Monday, 29 September 2014

Chris Packham – “So grouse moors are good for ecology?”

by Andrew Gilruth - @AndrewGilruth 

Chris Packham asked me this after reading a mountain hare culling story in yesterday’s Scottish Sunday Herald. He was right to ask - the feature was packed with emotion….
“massacre”… “extermination”… “slaughter”…

… there were few facts. Some facts were wrong. Both OneKind (an Edinburgh-based animal welfare group) and the RSPB were reported as stating the national mountain hare population is “declining”.

Is it? The recent reports of a 45% decline in hares were derived from mountain hares counted whilst people were surveying for birds, not hares. When we actually surveyed for hares we found that over 80% of the UK’s mountain hare population is in Scotland. The GWCT established in 2008 that the Scottish range of mountain hares is not shrinking. Range contraction is often the first sign of a population in trouble. And our very long term data suggests changes in numbers of hares by more than ten-fold are quite natural. See GWCT National Gamebag Census data and Mammal Society for more on mountain hares.

UK National Gamebag Census data for mountain hares (1901-2009)
The story could have reported mountain hares seem to do best in areas managed for red grouse. Intensive fox control and rotational burning by keepers appears to benefit both grouse and hares. Scottish mountain hare densities are regularly ten times higher than are typical in other European counties. As the Mammal Society states:

“Their [mountain hare] numbers have declined locally where favorable habitat such as former grouse moors has been afforested or heather has been removed by excessive grazing by other animals. Young forestry plantations can support high densities of hares which sometimes cause significant damage to trees, but these high densities decline once the forest canopy closes, and the ground vegetation is diminished.”

There has been a good deal of media activity recently about culling mountain hares to prevent disease being transmitted by tick. Our research suggests that hares can be culled as part of a tick disease control; ultimately this will support grouse numbers and thus hares. And it is worth noting that:

1) We still commonly see hares even in areas where there are intensive culls suggesting that the population may be more robust than some think.
2) Regular shooting may well be necessary on some moors to prevent numbers getting too high and damaging the heather.
3) EU legislation seeks to promote sustainable management of mountain hares, not protection per se. There is no evidence that such culls are not sustainable at this stage.

However, we have always been clear that the priority for disease control should be deer reduction hand-in-hand with treated sheep before considering hare culls. If hares are locally lower than peak numbers we think moors should consult neighbours to make sure shooting and natural declines are not coupled across large landscape areas.

I have not checked that Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, has been listed by Country Life magazine as one of the UK’s top aristocratic landowners. Nor that his grouse moor is 8000 acres. I will leave that to others… as a commentator from Ireland recently said on the Raptor Persecution Scotland website

“We had lots of biodiversity [in Ireland] before we made upland moor management impossible. We were more concerned with getting rid of the owners simply because of historical conflicts. We also got rid of the heritage that these landowners protected. The UK’s uplands are one of the wonders of the world. These Uplands continue to inspire milions [sic] of visitors and have done for centuries.

The biodiversity and beauty they contain are not just natural. This beauty is part of the UK heritage. Grouse moors are as intimately connected with this heritage as The Beatles are with Liverpool. People can support strange truths when heritage collides with politics.”


  1. No lack of Mountain Hare seen on Scotland's uplands this year. See here -

    Also great to see one leveret at 4,100 feet in the Cairngorms in June, with Dotterel, Ptarmigan, Snow Bunting and Reindeer for companions!

  2. This only comments on how the mountain hare is faring in Scotland, but 20% of its range is elsewhere.
    Your own website gives numbers of mountain hares in England as just 500, but that was in 1995. Are there any more recent, reliable figures, and what is being done to increase numbers south of the Scottish border?

  3. Thanks for your question. You can find out more about the mountain hare here:

  4. I think the source of the statement you make about the mountain hare's range not shrinking also says that it cannot comment on the abundance of hares; that 90% of hares are culled for tick control or sport; and that such killing has increased by 32% over a roughly 10 year period. You also suggest that hares have to be killed to protect heather cover. Taking this into account together with the large "natural" fluctuations in hare populations that you refer to, means that we do not know what the long term effect will be of large scale culls on hare populations. You also suggest that hares have to be culled to protect heather cover It does demonstrate that managing landscapes to benefit bio-diversity either directly or as a by-product of other activity is complex. For example, taking out predators on grouse moors results in more hares that then have to be culled to protect grouse from disease and loss of heather. The more grouse you want, the more intensive the management has to be.The only fact we have is that the question "are grouse moors good for ecology" has not been satisfactorily answered.