Following additional training last autumn, 60 estates are now involved, with over 80 survey sites set up, more than 300 transects and 100 keepers equipped to count.
We’ve received 40 separate counts, up from 30 at the same point last year. The surveys include two counts from sites that are not actively managed. Overall, the 40 surveys yielded an average encounter rate of 8.74 hares per walked kilometre of transect. The highest individual transect count was 63 hares and the highest survey site count recorded 194 hares. The two unmanaged survey sites recorded one hare each.
Following reports from some keepers of die-back in mountain hares during the early autumn of 2019 and the cyclical pattern observed from recent National Gamebag Census returns, we expected that there might be some evidence of down-cycling in the encounter rate results.
The addition of more counts from areas outside of the main mountain hare ‘heartlands’ is likely to be influencing the overall average encounter rate. However, we have received counts from 26 survey sites that had previously surveyed in 2018. Here, the average encounter rate was 10 hares per walked kilometre, but this had reduced from 13 the previous season.
There is little indication of any significant harvesting in these locations, although there is some evidence that reductions in encounter rates have been greatest in locations that undertook no management at all. One such estate commented on a significant die-back in autumn mountain hare numbers, reporting an encounter rate down 37% on the previous year. Another estate that carried out no management reported a 50% drop.
It is possible that other influences are occurring at the time counts are undertaken such as weather conditions. We are starting to note some variability between first and second counts. These appear to be down to the effect of wind or snow pushing hares into certain areas and transects, and seeking lower ground or more sheltered conditions.
A number of managers also reported impacts on habitat by heather beetle. We hope that the build-up in count data over time will enable us to identify a variety of other trends in terms of weather, aspect, habitat or other features.
Although the recent ‘Werritty’ Grouse Moor Management Report commented that “Hares [...] benefit from grouse moor management”, the report also stressed that good counts, well reported, are needed. These counts provide a clear evidence base and will become essential to demonstrate the conduct of sound conservation management.