30/5/2022

Scottish newspaper The National and Scottish Government Minister jump to premature conclusions over expansion of mountain hare monitoring resource: Here's our response

Sir,

As part of the project group established to increase recording of mountain hare presence right across Scotland, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is dismayed that following the first year of this expanded survey capacity, the National newspaper has hailed this as marking an increase in mountain hare numbers following protection (“Mountain hare numbers increase after gaining protection”, 27 May). This is highly misleading, and your headline and the Minister in her quotes have expressed conclusions which will take regular monitoring and science much longer than one year to establish.

The Trust is committed to understanding the conservation status of the mountain hare both within its core range on managed moorland in the central Highlands, and in other parts of Scotland. Until the establishment of the citizen science survey approach overseen by the project group, structured surveying of mountain hares was being undertaken by gamekeepers, initially during day-time only counts, and since 2018, by NatureScot approved night-time counting methodology. As mountain hares are more active at night, it made sense to carry out transect counts using this technique. To extend counting to other areas such as west highland Scotland where the terrain and safety considerations do not lend themselves to night-time counts, a different approach was required. It is important that surveying in these other areas takes place as what is occurring at the limits of the hare’s range can provide an indication as to overall conservation status. That is a key reason why the day-time citizen science counting project, equipping hill-walkers and ramblers with a simple means of recording mountain hare sighting, was set up.

It is significant that this increased survey capacity is now up and running, but equally important for everyone to understand that whilst we now have more mountain hare records, this does not mean that hare numbers are necessarily increasing everywhere. We must continue to monitor numbers regularly in order to understand what is really happening. Range shrinkage, for instance as a result of changes in land use away from open moorland to forestry, is a particular concern that we need to consider. It is therefore unfortunate that the increase in counting effort was reported by the National and apparently endorsed by the Scottish Government as an indication that hare numbers were increasing following protection when this simply cannot be concluded at this very early stage in the process. 

Yours, 

Ross Macleod
Head of Policy (Scotland)
Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust

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