Defence mechanisms in the natural world, can be many and varied. Clearly, being particularly fleet footed, or in the avian world, capable of fast flight, offers a means of escape to the hunted, albeit that most predators succeed because they too are capable of rapid pursuit. Sparrowhawks for instance, can out-fly most of the birds they target, although I have also seen them out manoeuvred on occasions.
I once watched in amazement as such a hawk took off explosively in pursuit of a tree pipit only for it to be thwarted by the aerial gyrations of the said pipit which several times managed to dodge the pursuing raptor and evade its striking talons. Lacking a stomach or more accurately perhaps, the stamina for further aggression, the hawk peeled away, disconsolately returning to its perch.
I also have a clear memory of a pair of goldeneye which, similarly finding themselves being pursued by another such hawk, escaped by hitting the water of the loch and instantly plunging beneath its surface, leaving the hawk grasping at thin air! However, I suspect these were exceptions to the normal rule for I am sure that more often than not, sparrowhawks, like the legendary Canadian Mounties, 'always get their man'! Success is of course, not automatic and like spars, those other now well-known hunters of fish the ospreys, do not, as some would have it, succeed in grabbing a fish every time they dive.
However, there is much more to hunting than sheer speed. For instance, firstly the hunter must be able to see or hear its prey. Some predators even rely on their sense of touch as for instance in the case of an otter, which can sense the presence of prey through its whiskers. Thus, as a part of nature's defence mechanism, the remarkable process of evolution has equipped many insects, birds and animals with the most remarkable powers of obfuscation. In other words, they merge so perfectly with their background that they are to all intents and purposes, invisible. Through the work of dedicated and highly skilled cameramen and women through television programmes such as "Planet Earth", on a regular basis we see insects looking more like the twigs upon which they perch, rather than the twigs themselves!
There are many wonderful examples of camouflage throughout the natural world. Indeed, one of the most convincing is surely exhibited by ground roosting woodcock. I am sure that during strolls through woodland, I have many times, walked past roosting woodcock without even an inkling of their presence. Again, I have a clear memory of one occasion when I actually got so close as to put a previously unseen woodcock up from the well leaf-littered floor of an open piece of woodland. It flew no more than thirty feet before dropping back to the woodland floor where it disappeared again as it settled once more in the litter. It literally became immediately invisible again - before my very eyes!
On other occasions I have been lucky enough to spot such a bird, sometimes because the only feature giving away its presence was its glinting eye. The rest of it was, to all intents and purposes, so well integrated with its background that it was invisible. I wonder too how many of us have failed to identify a hare crouched in its form in a field which has been ploughed. As I usually have a dog with me on my walks, the presence of such a creature may not initially be obvious. There is however a distance at which what may look like s molehill realises that it is about to be discovered and transmogrifies into the running hare it really is!
Brown hares have had a chequered history in this airt in recent decades. Forty years ago they were numerous enough for the then local keeper to organise regular hare shoots. But over a number of years, populations declined quite seriously. However in recent times, there has been a recovery in their numbers and they are now much more readily seen. Some readers may be surprised to know that the brown hare does not seem to have been a long-term resident of these islands and indeed may have been introduced by our distant ancestors. Thus it is said that our only real native hare is the mountain or blue hare, now mostly a resident of Highland mountainsides. And this hare has a pretty good, if very different obfuscation trick up its sleeve. When winter descends, it enters a moult - one of four it undergoes each year - and adopts a white coat.
This is a transformation, which is of course, shared by two other creatures in the Scottish landscape, the ptarmigan and the stoat. Again, I have a clear memory from many winters ago, of seeing three stoats in close proximity of one another on a single day, each one in a different phase of coat change. One of them had not undergone its expected transformation to ermine at all, having remained stubbornly brown. Another had reached a halfway house and thus resembled a skewbald horse decorated by patches of brown and white and the third had undergone the full monty, so that with the exception of the tip of its tail which had as ever, remained black, it was otherwise completely white. This is a really clever move on nature's part but only providing there is sufficient snowfall to ensure that the animal or bird concerned is thus appropriately camouflaged in a snowy landscape.
However, the advent in recent years, of mild winters - including this one - has meant that this clever plan has in a sense, backfired. Our mountain hares have it seems, been made much more vulnerable by the chronic lack of snow on the mountains where they dwell. This lack of snow cover has meant that they literally do stand out like sore thumbs and must therefore be much more susceptible to predation by for instance, 'eagle-eyed' golden eagles.
Unfortunately for them, the warming climate is unlikely to trigger any change in the normal pattern of moulting as it is apparent that it is the shortening length of daylight hours in the autumn and early winter that triggers such change, not falling temperatures as was previously thought. A good few years ago now, there was a population of mountain hares present on the mosses close to here, which are by their nature, rarely snow-covered. Indeed, I can remember squelching my way across that green, soggy landscape when almost from under my feet a white hare got up from behind a tussock and ran off. It was a bizarre sight and the very opposite of obfuscation! Those white hares are no longer to be seen in this environment and I have long wondered how they got there in the first place. Methinks a human hand had been at work!
During these next few weeks, there will be plenty of hare activity to observe as the brown hares begin to abandon their otherwise shy dispositions and instead become, 'mad March hares'! They could well become 'mad February hares' with spring seemingly coming progressively earlier. Usually, the mountain hares in their mountainous fastnesses, wait a little longer before they too cast aside their natural coyness and yet there are already reports of signs of courtship among them. It seems likely therefore that they may well be cavorting about their hillsides even now and may be expected perhaps to be in full cry before March gives way to April, if not before. And like the more Lowland based brown hares, they will throw aside their normal singular nature and come together in what can only be described as a madcap mixture of leaping and even boxing!