The white hares that say spring hasn't sprung quite yet

Thu, 04/03/2010 - 09:33
Submitted by Andrew Beaven

With sunshine and longer days, with snowdrops and the first buds of new growth, there are cheering signs that Spring is finally on the way. But on a walk last week I spotted one animal at least that isn't ready yet to wave goodbye to the winter. On a late-lingering snow-field, I was thrilled to chance upon half-a-dozen Mountain Hares.


The first one I saw was standing upright on his back legs, close to the path. His long ears shot up in mock surprise and he cocked his head at a quizzical angle as though to say: "What on earth are you doing here?" After a few seconds he dropped back onto his front feet and bounded across the snow with an incredible turn of speed. And as I watched him sprint away I suddenly realised that the whole slope in front of me was covered in a chaotic flurry of hares running in all directions. If only I could move that swiftly and easily uphill through the snow!


All too soon their white coats disappeared into the featurelessness of the surrounding landscape, and I carried on with my slow plod towards the summit, amazed that any animal could be so well suited to life in such a cold and hostile place. The trick, it turns out, is big feet and brilliantly-evolved natural camouflage. The Mountain Hare has broad pads that act like snowshoes; and a coat that changes from brown in the summer to white in the winter in order to blend with the snow-covered hillsides.


Unexpected discoveries and sightings really are one of the great joys of walking. I later found out that I'd unwittingly headed into one of the best areas in Britain to see these hares: the grouse moors of the Cairngorm hills, where they can dig down even through the snow for shrubs and heather to eat. Yet for all that it was a wonderful surprise, my chance encounter also served as a warning: even as we head into March, winter hasn't entirely sounded the retreat. These well-adapted mountain dwellers clearly haven't seen fit to dump their white camouflage yet in favour of their warm-weather attire. And while 're still wearing their winter coats, I think I'll keep mine on too!


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