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Winter coats are welcome at this time of the year.

several estates no longer shoot them. Incidentally, the mountain hare is our one and only native hare, the brown hare having been introduced here thousands of years ago.

The mountain hare is somewhat smaller than the more familiar brown hare, weighing perhaps a third less, having shorter ears and legs. It is often referred to as the blue hare, its summer coat having a bluish grey tinge. When, as winter descends, it changes its coat to white, the ear tips remain black. Sometimes, more southerly based mountain hares may not completely change their coats and this led to some early naturalists calling Camouflage such animals 'variable' hares. Some even suggested that these were crosses between mountain and brown hares. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that these two animals interbreed.

Scottish hares were introduced at various times to the Isle of Man, various locations in the Pennines and to North Wales. There may also have been an introduction locally to the nearby mosslands in this airt for I well remember Ermine many years ago accompanying a colleague on to the mosses where we had been asked to pass comments on a proposal to extract peat commercially. During our survey we had blue hares springing almost from under our feet. Happily, the proposal to extract peat was refused.

Whilst there are plenty of brown hares lingering around those mosses these days, there are now no mountain hares. I suspect therefore that they may have been introduced to this low ground by some of the shooting estates, perhaps early in the 20th century.

Recently, I watched an item on TV about Canadian lynx. They depend almost entirely on mountain hares for food and it set me wondering about the possible re-introduction of lynx here and the impact that might have on our mountain hares.

I have had several close encounters with stoats and weasels, albeit that hereabouts the population of both seems to have plummeted in recent years.

There are one or two hotspots where I still see them but not in the numbers I used to. I guess the main reason for their demise is the absence of rabbits, probably the stoat's main source of food in particular.

I once sat entranced by the 'square dance' being conducted by a single weasel. I was sat in my car at the time, enjoying a lunchtime sandwich, when I became aware of lots of little birds in the surrounding hedges on either side of the track on which I was parked. They seemed fascinated by something. That 'something' was a weasel which, as I watched, began to run up one side of the track, cross over and run back down the other side repeatedly, doing that strange square dance time and time again. I soon realised that the assembled birds were actually coming down the branches of the hedges as if to get a better look at the dashing, dancing weasel.

And of course, that was just what the weasel was hoping for. Eventually, one particularly 'hypnotised' bird flew down to the track. In a flash, the game was over. Lunch had been served. I also watched a stoat in my own garden perform a similar stunt only this time it took the form of a series of tumbling and twisting acrobatics which similarly hypnotised the birds until one dunnock ventured just that bit too near and accordingly paid the price!

The ability of this trio of creatures to turn white and thus acquire that quite marvellous camouflage when snow lies thick on the ground, is one of nature's neatest tricks. It enables the two mountain dwellers, to go about their plant eating days with the threat of those sharp eyed eagles making a meal of them substantially reduced. The more avaricious stoats dressed regally in their coats of ermine now possess that cloak of anonymity which will make them even more rapacious hunters.


Camouflage Ermine
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Publication:Stirling Observer (Stirling, Scotland)
Date:Jan 26, 2018
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