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The distribution of mountain hares Lepus timidus in Europe: a challenge from brown hares L. europaeus?



1. Throughout the most recent glacial period (Weichsel), the mountain hare Lepus timidus had a continuous distribution in the tundra habitat south of the ice-rim. When the ice retreated, mountain hares colonized deglaciated land, and spread over northern Europe.

2. Since the Weichsel, the mountain hare's distribution in Europe has been gradually reduced and at present comprises Ireland and the Scottish Highlands, high altitudes in the Alps, isolated forests in eastern Poland, most of Fennoscandia and from the Baltic countries eastwards through Russia. Declines during the last century have been observed in Sweden and Russia.

3. This review defines and evaluates causes for this gradual reduction and fragmentation of the mountain hare's distribution, with special focus on interactions with brown hares Lepus europaeus. The relative importance of diseases, predation, cultivation and interactions with other herbivores than brown hares are discussed.

4. A plausible cause of the possible permanent disappearance of mountain hares in Europe appears to be exclusion by interspecific competition and hybridization with, and/or epidemic diseases mediated by, the congeneric brown hare.