The mountain hare (Lepus timidus scoticus) is genuinely native to the UK, unlike the more common Brown Hare or even the rabbit, both of which are introduced species. The mountain hare is smaller than the Brown Hare and its coat turns white in winter, one of the few UK species to display this behaviour. Their population appears to be declining though they are not uncommon in certain mountainous parts of Scotland.
The Mountain Hare is an iconic species, and like the Brown Hare it was revered and protected in ancient times as a mystical, almost supernatural animal. In the 18th and 19th centuries, hare (both brown and mountain) was a prized meat, eaten in country areas and available in town and city markets. Nowadays it is seldom seen in restaurants and is generally unavailable to the public unless there are contacts with the estates that cull the hares.
It inhabits remote, inhospitable landscapes and is seen only by those prepared to make the effort to climb rough mountainous terrain. In terms of culinary use, a few game suppliers in Scotland can supply Mountain Hare, so it can get into the food chain, but it is very uncommon. If it does appear on menus, restaurants seldom identify the species.
Mountain hares were previously abundant in higher ground across the UK, but only exist now in certain mountainous parts of Scotland, so over many years there has certainly been a significant reduction in the total population. The Mountain Hare is notoriously difficult to count, recent assessments only being able to confirm that its distribution within Scotland is stable. It can breed for a large part of the year and can produce three litters every year so if conditions are favourable, it can multiply quite quickly. There is a known historic ten-year cycle of rise and fall in population, believed to be related to a gut parasite disease which affects the fertility of the female hare. The total population has not been measured for some years, though a survey is underway this year. Natural predators include eagles, foxes and stoats, but man is by far the greatest threat to the population. Though the Mountain Hare is uncommon, it is not believed to be under imminent threat of extinction.
They live in sub-alpine scrub, but also thrive on grouse moors. There is a complex relationship between the two species as both are host to ticks, which spread a variety of diseases. The Mountain Hares are largely immune to the diseases, (though anecdotal evidence suggests this may no longer be the case) but the grouse are severely affected by louping-ill virus, spread by ticks. As a result, the grouse estates launch massive culls of hares to protect their investment in grouse shooting, often with over 1,000 hares killed in a day. Although in some cases the carcasses are sent to game dealers, there is also evidence that this may not be commercially worthwhile, and piles of hare carcasses are left to rot.
In conclusion, there is a bit of a dilemma. Should the Mountain Hare be protected by regulating culls? Or should we accept that inevitably there will be killing to protect the competing grouse (already in the Ark of Taste), and instead ensure that those Mountain Hares that are killed are used productively in the food chain? Subject to the surveys confirming a sustainable population, the latter seems the better option.
In recent times, the Mountain Hare has received some protection as in Scotland there is a defined close season, 1st March to 31st July. Most culls take place in late winter/early spring when hares are highly visible against terrain if the snow has melted, which is before the breeding season. However permission to kill during the closed season appears not to be difficult to obtain.