Hares in the Snow

It was late afternoon, and I was on my way back from a walk around the fields after the first significant snowfall here for seven years. Long, pastel blue shadows of trees inched their way down the hill as the sun set, forming intricate criss-cross patterns with the furrows. I hadn’t seen much in the way of wildlife, but it was a glorious day to be out in the cold, crisp air.

Three fields from home I noticed two dark shapes in the snow. I nearly dismissed them as fresh molehills, but something about them made me raise my binoculars. They were Brown Hares, hunkered down a few feet apart, face to face, one almost a mirror image of the other. I couldn’t recall ever seeing hares sitting out in the open in snow, and wondered if they had ended up there after being startled from cover. The snow around them was almost undisturbed, so it seemed unlikely that they had been feeding there in daylight.

Even sitting absolutely still, ears back, as flat to the ground as they could get, they were very conspicuous, but were they in any real danger there? Probably not, as long as they were in good condition. A healthy adult Brown Hare has few, if any, natural predators; they will easily outrun a fox unless taken by surprise, which I doubt happens very often given their superb eyesight. The only real threats are humans and their dogs, and fortunately we don’t have a problem with hare coursing in this area.

It would be a different story for their northern relatives though. Mountain Hares are especially vulnerable when their changing coat doesn’t coincide with the ‘right’ weather. A white Mountain Hare in a mild, snowless winter, or a brown one caught in early or late snow, is an easy target for a Golden Eagle… or a shooter on a grouse moor, where they seem to be mercilessly persecuted these days.

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