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LAST time it was my turn to do this column I wrote about a mammal that changed its coat from brown to white during the winter months, the stoat.

There is another mammal found in Britain that also goes from brown to white in winter, the mountain hare. However when it is in its brown form it is often mistaken for another hare found in this country, the brown hare. So apart from the fact one changes colour what are the other differences.

The mountain hare, which is also known as the blue hare or white hare in winter, is native to Britain unlike the brown hare and rabbit, both of which are thought to have been introduced by the Romans.

It has a lighter build than the brown hare, and is easily distinguished by its tail, which is completely white throughout the year, whereas in the brown hare the tail has a black upper surface. The ears are tipped with black, and the coat is brown in summer and turns white during winter. Males and females are generally similar in appearance, but females are slightly heavier.

Although found in the uplands mountain hare can certainly come down quite far during the winter months, especially if there has been heavy snow. During the winter a couple of years ago, following a lot of snow, I saw quite a few dead mountain hares on a road in an area which you would normally expect to see them. The heavy snow had made food hard to find so they had come down to lower levels to look for some and unfortunately they have little road sense at all.

On the other hand brown hares have a lot more road sense and their general form and structure resembles that of the rabbit, but obvious differences include the hare’s longer, larger body, much longer hind legs, and longer ears with black tips. Generally, brown hares are a brown-russet colour, with a white underside. The tail is black on the upper surface and white underneath. In contrast to rabbits, which have a brown iris, the brown hare has a golden iris and a black pupil.

In Britain, the mountain hare is native only to the Scottish highlands but it has been introduced to areas of England, Wales, the Isle of Man and various Scottish islands, mainly for shooting. At present it occurs in the Scottish highlands, where it is common, the Scottish Borders, south-west Scotland, the Peak District and the Isle of Man, but the Welsh population seems to have become extinct. In England, just six isolated populations are known.

The brown hare is widespread throughout central and western Europe, including most of the UK, although it is absent from the western highlands in Scotland, where the mountain hare is dominant.

So keep an eye out and see if you can spot either of these two hares - although if it has been snowing I wish you luck trying to spot a mountain hare!


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