Hare numbers in the eastern Highlands have severely declined as a result of the unsustainable management of moors used for red grouse shooting. These are the results of a study recording mountain hares at both moorland and alpine site that spanned more than six decades. The study involved consistent spring counts and discovered that severe declines were mainly recorded at moorland sites that were associated with or adjacent to intensive grouse moor management practices. Dr Adam Watson, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology, undertook the research for the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, which has been analysed by both the CEH and RSPB Scotland.
‘Having reached the age of 88,’ says Dr Watson, ‘I am both delighted and relieved to see this paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. Having counted mountain hares across the moors and high tops of the eastern Highlands since 1943, I find the decline in numbers of these beautiful animals both compelling and of great concern.
Professor Jeremy Wilson, the RSPB’s head of conservation science in Scotland said: ‘It has been an honour to support Dr Watson in the analysis of his extraordinary long-term data set. This data reveals severe recent declines on grouse moors that are strongly correlated with the start of mountain hare culls – for which there is no clear scientific justification. Urgent action is needed if the future conservation status of mountain hares is to be secure.’
From 1954 to 1999, the mountain hare population on moorland sites decreased by nearly five per cent every year. In 2017 there were counts of less than one per cent of the original 1954 levels.
Mountain hares used to live throughout Britain, however the introduction of the brown hare to Britain during the ancient Roman era caused mountain hares to retreat to the uplands. Upland heathland in the UK, managed for the recreational shooting of red grouse, provides a good habitat for mountain hares. This is due to the intensive habitat and predator management (such as fox control) that eliminates competition and predators, alongside rotational heather burning that has nutritional benefits for both grouse and hares.
Despite this, mountain hares can sustain high levels of ticks and the tick-borne louping ill virus, bringing them into apparent conflict with red grouse. Therefore, disease control carried out in the form of unregulated hare culling has become a seemingly important part of managing many estates since the 1990s. However, there is an absence of conclusive evidence that this practice has any beneficial impact on the total number of grouse shot. Culls typically take place in late winter and early spring when the population growth of mountain hares is restricted by the focus on competition and predators, giving them little opportunity for compensatory recovery.
Hare culling is legal, as long as it is done sustainably. In fact, the mountain hare is listed under Annex V of the EU Habitats Directive (1992) as a species ‘of community interest whose taking in the wild and exploitation may be subject to management measures’. However, ‘large-scale population reduction culls are both illegal under EU law and unwarranted as a method for controlling grouse disease,’ says Duncan Orr Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland. ‘Management of this species should now be more tightly controlled by Scottish Natural Heritage to safeguard mountain hare populations. We expect this subject to be given thorough consideration by the current independent grouse moor enquiry, which is looking at how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law.’
In 2017, a temporary ban on mountain hare culling was called for by ten environmental NGOs, led by RSPB Scotland, until further information could be obtained to prove that populations were healthy and sustainable. The Scottish government failed to approve this moratorium reasoning that there was a lack of evidence to prove that populations were declining. However, footage of mass hare culling was passed to the BBC by wildlife charities OneKind and The League Against Cruel Sports, sparking a response from the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon: ‘There is real public concern and we share the public concern about this iconic species on the Scottish mountains. Large-scale culling could put the conservation status at risk and that is clearly unacceptable.’ She went on to claim that she would explore all options to prevent further mass culls of mountain hares.
‘We need the Scottish government and Scottish Natural Heritage to take action to help these iconic mammals of the hill,’ says Dr Watson. ‘I hope they will listen to the voice of scientific research.’
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