Distribution of mountain hares Lepus timidus in Scotland in 2016/2017 and changes relative to earlier surveys in 1995/1996 and 2006/2007
Mountain hares Lepus timidus, incorporating the subspecies L. t. varronis, L. t. hibernicus and L. t. scoticus, have declined in range throughout continental Europe where they face pressures from climate-change, competition and land-management. In Scotland, the absence of a national monitoring scheme, including mandatory reporting of hunting records, means that producing robust estimates of mountain hare population trends is difficult. We repeated questionnaire surveys conducted in 1995/1996 and 2006/2007 to assess the 2016/2017 distribution and hunting records of mountain hares in Scotland and describe regional changes in their distribution over a 20-year period in relation to management for red grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica shooting. Comparisons of areas covered in all surveys indicated no net change in the area of Scotland occupied by mountain hares, but within that we found changes in range between regions and sites of differing grouse management intensity. Between 1995/1996 and 2016/2017, range contractions in southern Scotland contrasted with no changes in north-–east Scotland. In north-west Scotland range expanded by 61% in areas practicing driven grouse shooting, declined by 57% in areas practicing walked-up grouse shooting and remained low and stable in areas which did not shoot grouse. A total of 33,582 mountain hares were killed in 2016/2017 representing a 71% and 48% increase from 1995/1996 and 2006/2007 respectively. However, the average kill density in 2016/2017 (12.4±3.3 hares km-2) was comparable to 2006/2007 (10.8±3.0 km-2) and we found no relationship between kill density and contractions in range. Despite increases in numbers of mountain hares killed over the last 20 years, it appears that range contraction may be attributed to factors other than culling, such as changes in habitat and management. Disentangling these factors should be the focus of future research.