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Issue 12 - On the path of hares and crossbills

Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004


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On the path of hares and crossbills

Catching wildlife in late winter isn't easy. But hares and crossbills are there say Graham Holliday

Mountain hares were introduced to the Pentlands in 1867 and 1868 to provide an additional game species for the area. The hares were shot as part of the popular sport of hare drives during that time.

There are thought to be some 350,000 mountain hares in the United Kingdom, of which only some 500 are found outside Scotland in the Pennines and Peak District, however no systematic survey has been carried out.

Moors managed for grouse provide the highest populations. Since the 1930s game bags from shooting estates show a steady decline in numbers, but they are now no longer shot. Their main predators are foxes, stoats, buzzards and eagles.

The hare is brown, but turns white in winter and is often called the blue hare or white hare.

“It is unusual for any of the rangers to see mountain hares whilst out on patrol in the hills nowadays. Hares are largely nocturnal although they may be seen at dusk,” says Susan Falconer, a senior ranger in the Pentland Hills regional park.

“During late March the first litter is born,” adds Falconer. “So the hares will probably be lying low in February and March.”

The main threats to mountain hares are land use changes including increased sheep grazing on heather moorland.

“A good site for seeing mountain hares is Ben Chonzie above Loch Turret,” says Falconer. “Whenever I've walked in the area I've always seen them, no guarantees though.”

The Scottish crossbill is the United Kingdom’ s only endemic bird. A stroll around the forests of Glen Affric, Abernethy, Cambus O’May or the Tay Forest during February and March finds this odd-looking bird in full song.

“You can hear crossbills, but you are more likely to hear their contact calls rather than song,” says Cambus O’May Forest ranger Louise Simpson. The Scottish crossbill is a member of the finch family, but looks almost like a parrot.

One of its closest relatives is the parrot crossbill. This stocky bird with its large head is often found among the older trees of the remaining Scots pine plantations. However, it tends to change woods from year to year and it avoids young trees that have no pine cones, as it likes to feast on pine seeds year round.

Cambus O’May in the Grampians has views over Royal Deeside as far as Lochnagar on a clear day.

“Crossbills need a mixture of Scots pine and other conifers to extend the cone season. So you could say that Forestry Commission is supporting lots of birds by planting mixed forests,” adds Simpson.

“We would recommend that visitors follow our haymarked walks in Cambus – then they at least have a chance to see the chewed and torn cones on the path surface. These cones will either have been eaten by crossbills or red squirrels.”

There are plenty of paths for visitors and trails with disabled access.