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Mountain hares are facing to adapt for dwindling winter conditions



Scotland's mountain hare population faces a dire threat from the climate crisis: With increasingly snowless winters, the hares' natural colour change from brown to white, designed for camouflage, is now having the opposite effect.


The regular moulting process in animals serves the vital purpose of enabling them to blend seamlessly into their natural environments. However, the effects of warmer temperatures are now beginning to impact certain species, disrupting their ability to effectively camouflage and adapt to their changing landscapes.


During the winter season, mountain hares, frequently found in the Scottish Highlands and the northern regions of England, undergo a remarkable transformation. They shed their dark fur in favour of a white coat, allowing them to blend seamlessly into their wintry surroundings. This natural adaptation helps them remain camouflaged and less visible to predators in the snowy landscape.


The regular moulting process of mountain hares serves as a crucial adaptation, enabling them to camouflage effectively in snowy landscapes. However, with fewer days of white conditions due to climate change, these hares have become more vulnerable as they stand out against the dark mountains, making them easier targets for predators.



Background of the Mountain Hares


Mountain hares, closely related to the Arctic hare, indeed went extinct in England during the last ice age. Mountain hares disappeared from England during the last ice age but managed to survive in Scotland. Interestingly, in the 1870s, some landowners reintroduced them to England, and these hares started to thrive in the Peak District. Today, populations of mountain hares can still be found in Scotland and Northern Ireland.


The colour change in mountain hare pelage, from brown in summer to white in winter, was once believed to be related to them consuming snow to turn white. However, it is actually linked to variations in day length and air temperature, which halt the production of brown melanin in their fur.


Mountain hares are classified as a priority species within the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Unlike the brown hare, believed to have been introduced to Britain by the Celts during the Iron Age, the mountain hare is a native species. However, its native range is limited to the Scottish Highlands and has been translocated to other areas within Britain.


Negative Consequences of Climate Change


According to an analysis conducted by the Met Office, it has been cautioned that by the year 2080, freezing temperatures in the UK may only persist in very high-altitude areas and certain regions of northern Scotland. This projection underscores the significant impact of climate change on the country's weather patterns and temperature distributions, affecting the status of mountain hares.


A recent study reveals that diminishing snow cover duration is causing a seasonal "mismatch" for mountain hares in Scotland. This mismatch leaves the hares vulnerable to predators, and the species is struggling to adjust the timing of their seasonal moults to keep up with the ongoing climate crisis.


To evaluate the status of mountain hares in the UK, the research team analysed historical data dating back to the 1950s and 60s, documenting shifts in moult timings, often referred to as "phenological shifts," in the mountain hare population in Scotland. They then compared these historical timings with those observed in the present day. Furthermore, the researchers conducted calculations to assess the changes in temperature and snow cover within the study region over the past 65 years.


Scott Newey, who is an animal ecologist at the James Hutton Institute and one of the study's co-authors, expressed his concern, stating,

"The camouflage mismatch observed in mountain hares is both surprising and alarming. It suggests that certain wildlife species may struggle to adapt rapidly enough to keep pace with the rapid rate of climate change."

On the other hand, Marketa Zimova points out that recent climate change has subjected wild populations to significant shifts in environmental conditions. The failure of a species to adapt to these changes could ultimately lead to a decline and potential extinction. She also emphasises that if we wish to ensure the survival of species in our swiftly changing world, we must comprehensively understand their responses to climate change. This entails examining a range of human-induced changes and their intricate interactions.


Surveys conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have revealed that the period between 1995 and 2010 witnessed a troubling decline of 52% in mountain hare records. Currently, there is an ongoing petition aimed at granting the mountain hare a protected species status. Such a designation would entail various protections, including making it illegal to kill mountain hares. This initiative reflects a growing concern for the conservation and welfare of this species in the face of population declines.



