Mountain Hares on Mull

Visitors to Treshnish are very likely to come across one or even a group of Mountain Hares Lepus timidus, which are quite easy to find in the fields below Treshnish House. Perhaps some visitors are not aware that they are a different species to the Brown Hare L. europaeus but if you have looked carefully at Brown Hares and they are still vivid in your memory you will notice immediately the difference. Mull hares are smaller, have shorter ears and white fur on the back of the legs, under the tail and on the ear edges, even in the summer. The general jizz is also different and so is the overall colour, which is more reddish brown than the Brown Hare. In winter they become slightly more white but I have never seen one turn all white but apparently sometimes they do, even on Mull which receives only occasional snow.

A fact that certainly comes under the ‘not many people know that’ category is that the Mountain Hares on Mull were introduced to Mull from Ireland. This introduction is by popular belief thought to have occurred in the nineteenth century by The Duke of Argyll although according to Corbet & Harris 1991 in Scottish Natural Heritage report 278 they were introduced in the early to mid twentieth century and not only to Mull but Shetland, Orkney (Hoy), the Western Isles, Skye, Raasay, Scalpay, Eigg, Mull, Islay and Jura and according to Yalden 1999 in the 1830s and 1840s to much of southern Scotland. This fits with J. P. MacLean who in 1923 wrote in The History of Mull that the Irish Hare L. hibernicus was a recent introduction to ‘Loch Buy’. It is amazing to think that they could have colonised all Mull from Loch Bui in such a short time.

Looking at map of the Mountain Hare distribution today you can see this more clearly. As the name suggests this is a montane species and so it’s stronghold is the highlands. There are no records in the Morven, Ardamurchan peninsulas and the highland distribution seems to peter out just before Oban. The squares in lowland Scotland and southern Scotland are geographically isolated from the northern population. It still occurs in Shetland, Lewis and Harris, Jura and the southern tip of Mull of Kintyre.

Apparently the introductions of at least some Mountain Hares to southern Scotland at about the turn of the century by a Mr Munsay were from Inverness stock and have spread to Cumbria. I do not know whether there were any Scottish Mountain Hares also introduced onto Mull but what is clear is that the Mull hares have Irish genes and this fact has been mentioned in recent scientific papers. It is probably more likely that all the Mull hares came from the same source in which case the Mull hares would all be Irish Mountain Hares.

Why am I going on about this you might ask, Irish, Scottish what’s the difference? Well there is a difference. The Irish Mountain Hare is a distinct subspecies of Mountain Hare Lepus timidus hibernicus hence the name given by MacLean, when it must have been considered a completely separate species. But times change and the ‘lumping’ of animals particularly birds in the mid twentieth century is coming around full circle to the Victorian trend of ‘splitting’, perhaps the Irish Hare will be resurrected again. Incidentally the Irish race is apparently larger than the Scottish race Lepus timidus scoticus and so approaching the Brown Hare in size and is also much less likely to turn white in winter.

Corbet, G.B. & Harris, S. (1991) The handbook of British mammals. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.
Kinrade V, Ewald J, Smith A, Newey S, Iason G, Thirgood S & Raynor R (2008). The distribution of mountain hare Lepus timidus in Scotland (2006/07). Scottish Natural Heritage Commissioned Report No. 278 (ROAME No. R07AC308)
MacLean, J.P. (1923) The History of Mull embracing Description, Climate, Geology, Flora, Fauna, Antiquities, Folk Lore, Superstitions, Traditions with an Account of Its Inhabitants together with a Narrative of lona The Sacred Isle.
Yalden, D. (1999) The history of British mammals. T & A D Poyster Ltd, London