Mountain hares and red grouse

Q: Where are mountain hares found?
Mountain hare (www.davidmasonimages.com)A: Mountain hares are native to Britain, and used to live across the country, but the introduction of the brown hare in Roman times led to the retreat of mountain hares to the uplands. Mountain hares can feed on heather and other moorland plants, while the brown hares need lowland grasses and agricultural crops. Now, there is a large core population in the Scottish Highlands, a well-established population in the Southern Uplands, and a small one in the Peak District. Those in northern Wales have probably died out in the last two decades.

Q: How many mountain hares are there in Britain?
A: The last figures, published in 1995, suggested that there were approximately 350,000 mountain hares in Scotland, but this is just an estimate. We don’t know how many there are in absolute terms because hares are hard to count; they are well-camouflaged with ‘crouch and freeze’ behaviour. We do know something about their range and how many are killed each year, which act as indexes of change. The best way of counting hares to get a density figure is the subject of ongoing research undertaken jointly by the GWCT and the James Hutton Institute in Scotland.

Q: What information do we have?
A: Currently most of the information on hare population trends is drawn from reports to the GWCT about the number of hares shot on estates as part of the GWCT’s National Gamebag Census (NGC), and two surveys for government that mapped the hare’s range.

Q: Is the population of mountain hares declining?
A: Since the 1950s, when keepering increased again after World War II, the NGC shows a clear cyclical pattern of peaks and troughs. This very long-term data shows that changes in numbers of hares by more than tenfold are quite natural. Despite these large short- and medium-term changes, there is no discernible long-term trend in numbers of hares in the bag.

Q: So hare populations naturally fluctuate?
A: Yes. Research suggests that hare numbers can fluctuate naturally for many reasons: parasites, weather, predation and habitat quality. Natural declines of ‘5-100 fold’ followed by recovery are a feature of bag records long before culls for disease control were an issue. This suggests that large bags indicate high hare abundance rather than high cull rates, and vice versa. However, research is needed to better understand how trends in bags are influenced by changes in cull effort.

Q: If populations change so much, how would we know if the mountain hare population were genuinely declining?
A: Range contraction is often the first sign of a population in trouble. This means that the area in which the species lives is shrinking. The GWCT established in 2008 that the Scottish range of mountain hares is not shrinking. In fact, Scottish mountain hare densities have regularly been ten times higher than are typical in continental Europe.

Q: Do mountain hares live on grouse moors?
A: Yes. Heather moorland actively managed for red grouse provides very good habitat for mountain hares. It is probably the intensive fox control, combined with rotational burning to produce young heather growth, that benefits both grouse and hares.

Q: Are mountain hares culled on shooting estates?
A: Although mountain hares thrive on grouse moors, hares can sustain high levels of ticks and the tick-borne louping-ill virus, bringing them into apparent conflict with red grouse. However, we have always been clear that the priority for disease control should be treating sheep and deer management before considering hare culls. Where these measures have been implemented and ticks remain a problem for grouse, hare numbers may need to be temporarily reduced to suppress the parasite and disease.

Q: Is that legal? Aren’t mountain hares protected?
A: It is legal, as long as it is done sustainably. 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”. As well, Article 14 of the directive requires member states to ensure that the exploitation of such species “is compatible with their being maintained at a favourable conservation status”.

Q: Does the population persist after a cull on a grouse moor?
A: Yes. Hares are commonly seen even in areas where there are intensive culls, suggesting that the population is more robust than commonly portrayed. However, this cannot be taken for granted, and sustainable management of hares must go hand in hand with sustainable management of grouse. Improved monitoring methods would help us understand the effects of culls, with the NGC as a means of putting current hare bags in the context of past changes in bags. This is a sound, evidence-based perspective for policy makers.

Q: Would hares benefit from banning driven grouse shooting?
A: It would depend on what land use replaced grouse shooting. However, the Mammal Society says the following:

“Mountain hare numbers have declined locally where favourable habitat such as former grouse moors has been afforested or heather has been removed by excessive grazing. Young forestry plantations can support high densities of hares which sometimes cause significant damage to trees, but these high densities decline once the forest canopy closes, and the ground vegetation is diminished.”

Our research would also suggest that without predator control and the maintenance of open moorland, mountain hare numbers would fall, and likely become fragmented, increasing their risk of local extinction. It appears grouse moor management has driven our uniquely high densities of mountain hares, so grouse moor managers should be encouraged to take responsibility for maintaining this situation.

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