Mountain hares

Q: What are mountain hares?
Mountain hare (www.davidmasonimages.com)A: Mountain hares are lagomorphs, a member of the rabbit family. They are sometimes known as the blue hare or white hare because of their blueish-grey coat in summer and white coat in winter. Mountain hares graze on vegetation such as heather, blaeberry and the bark of young trees and bushes, but they often eat grasses when they are available during the summer months.

Q: Where are mountain hares found?
A: In Britain, mountain hares are widespread in the Scottish Highlands and Southern Uplands, and a small population occurs in the Peak District. Mountain hares are also present on some of the Scottish Islands where they were introduced (e.g. Mull, Skye, Hoy, Jura, Harris and Lewis).

Q: What is the history of mountain hares in Britain?
A: Mountain hares are the only native lagomorph in Britain. They used to be found throughout the country, but when brown hares were introduced to England probably by the Romans, mountain hares became restricted to the upland regions.

Q: Are mountain hares found on grouse moors?
A: Yes. Heather moorland that is managed for red grouse is a good habitat for mountain hares. This is probably because the predator control, combined with rotational burning that produces new heather growth, benefits both grouse and hares.

Q: How many mountain hares are there in Britain?
A: The most recent population estimate is 135,000 mountain hares in Britain, with a wide possible range of between a minimum of 81,000 and a maximum of 526,000. The range is large because until recently hares have been difficult to count accurately, and estimates are scaled up to cover more of the country that could not be surveyed.

Q: How do you count mountain hares?
A: Several methods have been used to count mountain hares. These include walking transects during the day or night-time, counting droppings, mark-recapture by live-trapping hares, and using pointing dogs to flush hares during grouse counts. The James Hutton Institute and GWCT compared some of these methods and found that of those tested, night-time transects using a lamp were the most repeatable and cost-effective method.

Mountain hares are most active at night-time when their camouflage and 'crouch and freeze' behaviour is likely to be less effective, so counting them becomes easier at night.

Q: What other information do we have on mountain hare distribution and abundance?
A: Data from North-East Scotland were collected during red grouse counts using pointing dogs. Long-term data from the GWCT’s National Gamebag Census (NGC) gives us additional information on how many mountain hares are shot and on which estates. Alongside these, data from the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) collated by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) allows us to assess population trends since 1995 and species range. In 2018, the GWCT repeated distribution surveys from questionnaires that were previously carried out in 1995/96 and 2006/07.

Q: What is happening to the mountain hare population?
A: Recent research on mountain hares in areas managed for grouse shooting has given conflicting results. In some studies, the national or regional trends appear to be relatively stable, while other studies suggest there is a decline.

There are four main data sources:

  • National Gamebag Census – Data from hunting records in the UK since 1954 show population cycles roughly every ten years, but no long-term trend in mountain hare indices from hunting bags since the 1960s.
  • Hesford et al. (2019) – Count data gathered during red grouse surveys in the Scottish Highlands show that indicators of mountain hare abundance are up to 35 times higher and either relatively stable or increasing on driven grouse moors compared to moorland not managed for driven grouse shooting, where average declines were -40% per year in some areas.
  • Massimino et al. (2018) and Watson and Wilson (2018) – Both studies reported declines in mountain hare abundance indices. Significant population declines in 34% of the mountain hare’s British range occurred between 1995-2015. A 30% decline in abundance was found each year between 1999-2017 on moorland managed for grouse in eastern Scotland. However, an on-going analysis of GWCT hare data collected during grouse counts on the same estates surveyed by Watson and Wilson found no evidence to support these declines, and the analysis and conclusions used by Massimino have been challenged.

Q: Why do mountain hare populations fluctuate?
A: Data from hunting records across Europe have shown that mountain hare numbers tend to fluctuate in cycles. The characteristics of these cycles vary, but typically the population can fluctuate from below half to almost double the average population size every 4-15 years. Research suggests that mountain hare numbers can fluctuate naturally for many reasons including number of parasites, weather patterns, level of predation, presence of disease and habitat quality.

Q: If numbers are so variable, how would we know if the whole population was declining?
A: Range contraction is often the first sign of a declining population. This means that the area in which the species lives is shrinking. In 2008 it was thought that the Scottish range of mountain hares was stable, but a more recent study of mountain hare distribution and abundance indicated significant declines within parts of their Scottish range. Further surveys have been carried out by the GWCT (with help from the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and Scottish Land & Estates), which covered more than 90% of Scotland and support the range contraction suggested by others, particularly within south-west Scotland.

Q: Which species predate mountain hares?
A: Mountain hares can be predated by foxes, stoats and weasels, and avian predators (birds of prey) such as golden eagles and buzzards. Foxes are the most common predators of mountain hares, accounting for up 90% of hare predation.

Q: What protection do mountain hares have?
A: The mountain hare is listed under Annex V of the EC Habitats Directive (92/43EEC) 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”. This means that culling and recreation shooting of mountain hares is legal if it is proven to be sustainable. In Scotland there is an open season from 1 August – 28 February. Mountain hares are shot for recreation, disease control amongst red grouse and sometimes to protect newly planted woodland.

Q: Are mountain hares culled on grouse moors?
A: Yes. Mountain hares are culled on grouse moors for a variety of reasons including for sport as well as habitat and forestry protection. During the last 15-20 years, mountain hares have also been culled to help control louping ill virus (LIV), by reducing the transmission of the tick-borne virus to grouse chicks, which impacts their survival. Tick control is now the most common reported reason for culling mountain hares. Until more work is done we have asked for a voluntary restraint on hare culling for disease control.

Q: What happens to hare numbers when they are culled on grouse moors?
A: Mountain hares are most widespread in north-eastern Scotland, where there are large areas of managed grouse moors. The number of hares found on these driven grouse moors can be up to 35 times higher than areas where grouse are not shot. These facts, combined with evidence of increasing or stable mountain hare numbers on driven grouse moors, suggest that the possible benefits of grouse moor management (fewer hares being taken by predators and better quality food following heather burning) may outweigh the impact of culling that is limited in time and in area.

Q: What impact would a ban on driven grouse shooting have on mountain hares?
A: This would depend on what land use replaced grouse shooting. Alternatives such as commercial forestry or possibly more intensive grazing may result in lower numbers. Research by the GWCT reported lower abundance indices and declines in areas where moorland habitats have become fragmented through afforestation, which has created upland landscapes less suitable for mountain hares.

Similarly, research by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and RSPB reported declines in mountain hare abundance indices associated with conifer planting. Others have suggested that the loss of grouse moor management to sheep grazing may contribute to mountain hare declines. However, in areas which are designated, for example as an SSSI or SPA, commercial forestry is unlikely to replace driven shooting. Some alternative uses, including natural forest regeneration would provide habitat for mountain hares but at lower densities than are currently seen and thus potentially with greater risk of local extinction, if the habitat were fragmented or predation increased. Whether or not practices such as predator control or hare culls continued would also have an impact on hare numbers in future, if driven shooting stopped. It is important to remember that much of the mountain hare’s habitat is at higher altitudes than managed grouse moors. In these higher areas, reported declines are less severe.

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