“Massive declines” of mountain hares on Scottish grouse moors

mountain hares deeside 2010Here we go again.

A leading ecologist has accused Scottish landowners of causing “massive declines” of mountain hares on grouse moors around Deeside, Aberdeenshire.

In an excellent article published in The Herald today (and on journalist Rob Edwards’ website, see here), Dr Adam Watson claims that what is going on is a ‘national scandal’ and accuses SNH of failing in their duty to protect this important keystone species.

To counter this argument, Tim Baynes of Scottish Land and Estates claims that even though thousands of hares are destroyed each year, this was ‘less than 10% of the population’.

That’s an interesting argument, especially given the uncertainty of the actual population size of this species. The most up-to-date UK population estimate appears to have been made in a 1995 publication (Harris et al 1995). The estimate given then was in the region of 350,000 individuals, with 99% of these living in Scotland. However, the authors recognised that this figure may be either overestimated or underestimated by a whopping 50%!

It would appear that Baynes is basing his (flawed) ‘no-impact’ argument on an SNH-commissioned study that showed at least 25,000 mountain hares were culled on Scottish estates during 2006/2007. That study demonstrated no impact on the hare’s distribution (at that time) but was not able to determine whether there was an impact on the hare’s abundance (which is the key point when estimating population size!) because no reliable measures of estimating abundance for this species were available.

What Baynes also failed to mention was that the 25,000 culled only related to information provided by 90 estates; a further 102 estates (68 driven grouse estates and 34 walked-up grouse estates) did not provide any information to the survey, so the actual figure culled was likely to be considerably higher.

It’s also ludicrous for Baynes to be referring to a (fairly dodgy) population estimate from 1995 – that was 18 years ago! The latest information, just published by the BTO, suggests a 43% decline in mountain hares between 1995-2012 (see here).

Talking of ludicrous, Alex Hogg of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association is also quoted in The Herald article, claiming that gamekeepers have ‘no alternative but to suppress the numbers of mountain hares on grouse moors because of the dangers of Louping Ill Virus, which can infect humans’. However, here is an article that suggests humans are “rarely” affected by the Louping Ill Virus! And here is an article about a scientific publication that suggests there is “no compelling evidence base” that culling mountain hares can stop the spread of Louping Ill Virus!

A tick-borne disease that seems to be of more concern to humans is Lyme Disease. And what spreads Lyme Disease? Pheasants, amongst other species (see here). Given Mr Hogg’s concern for human health, can we expect to see him advocating a moratorium on the release of 43 million pheasants, per year, into our countryside?

The crux of The Herald article is that SNH is failing in its statutory duty to protect the mountain hare. This is a European-protected species and thus SNH has a duty to ensure the species’ conservation status is maintained and that their populations are managed sustainably. Given previous concerns about the species’ conservation status, the Scottish Government recently introduced a closed season for mountain hares as part of the WANE Act (see here), although it’s hard to judge just how effective that will be given the lack of monitoring and enforcement.

To be fair to SNH, they have previously tried to establish an effective monitoring programme for the mountain hare. They commissioned several reports on the subject between 2005-2010 but these reports all recommended a clear need to develop ‘reliable, robust and easily implemented survey methods’. As far as we can tell, nearly four years later they still haven’t done so and according to Dr Watson’s findings of “massive declines” of mountain hares in Deeside, in addition to the BTO’s findings of a 43% decline between 1995-2012, it would appear that SNH need to prioritise their monitoring scheme with some urgency. Asking moorland managers to ‘talk to us if they are thinking of culling hares in large numbers’ (see SNH quote in The Herald) is not going to stand up as evidence when SNH are finally taken to court for breaching European conservation laws.

The photograph shows a pile of mountain hare carcasses on Deeside in 2010 (from Rob Edward’s website).

47 thoughts on ““Massive declines” of mountain hares on Scottish grouse moors”

  1. Mountain Hare numbers on the Angus hills that I frequent have not noticeably changed in the past few years. Invermark estate in Glen Esk, Hunthill estate in Glen Lethnot and Glen Moy/Ogil have very good populations even although there is some culling of them. I think that they are difficult to count because they move around the moors in time with grazing and wind or weather conditions. They tend to congregate in large numbers during winter conditions at certain locations that can easily be overlooked during a search. In summer pelage they are notoriously hard to spot against peat/heather and many dig in to shelter from the wind.

    I know for sure that the Angus based White-tailed and Golden Eagles are spoilt for choice when it comes to hunting for hares and, yes, White-tailed Eagles are nimble enough to take a hare! Whether some keepers take out hares to prevent disease or to discourage foraging eagles onto estate land I don’t know but suspect that diminishing or over-burnt heather cover in some areas might be reflected in lower numbers of hare. I know that across the high ground of Angus as the habitat changes from east to west, heather cover changes to grass/sedge thus supporting fewer hare.

    Another factor that affects hare numbers on grouse moors is the fox population. Certain estates have good fox control which increases the hare population, while a neighbouring estate with the same habitat has fewer hares because of poor fox control. It all goes back to finding a balance I suppose.

    Admittedly there is nothing sadder to come across than a keeper’s Agrocat full of dead hares, like the one I found in Glen Moy last winter, but fortunately the surrounding hill-side was crawling with hundreds of hares riding out the blizzards. So I would welcome more detailed information about why Adam finds that the neighbouring Deeside hills are lacking hares because of a ‘massive’ decline.

