SCOTLAND’S mountain hares are in decline because they change to white winter coats despite a general lack of snow, researchers believe.
The animals don white camouflage to help protect them from predators during the winter months.
But the relative lack of snow over the past few years means their white coats make them easily stand out against the green and brown of the Scottish hills.
And that makes them easy pickings for birds of prey, foxes and other predators.
It is estimated that the mountain hare – found throughout the Highlands – has declined by 80% over the past century.
In 1995, it was estimated that numbers had dropped to around 350,000 in Scotland.
The camouflage theory has emerged from a study carried out by the University of Montana.
Researchers found that snowshoe hares, which are genetically similar to Scottish mountain hares, are suffering from “seasonal coat mismatches” due to changing seasons.
Dr Scott Newey, from the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, a world-leading institute which researches land, crops, water and the environment, supports the belief that our hares are suffering the same mismatch.
He said: “It is very likely this is the case in Scotland.
“There was a study carried out by an American University who studied snowshoe hares which are very similar to ours.
“They found that their coats were continuing to change colour despite a reduced level of snowfall which made them far more visible in their natural environment.”
Barry Blyther, owner of Elite Falconery, near Kirkcaldy, Fife, said the hares were now being spotted by birds of prey far easier than before.
He said: “When we’re out flying our birds we’ve seen a lot of white hares across the hills even though there’s no snow.
“It’s probably quite beneficial for birds of prey because although they’re excellent hunters, the hares not blending in anymore is making it easier for them.”