The Challenge of Less Snowy Winters and Struggles in Warmer Summers


Unfortunately, the climate crisis is dramatically altering the landscape that these remarkable creatures call home. Scotland's mountain hares are now grappling with the consequences of less snowy winters: As climate change brings about warmer temperatures and reduced snow cover, the hares' remarkable camouflage is beginning to work against them.

During winters with minimal snow, their white fur becomes a beacon against the dark terrain, leaving them vulnerable to predators. Eagles and other hunters can easily spot them against the barren landscape, putting their lives at risk.

Not only are mountain hares dealing with the challenges of less snowy winters, but they are also facing difficulties during hotter summers. Prolonged periods of high temperatures and rain can have dire consequences for these hares: Their fur becomes waterlogged in the rain, making them susceptible to hypothermia and other health issues. This vulnerability to extreme weather events further underscores the threats they face.


Actions Taken

As stated, recent years have seen growing concerns regarding the mountain hare population, especially in Scotland. This species confronts a range of threats, including reduced habitat due to changes in land use, uncertainties surrounding the sustainability of control measures, and competition with brown hares for resources (Lepus europaeus). These challenges have led to the species being categorised as "Near Threatened" in the Mammal Society's IUCN-compliant Red List (2020).

To address these concerns, as of 1st March 2021, mountain hares have been granted full legal protection in Scotland. This legal protection aims to safeguard their populations and address the various threats they face in the region.

NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage), in partnership with the Mammal Society, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, is spearheading a collaborative project dedicated to gathering critical data concerning mountain hares. This initiative seeks to gather essential information to understand better and conserve this species.


A Race Against Time


The story of Scotland's mountain hares is a poignant reminder of how climate change can disrupt the lives of even the most adaptable creatures. These hares, renowned for their stunning fur colour changes and survival instincts, now face an uncertain future. As climate patterns continue to evolve, the battle for their survival becomes increasingly urgent.


Efforts to protect mountain hares are essential for the sake of these remarkable animals and the biodiversity of Scotland's iconic landscapes. By understanding the challenges they face and taking measures to address them, we can hope to ensure a brighter and more sustainable future for Scotland's mountain hares in the face of climate change.

A concerted effort to enforce and strengthen these protections is necessary to ensure their efficacy. Concurrently, preserving and restoring the natural habitats of mountain hares stands as a pivotal conservation measure, necessitating the identification and protection of key habitats essential for their survival. Moreover, recognising the broader implications of climate change on wildlife, international collaboration is advocated to share knowledge and strategies for the conservation of mountain hares. Public awareness campaigns, advocacy for sustainable land management, and community involvement contribute to fostering a sense of responsibility and stewardship for the natural environment. The integration of adaptive management strategies ensures a dynamic response to emerging challenges faced by mountain hares, reaffirming the urgency of global dialogue and concerted action for wildlife conservation amidst a changing climate.


Conclusion

In conclusion, Scotland's mountain hare population confronts an imminent threat due to the adverse impacts of climate change, notably manifested in increasingly snowless winters. The intricate adaptation of their fur colour, transitioning from brown to white for camouflage, is paradoxically rendering them more vulnerable to predators amid the changing landscape


Urgent action is imperative to mitigate the challenges posed by diminished snow cover and the struggles faced during warmer summers. The comprehensive analysis of historical data underscores the urgency of understanding the intricate interactions between climate change and the adaptive responses of wildlife, particularly the mountain hare. 


While recent protective measures, such as legal safeguards enforced in Scotland, mark a positive step, the conservation efforts must extend to habitat preservation, sustainable land management, and international collaboration - as stated. 


The race against time in safeguarding Scotland's mountain hares requires not just a regional but a global commitment to sustainability. Public awareness campaigns, advocating for sustainable land management practices, and community involvement all contribute to creating a shared responsibility for the natural environment. As we collectively navigate the challenges posed by climate change, the preservation of Scotland's mountain hares stands as both a symbolic and practical endeavour, reflecting the broader imperative of securing a sustainable and brighter future for our planet's biodiversity.

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