Scotland's mountain hares

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Scotland's mountain hares

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Mountain hares are Scotland's only native member of the Lagomorpha family and are known for their coats turning white during winter. Here James Silvey, RSPB Scotland's Species and Habitats Officer, takes a look at what needs to be done to ensure the long term future of these mammals here. 

Scotland's mountain hares

A mountain hare in its winter coat

On the 26th January the long awaited SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage) commissioned piece of research detailing effective methods for monitoring mountain hares was published. This work, carried out by the James Hutton Institute in collaboration with both SNH and GWCT (Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust) provided a clear steer on how to monitor hares in open habitats either directly (counting the hares themselves at night by spotlight or thermal imager) or indirectly (counting hare dung pellets as a proxy for the hares themselves).

This may at first appear to be an incidental piece of research but until now an agreed approach of how to monitor hares had not been established and therefore the crucial question of, “how are mountain hares faring in Scotland?” could not be answered.

Mountain hares are a quarry species meaning it is legal to kill them during the open season (1st August – 28/29th February). The reasons for killing mountain hares are varied but mainly include sport shooting, protecting young trees from browsing hares and preventing the spread of disease-carrying ticks. RSPB Scotland takes a neutral view on the first, accepts that the second may sometimes be necessary but, in the case of the last one, conclude that there is no evidence that it serves any useful purpose.

Despite this, every year on grouse moors across Scotland thousands of hares are killed in the misguided attempt to reduce tick numbers (ticks feed on mountain hares) and thus reduce the transmission of a disease known as louping ill, carried by ticks, to red grouse. The theory is that by reducing the number of mountain hares, red grouse numbers will increase resulting in more grouse to shoot at the end of the summer, nevertheless there is NO scientific evidence to justify this form of management.

A mountain hare in its summer coat

At present, and in the absence of a standardised monitoring method for mountain hares, grouse moor managers use intuition to estimate the numbers of hares on the moor in any given year and the same process for how many can be shot to reduce the population to a level that they believe will benefit the grouse by the removal of a tick host. The numbers that are actually killed across Scotland are unknown as there is no legal obligation for anyone to report these figures to statutory organisations such as SNH and as such we have no indication of how mountain hares are faring in Scotland, if the management is sustainable, or if the overall population is stable, increasing or declining.

This is worrying in itself but it is even more concerning considering that mountain hares are actually afforded some form of legal protection in the form of the Habitats Directive where they are listed as an Annex V species. As such the Scottish Government must report to Europe on the status of mountain hares and maintain them in favourable condition.  In the last report to Europe the Scottish Government did just that, reporting that mountain hares were in favourable condition despite the fact nobody knew how many hares there were, the status of the population, or how many hares were killed annually.

To address the important question of mountain hare status in Scotland and to safeguard the long term future of mountain hares RSPB Scotland would like to see;

  • A moratorium on the mass culling of mountain hares until such time as there is a credible picture of their population trends and status; at the moment there is simply no way of knowing the impact of such culls and it is reckless to allow them to continue
  • An independent enquiry is currently investigating how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law. We advocate the introduction of a licensing system for "driven" grouse shooting, which would include appropriate safeguards for mountain hares
  • A national, annual monitoring programme for mountain hares to be rolled out across the species’ range in Scotland and the results of these surveys submitted annually to SNH.
  • Land managers who are undertaking mountain hare management to undertake surveys of the species before any management takes place. The results of these surveys as well as proposed numbers to be killed, and actual numbers killed should be submitted to SNH.
  • SNH should report on the national and local trends of mountain hares as soon as enough data has been gathered and then annually thereafter to make sure that mountain hares are in favourable condition across their range.
  • SNH should use the data collected from land managers that are controlling mountain hares to report on the effects that population scale control has on local and national populations.
  • SNH should be consulted on any form of hare management that occurs within a protected area for species that relies on mountain hare as a food source, i.e. golden eagles.

 Mountain hares are an important part of our upland natural heritage – let’s keep them that way.

  • What a very good blog. Fully agree with all that is said especially the seven points listed. It is just not acceptable that shooters on grouse moors blast our indigenous little animals out of existence.

  • Vanellus, my small experience of grouse moors is that deer are fenced out, that there are sheep (I understand to mop up ticks) but little else other than grouse.

  • Do red deer get louping ill? I would have thought they harbour far more ticks than hares do.

  • Thanks for these strong suggestions. That SNH are not doing as you suggest, particularly collecting data from shooters, is a disgrace.