Longstone Edge by Jez Ward
Little Green Space
 

by Penny Bunting

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter is one of the best times of year to look out for wildlife in your garden, park or local countryside.

 

With natural food sources like plants, berries and insects in short supply, animals and birds are forced to venture out into the open during daylight. And a lack of lush vegetation makes it easier to spot them.

 

Mammals are one of the most exciting wildlife sightings that can be experienced – and we have no shortage of them here in the Peak District.

 

The tracks of mammals such as deer, badgers and foxes are easy to spot in mud or snow – and if you’re lucky you may catch sight of one of these elusive creatures, especially if out and about at dawn and dusk.

 

Bats, hedgehogs and dormice are the only mammals that truly hibernate. Others, such as badgers, tend to be less active during the colder months, sleeping for long periods and only emerging occasionally to forage for food.

 

But many other species of mammal remain active during winter. Foxes are often bolder at this time of year, sometimes entering gardens in search of food. And squirrels will be active in woodlands and parks.

 

We have several species of deer in the Peak District. One of the best places to see two of these species is in the grounds of Chatsworth, where semi-wild herds of red deer and fallow deer can easily be spotted at any time of day.

 

Red deer are the largest land mammal in the UK and are easily recognised by the male’s magnificent antlers.

 

The Eastern Moors and Longshaw are home to a completely wild herd of red deer, and these can be seen throughout the year – we recently had a close encounter with them during a late-afternoon walk along Froggatt Edge.

 

This area, in particular Big Moor, is renowned as being one of the best places in the UK to experience the spectacular autumn rut. Starting in mid-September and lasting around a month, this is the time that males compete with each other for female attention. Their extraordinary bellows can be heard right across the moor at dusk, and the animals can often be seen with antlers locked as they show off their strength to the females.

 

Mountain hares

One of the Peak District’s most unusual mammals is the mountain hare, living high up in the hills of the Dark Peak. Mountain hares can be found on heather moorland, and in areas of blanket bog and acid grassland – and occasionally, during severe weather, may be seen sheltering in upland woods and conifer plantations.

 

Mountain hares are smaller than brown hares, with shorter ears and a more rounded shape. and they live more like a rabbit – digging small burrows or moving into disused rabbit warrens. They are sometimes called blue hares – a result of the bluish tinge that appears on their coats during the spring moult, when new, brown fur begins to show through the white.

 

The Peak District is the only place in England where this hare can be seen, so it’s pretty special.

 

Mountain hares are brown or grey during spring and summer. But during autumn, their fur gradually turns white. The white winter coat is a perfect camouflage for snowy hillsides – but less effective during milder winters, when the moorlands stay brown.

 

This makes the mountain hare easier for us humans to spot during winter – but it also makes them far more visible to predators such as foxes, stoats and buzzards. With a warming climate, mild winters are now becoming the norm – and this is just one reason why the Peak District mountain hare is extremely vulnerable.

Climate change can also reduce the availability of suitable habitat, and mountain hares are susceptible to a range of diseases. They’re frequently killed by traffic on moorland roads, and many are culled or snared on grouse moors.     As the population is small and isolated, there is a real risk that a decline in numbers could eventually lead to local extinction of this iconic animal.

 

In Scotland, where there is a much larger population of mountain hares, the species has had protected status since March 2021. It’s now illegal to intentionally kill or injure mountain hares at any time in Scotland without a licence. Such licences will only be issued under certain circumstances, such as concerns for public health or protection of crops and timber.

 

The Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (www.derbyshire wildlifetrust.org.uk) is urging the government to introduce similar legislation to protect mountain hares here in the Peak District.

 

Mad March hares

Mountain hares are one of two hare species that can be seen in the Peak District – the other is the brown hare.

 

The brown hare is the UK’s fastest land animal, with the ability to accelerate up to speeds of around 45mph.

 

It’s easy to tell the difference between a brown hare and a rabbit: hares are larger, with long black-tipped ears, longer limbs and a loping gait. They have dark tails, rather than the white fluff that can often be seen on a running rabbit.   

 

The best time to see a hare is early in the morning, or at dusk, in open grassy fields – they are particularly fond of farmland. They’re mostly solitary creatures, but can come together in small groups during late winter and during courtship, when you might spot several males chasing a female.

 

And despite its “mad March” reputation, you might see boxing hares – typically females, fighting off unwelcome advances from males – throughout the breeding season, from February to September.

 

Unfortunately though, you’re a lot less likely to see a hare these days than you were 100 years ago. Just like mountain hares, brown hare numbers are dwindling.   

 

Intensification of farming methods – resulting in habitat loss (especially grassland and hedgerows), food shortages, and death from chemicals and machinery – is one major cause of this decline, but the warming climate and unregulated hunting are also reasons why brown hare populations are struggling.

 

The Hare Preservation Trust is working for the preservation and welfare of mountain hares and brown hares across the UK. For more information visit www.hare-preservation-trust.com

 

Penny Bunting

www.littlegreenspace.org.uk

Twitter @LGSpace

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