately failed. Yet those released into the Peak District survived. However, they now face very modern threats including human-caused pressures and climate change. Understanding the success or otherwise of this group of mountain hares may help to guide other contemporary mammal reintroduction efforts and also provide advice for safeguarding this, the only population in England.

The problem

The Peak District mountain hares are recognised as beautiful almost-exotic creatures, noticeable for their winter white fur contrasting against the dusky browns of the uplands. In the Peak District, they exist in an isolated vulnerable population, living upon rough, exposed moors, with no potential for inward migration of other hares.

Direct threats to mountain hares include heavy traffic on several major trunk roads, hunting and persecution.

The impact of changing land use practices upon them are not yet known, and some historic sub-populations have become locally extinct.

There are further subtle and dangerous pressures for the mountain hares. Climate change can bring hotter summers, increasing fire risk; wetter autumns can create feeding and shelter challenges for young leverets; severe winters can bring about a thaw-freeze, where a layer of snow can freeze solid, making it difficult for a hare to dig through to find food.  

With the Peak District mountain hares being effectively an “island population”, there may be risks of genetic depression, as the busy road system that bisect the moors may act as a barrier to dispersal and small scale gene flow. Elsewhere, recent investigations of other groups of mountain hares and the similar Irish hare have identified a further threat to the species; the European brown hare. It resides in neighbouring terrain and can replace mountain hare populations through competition or hybridisation.    

The solution

We are establishing an in-depth study, led by Carl Bedson, to understand the sustainability of the present group of mountain hares in the Peak District. It is hard to estimate the numbers of hares, as they tend to lie low under deep vegetation. As a result of this we are assembling a new, novel combination of techniques, including line transect observational surveys, deployment of remote cameras and a drone camera. These methods also provide a good opportunity to evaluate hare and habitat associations and the effects of human infrastructure.  

Mountain hareGenetic material will be obtained either from material such as dung samples or carcasses. 

These data will then be used to construct demographic models (including for example hare hotspot maps) for investigating how the mountain hare population may respond to changes in land-use, levels of persecution, interaction with brown hares, and different climate change scenarios within the Park.

The results of Carl’s studies will help to provide advice crucial to saving our last wild mountain hares, and identify the most important population parameters to be prioritised for future hare re-introductions.

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