Wildlife Act 1976 / 2000
EU Directive 92/43 Annex V
Bern Convention Appendix III
Key Identification Features
The Irish mountain hare is one of Ireland’s longest established indigenous species of mammal. They are close relatives to the mountain hare of Scandinavia and northern Europe but are a recognized sub-species as they do not grow a white winter coat and are noticeably smaller in size. They are distinguished from brown hares by having a stocker build, pure white tail and shorter ears, they are much larger than rabbits and have a more upright stance. Female mountain hares are up to 10 % heavier than males, females weight between 3 and 3.6kg with the lighter males weighing 3kg. Total length is around 60cm which includes a 7cm long fluffy white tail. Fur colouration is a reddish brown in summer and a grey brown colour in winter, all other mountain hare species have a white winter coat. The eyes are large and set in the sides of the head allowing for a wide field of vision which is close to 360 degrees. They are not very vocal but emit a number of faint purring and snorting sounds when communicating, they will also scream loudly when distressed. When running they have a bounding like gallop with a top speed of 70km per hour and can change direction sharply to outwit predators. The fore foot has five toes but one does not leave an impression, hind feet have four toes and are larger than the front feet measuring up to 17cm in length.
Irish mountain hares are to be found in a wide variety of habitats in Ireland from coastal grasslands and salt marshes to upland moors, they are most abundant on lowland pastures and areas that provide short grass, herbs and heather. Unlike rabbits they do not burrow underground but occupy ground surface dens known as forms which are sheltered areas of flattened vegetation under heather and long grass. They have been known to use burrows which have been abandoned by rabbits but remain near the entrance and flee if disturbed rather than entering deeper into the burrow. Mountain hares usually have a daytime resting area with another foraging area elsewhere which is used at night. In upland habitats these two areas may be as much as 2km apart linked by a series of narrow pathways and trails which are used regularly.
Food and Feeding Habits
Mountain hares are herbivores but the composition of their diets depends on the type of habitat they occupy. In upland areas they will feed on young heather, herbs, sedges and grasses with willow, gorse and bilberry being eaten in winter. In lowland habitats grasses will account for up to 90% of their diet with herbs and occasionally farm crops being eaten if available. Mountain hares like other members of the Leporide family of mammals will re-ingest their droppings giving them a second chance to break down and digest the tough cellulose which is found in grass. Irish mountain hares can regularly be seen foraging in large groups in good quality feeding areas but are more solitary in habitats that are poor in grass and heather.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
As mountain hares are seasonal breeders the mating season runs from January through to August but if conditions are favourable and there is an abundance of food combined with mild weather then they may breed year long. Spring is the most intense breeding period when males gather in groups to spar, kick and chase each other to establish breeding dominance, similar fights can erupt between males and females during courtship. Breeding females can produce up to three litters a year with each litter containing an average of four leverets. Unusually for mammals mountain hare females can become pregnant with a second litter while still carrying her first therefore she may be pregnant with two litters of different ages at the same time. Gestation usually lasts for fifty days. Leverets when born are around 100 grams in weight, are fully furred and have their eyes open. Young hares will begin to leave their place of birth after only one week but return once a day to suckle their mothers milk which is high in nutrition. The female hare is the only one to show parental care to the leverets. Young Irish hares are fully weaned after three weeks by which time they have grown rapidly and are ready to set up their own territories. The mortality rate for this species is high, numbers will vary widely but in some areas 80% of newborns will not survive their first year while 50% of the adult population will die each year in Ireland. The life span of a mountain hare in Ireland is a maximum of 9 years.
Mountain hares can be found throughout the world from Ireland to Siberia and Greenland. As they are better adapted to harsher conditions than brown hares and rabbits they are usually found at higher latitudes and altitudes, unusually for the species the Irish population is currently found throughout the Island from the coast to lowland and upland areas. The population density of mountain hares in Ireland is extremely variable from year to year and within different habitat types, it has been estimated that in blanket bog areas in the west of the country densities may be as low as 1 per square kilometer with between 5 and 7 individual hares per kilometer found in better habitats in the lowlands of central and southern Ireland. In some areas however if conditions are suitable up to 30 hares per kilometer can be found locally such as on the lands of regional airports.
Mountain hares are thriving in lowland pastures but may be in decline in the uplands, the practice of converting mountain areas to heather and moorland so as to encourage game birds like grouse to breed is benefiting upland hare populations. Mountain hares are listed as a quarry species in Ireland and may be hunted at certain periods of the year or caught for coursing using muzzled greyhounds. This practice is currently not a threat to the hare population as hares must be released with a tag so the same animal will not be re-caught. The population of Irish mountain hares may vary dramatically due to a combination of several factors acting at once or on their own these include direct competition for habitats with rabbits and brown hare species, the spread of disease within the population of an area and the change of local farming practices which can remove the hare’s food source. Mountain hares will also avoid grazing in the same areas as cattle and sheep so any increases in livestock numbers will reduce hare habitats. Foxes, stoats and birds of prey are the hare’s natural predators taking large numbers of leverets each year so they can be considered an important prey species, to add to this increased numbers of un-licensed stray dogs can reduce the mountain hare population in an area. The Irish mountain hare is a legally protected species under the Irish Wildlife act, the European Habitats directive and the international Berne Convention.