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Wild encounters#2: Lepidus timidus

6th March 2017

Growing up hares seemed much more common a sight, hiding in the long grass or boxing in the fields.  These days I rarely see them, but when I do they delight and transfix me, like the one last summer that appeared when I was lost down a country lane and lolloped along in front for several minutes, as if to guide me in the right direction.

For my Wild Encounters blog I researched where I might see some brown hares, and discovered that the Peak district has its own colony of mountain hares, whose coats turn Artic white in winter.  Unlike brown hares, which arrived with the Romans, mountain hares are native to the UK, but only naturally in Scotland.  They arrived in England probably thanks to introduction by landowners interested in increasing the variety of game to hunt.  As with much wildlife, mountain hares are at risk due to habitat destruction and illegal hunting, but in the Peak District, the RSPB  conservation work is helping the population of mountain hares to recover.

One snowy day in January a friend and I drove our children to Dovestone reservoir to walk up the valley and see if we could spot the mountain hares.  I had thought it would be wonderful to see the white hares in the snow, but obviously that was a ridiculous notion – it makes them harder to spot! We walked up the steep valley with binoculars in hand looking for anything moving amongst the rocks, but saw nothing but black grouse.  Near the reservoir we met a couple who had seen one and followed their directions on the top paths.  We excitedly followed unmistakable trails of hare footprints in the snow, but sadly the mountain hare alluded us.

Determined, daughter Bea and I signed up for the RSPB’s Mountain Hare talk in February and gathered with others one Sunday morning in a small pub to hear a fascinating talk on the species. As a group, we set off to walk back up the Chew valley as before, but with volunteer guides to help us.  There was no snow this time to disguise their winter coats, however thick fog meant visibility was low and if the hares were there, we couldn’t pick them out.  Bea found several bits of snagged white fur, and Malteser-like brown droppings, which were confirmed as belonging to the hare, but no hares here.  Trying not to appear disappointed, we headed back down, clambering over a few rocks to see what was hiding underneath (discarded plastic bottles, mainly.  What’s wrong with people?).  Imperceptibly, the fog lifted a little and suddenly a cry went up “Found one!” and a volunteer was pointing at a fuzzy white shape on the hillside.  With binoculars it was clear to see it as mountain hare, sheltering by a rock grooming itself.  Nearby was another twitchy nosed hare clearly looking back at us.  It was magical and slightly surreal seeing an animal that looks like it belongs in the Artic, sitting there on a hillside in Greater Manchester, looking back at us.

On the way down with the fog lifting I spotted another white dot in the far distance,  just where we had come down the hillside on our previous snowy walk.  We had probably walked right past them in the snow.  Bea and I were delighted our return visit had paid off, showing us that if we want to have encounters with the wild, we are going to need patience and persistence.

With thanks to Miriam Biran and RSPB North West for their help finding the mountain hares and the conservation work at Dovestone that enables the wildlife to thrive.