Habitat utilization in a stratified upland landscape by two lagomorphs with different feeding strategies.
Mountain hares (Lepus timidus) are summer grazers that switch to browse in winter, while rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) eat mostly grasses throughout the year. These different feeding strategies may underlie seasonal patterns of habitat selection by the two species. The habitat utilization by adult female mountain hares and adult female rabbits was studied by radio-tracking in a habitat in NE Scotland composed of open moorland, upland pasture and young forestry plantation with an abundant ground flora. The selection of feeding habitats by populations of both species was assessed by faecal counts within the same landscape. Despite the common perception that mountain hares in Britain are associated with moorland, open moorland was avoided by the radio-tracked adult female mountain hares relative to its availability. Throughout the year, the radio-tracked hares preferred the forest and pasture habitats relative to availability. Only seven of the 20 hares radio-tracked were ever located on the moorland, which would suggest that the presence of moorland is not a prerequisite for the presence of mountain hares. Radio-tracked adult female rabbits utilized the habitats in proportion to their availability. Counts of faecal pellets indicated that utilization of forestry plantations by both species declined as a spruce forest matures although hare populations persist in mature pine plantations with an abundant ground flora. It is suggested that mountain hares may be more adaptable than rabbits in their use of the habitats, a behavioural tactic underpinned by their flexible feeding strategy. Rabbit populations would persist in areas following afforestation, especially where upland pastures are in close proximity to woodland and mountain hares would be capable of exploiting many of the new habitats that are created, at least in the early years of forest development.