Monday, 2 June 2014

The mountain hare debate

by Adam Smith, GWCT Director in Scotland - @scotgrouse

Mountain hares are part of the sporting interest on many upland Scottish estates, where they are found at high densities, benefiting from the production of cover, young heather and few predators.

There has been a lot of media activity as contemporary moorland management for red grouse, notably culling mountain hares to prevent tick-borne disease transmission, is raising concern over the long-term conservation status of the species.

Through the National Gamebag Census, we can evaluate trends in mountain hare bags over much longer periods than any other monitoring scheme. Since the 1950s, when keepering increased again after World War 11, the bags show a clear cyclical pattern of peaks and troughs. Despite these large short- and medium-term changes, there is no discernible long-term trend in numbers of hares in the bag.

In 2008, in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage and the James Hutton Institute, we established that the Scottish range of mountain hare is not shrinking (range contraction is often the first sign of a population in trouble). The fact that we still commonly see hares even in areas where there are intensive culls suggests that the population may be more robust than some think. However, this cannot be taken for granted, and sustainable management of hares must go hand-in-hand with sustainable management of grouse.

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