Mountain hares of Derby - stand and be counted

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A survey is being planned of some of England's least- known wild animals - the mountain hares of the Peak District, whose fur turns white in the winter.

A survey is being planned of some of England's least- known wild animals - the mountain hares of the Peak District, whose fur turns white in the winter.

Usually thought of as creatures of the Scottish Highlands, a small population lives in the hilly moorlands of north Derbyshire after being introduced more than a century ago.

Now the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust wants to check their numbers to see if they are suffering the same steep decline that has affected their commoner and more familiar relative, the brown hare, all across Britain.

Hillwalkers are being asked to report on any mountain hares they see, before a full survey is launched later in the year. The animals are often easy to spot, because their white coats, which act as effective camouflage in the snowy conditions of the Cairngorms and other Highland mountain ranges, make them stand out sharply when the dark lower hills of the Peak District such as Kinder Scout are snow-free, as they often are.

Besides its difference in winter colouring, the mountain hare, Lepus timidus, is smaller, rounder and fluffier than the brown hare, Lepus europaeus, and feeds on heather rather than on lowland plants. It is native to Britain, whereas the brown hare, like the rabbit, is believed to have been introduced by the Romans.

Mountain hares were brought successfully to Derbyshire from Scotland for hunting in about 1880, although other attempts to bring them south of the border - to the Cheviot hills of Northumberland, the Lake District and Snowdonia - have all failed.

The Peak District population probably consists of between 500 and 1,000 animals, compared with the estimated 35,000 mountain hares in Scotland. In the Highlands their main predator is the golden eagle; in Derbyshire they are taken by foxes and stoats, and in the northern part of the Peak District National Park they are still hunted with dogs. The hares are afforded no legal protection.

The survey, which the trust will carry out in conjunction with the Mammal Society and the National Park, will take place against the background of the precipitous decline of the brown hare across Britain over the past 30 years.

Its numbers have been sharply reduced by changes in agricultural practice, in particular the switch from hay-making to silage. Grass is cut for silage in early summer when the leverets - the baby hares - are still small and vulnerable to agricultural machinery.

"With the mountain hares, we want to find out if there is a decline, and if so, what are the threats to them," said David Mallon, an ecologist and teacher who is co-ordinating the survey. They are very characteristic elements of the Peak District landscape: when there is no snow they stand out like a sore thumb and you can spot them a kilometre away.

"They freeze at the approach of danger, so if you're quiet you can get quite close to them. They're really charming animals."