Mountain hare – the Alpine magic hood

He can outsmart predators, but not winter sports people

by Heini Hofmann

Its scientific name is as a matter of fact Lepus timidus, (timid hare, in German “Angsthase”) hence, just the opposite of scientific, indeed explicitly insulting. For from the very beginning, as a precocial animal the high-altitude survivalist has to courageously assert himself in an inhospitable habitat full of predators and particularly at extreme low temperatures in winter.

During the last ice age the mountain  hare populated the ice-free belt in Europe. When the glaciers retreated, they were followed by the magic hood artist not only to the north but also to the south towards the Alps. Thus, it is one of the few boreal species of mammals endemic in the far north, whose occurrence as glacial relict in Central Europe is limited to the Alps. Here he inhabits rocky areas in the crooked wood belt of the forest margin range at altitudes of 1,400 m to 2,700 m, exceptionally up to over 3,000 m and below 1,200 m respectively.
Related to the mountain hare is the larger, year-round brown colored hare and the smaller wild rabbit, the ancestor of all domestic rabbits. While the latter is found only in the lowland, the habitats of field and mountain hare partly overlap. This  occasionally even leads to bastardizing, since  the mountain hare females apparently consider a large brown hare male attractive …

Biological recycling

The mountain hare sets up his day retreat (a recess in the ground) close to the snow line, camouflaged between stones, shrubs and mountain pines. In winter it often lets itself be fully covered with snow inside it. In summer its diet consists of herbs, weeds and berries. In winter it is content with dry branches and the bark of various soft and hardwoods. But despite incisors hares and rabbits are no rodents, but belong to the order lagomorphs.
In digestion the large appendix and its micro-organisms play an important role. Apart from the normal droppings in the form of solid beans the lagomorph deposits a second form of faeces which are soft, mucus-coated beads. They are formed in the caecum, containing five times more vitamins than the normal droppings and are immediately resumed after discharge and swallowed whole.
The food is thus partly digested twice and thus better mercerated – a kind of biological recycling comparable to the rumination of cows and other ruminants. Such vagaries of nature that we humans have to get used to hels lagomorphas to bridge longer fasting periods in bad weather.

Just don’t attract attention

The mountain hare adapts perfectly to the harsh conditions of the Alpine winter. He is smaller and chubbier than the brown hare. His ears and his tail are slightly shorter (protection against cold). His survival principle is to stay undetected. Therefore, he is crepuscular and nocturnal, thus escaping the eagle eye. During the day he takes to his recess in secure coverage.
Being a snow-common sprinter he is more specialized than the brown hare. His runs are larger and the toes have also more hair broadening them snowshoe-like. This  enables him to move more easily on snow. Being a magic hood artist he also has the ability to seasonally change his fur color. In summer, the fur is a little grayer than the brown of the brown hare and in winter, it turns into white like snow (except the ear tips) and the insulating capacity rises.
Typical of the mountain hare is his track, because he moves only in two very similar gaits, namely hobbling or fleeing. He leaves behind a very special track. With his hindquarters he does not step in the tread of the front legs, instead puts the much longer hind legs in pairs in front of the shorter forelegs, the so-called hare leap.

Tactics, tricks and pace

Rabbits are prey animals, however, in case of danger do not easily run away headlessly.
Thanks to early detection of predators they can play a trick with tactics and fast pace. Their radar are the big ears and the telescopic  and wide-set eyes outstanding from the head, allowing a panoramic view.
Thanks to such abilities for the early detection of dangers they at first remain like frozen in coverage, then they escape unexpectedly with an explosive boot start. The large powerful hind legs enable such rocket starts and sprint tempos of up to 70 kilometers per hour, even on snow. With the small forelegs the surprising hook-hitting can be initiated which also increases the chance to escape a predator.
Since rabbits legs are appreciated by various predators, the hoppers must be ready for a flight at any time. During the day the golden eagle, hawk and raven can be dangerous from the air (for leverets, also sparrow hawk and kestrel) and at night  the eagle owl, as well. Terrestrially, danger lurks from fox, marten and lynx – and from small game huntsmen during hunting season in certain cantons. Even tourists’ dogs at free-range are of (with goodwill avoidable) problem for both, arctic hare and snow grouse that often share their habitat.

The art of surprisingly ending one’s track

Hunting the mountain hare is primal and demanding. Conventionally, it is carried out with the hound or in trapper  manner as trace hunting. An important prerequisite are favorable weather conditions. With a large amount of new snow the mountain hares remain for days in their recess, without leaving any traces. At best there is little but not too much new snow. This would not be good towards the end of the night, since otherwise the tracks are snow-covered again in the morning.
Anyone who believes that it is easy to follow in a jumble of mountain hare traces those which lead to the recess and thus to the hiding place of the hare, is mistaken. Because in order to lead the predators astray the magic hood artists carry another trick in their quiver. Unexpectedly they run back in their same own lane and then suddenly make a far jump to the side into coverage, leaving the main lane ending blind … This is why the demanding snow hunt frequently remains without prey. A real hunter though  takes it on the chin.    •
(Translation Current Concerns)

Fluctuating populations

HH. The mountain hare (magic hood hare) is protected in its habitat in several cantons: SG, AR, AI, LU, BE. In the other mountain cantons, it is hunted (in descending order of the shooting rate for the average of the last three annual statistics): GR, VS, TI, UR, GL, SZ, NW, OW, VD. In the Principality of Liechtenstein it is huntable, however, it has not been shot any more, lately.
In total, about 1,450 mountain hares are being shot throughout Switzerland every year. A majority (about 1,100) is shot in Grisons, where hare hunting is allowed from 1 October to 20 November and where about 1,700 small game hunters own a hunting license.
Since the beginning of data recording in 1955 the average yield is close to half a mountain hare per year and hunter for the whole of Switzerland. This implies a constant incidence of the animal. However, an exact number of all wildlife arctic hares in Switzerland is not known. A careful extrapolation leads to about 14,000. Data ascertainment, however, is aggravated by climate and illness related population fluctuations.
(Translation Current Concerns)

Disruptions increase stress hormones

HH. In mountain winter the wildlife live at energetic subsistence level. Unnecessary disruptions by winter sportsmen off-piste may endanger their lives. This is shown by recent scat studies of the mountain hare researcher Maik Rehnus: Faecal samples from winter sports areas in the Engadine have shown a higher stress hormone level than samples from animals in the National Park.
Global warming means trouble for the magic hood artist, as well: in late autumns with little snow, the predation pressure will increase and coldness-depending colour change of the fur already takes place before the first snowfall. Hereby the fur’s camouflage function turns into its opposite. Furthermore, the brown hare, whose habitat already overlaps with the mountain hare, is increasingly moving-up, and therefore competes against his little brother.
There are areas (e.g. in the Canton of St. Gallen), where the situation is just the opposite due to the low rates of brown hares and the related lack of competitive pressure. Therefore, you may meet the high alpine arctic hare occasionally in lower areas as well. There are observations at 1,200 meters altitude and even only at 900 meters altitude.
(Translation Current Concerns)