  2. Having seen multiple dead hares used as poisoned baits on a couple of scottish grouse moor estates..I would take a long hard look at any “keeper’s Argocat [Agrocat?!] full of dead hares”. On some Perthshire estates hare drives for [mainly] italian shooters used to be the norm, Ive seen sacks full of these animals at Edinburgh airport waiting to be shipped home with the shooters luggage – that was clearly a commercial “cull” taking place. I wonder if it still continues.
    Of course “culling” the prey item of predatory birds and mammals in order to protect another prey item [grouse] doesnt make a lot of sense?

    1. Can’t see the point you are making about a decline in hares as proposed by Adam.
      Argocat ? Does it really matter enough for you to correct a typo.
      Mountain Hares have been driven for shooting since Victorian times.
      The last paragraph is misconstrued I think.

      1. Agrocat just made me laugh, not trying to be annoying I assure you…..misconstrued?…by who?..maybe you mean misconstructed?..or misdirected?…anyway, in case its misunderstood, what I’m saying is that if you remove one major food source [mountain hares] from grouse moors there will be a higher chance of predators eating grouse..

  3. If Hogg is so worried about this virus infecting humans, does that now mean that he will now advocate that gamekeepers do not use poisons to kill wildlife. After all, these poisons do have the potential to kill humans.

      1. In the shooting industry’s attempts to condone the eradication of predators from this nation, is this another example of Alex Hogg, Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, lying?

  4. Studies conducted by Aberdeen University showed by fitting radio collars to mountain hares that at any one time up to 60% of the population was spending time below ground so getting an estimate of the total population is very difficult.

        1. Er, no. Dr Watson is suggesting ‘massive declines’ on grouse moors that he has personally studied for decades.

          Mr Baynes claims that the number of mountain hares that are destroyed each year right across Scotland amounts to less than 10% of the population. To make this assertion Mr Baynes would need to know (a) how many mountain hares are destroyed each year and (b) the total population size (in order to calculate what 10% would be).

          The two perspectives are hardly comparative.

  5. Just what is the point of mass culling Hares can anyone tell me?? One or 2 for the pot is fine but these seems like more extremist stuff from shooting estates

    1. The three main reasons given are tick control (although a study has shown that mass culling of MHs does not increase red grouse bags), sport shooting and crop/forestry protection. There is also the unspoken reason – removing MHs reduces the available prey for golden eagles and other predators.

      1. Funny how the likes of the SGA get all excited and outraged at the suggestion that deer should be culled to protect forestry etc. given that they do alot more damage to forestry and crops then Hares.

      2. Like most ecological studies It depends how the study is interpreted by the reader and can be scewed to suit certain agendas. In my view it showed that in some ways your correct, the estates that took an annual crop of hares for sporting purposes (ie with clients) as they have for years didn’t nesicerilly get bigger grouse bags. It has been clearly shown though on estates with huge tick burdens or a high percentage of louping Ill by reducing hares to a low number the number of red grouse flourished. The main point that seems to have been missed here is that reducing hares to a low number is only a temporary measure to get tick numbers and the spread of tick Bourne viruses under control with the help of other measires such as using sheep as a tick mop. Once this is achieved there is no reason why hares will not be allowed to flourish alongside the grouse. This would take very little time as they are such prolific breeders especially when the population is being managed.

        As for suggesting hares are being eradicated to prevent eagles spending time on the ground this is rediculous as all that would achieve is them killing more grouse!

    2. Jimmy…another reason as I tried to point out in my earlier reply..is financial, there are people out there who will pay big money to shoot mountain hares..then have them stuffed as trophies, italian shooters certainly do this…

    3. what is the point in a mass culling of chickens, or lambs, or cattle, or cod, or haddock, or potatoes, or carrots?? and what about the poor pea!!

  6. It all boils down to one thing, the shooting fraternity and their gamekeepers are not happy unless they are killing something! The Mountain Hare just happens to be a convenient target, there doesn’t have to be a justifiable reason to kill them as far as they are concerned !!!

    1. Grouseman talk sense? Grouseman hasn’t successfully argued a single issue on this site since I joined last year. In fact, I don’t recall anyone from the shooting industry successfully arguing a point. But then again, I shouldn’t be surprised at your point of view, as you previously agreed with another pro-shooter (remember Lazywell), despite his basic arithmetic being completely wrong.

      1. To be perfectly honest though you are never going to accept or even begin to understand my arguments as you are so blinkered and blind to other opinions.

        1. That’s because you refuse to answer basic questions, and therefore you get defeated so easily.

          Blinkered and blind? I’ve already mentioned on many occasions that I have no problem with some forms of shooting. However I do have a problem with driven grouse and pheasant shooting and all its associated illegal activities. You (and many others in the shooting industry) refuse to accept that predators are vital to a healthy and balanced environment, and left to their own devices these same predators will create that balance, suggesting that you and your kind are the blinkered ones.

      2. theres your problem marco, your too intent on arguing with people rather than trying to have a discussion but then i wouldnt expect any less.

        1. Can a discussion or a debate between two opposing sides not be deemed to be two people arguing their cases? It’s all irrelevant on how you choose to word it, but the fact remains that you, Grouseman and many others on the shooting lobby side, have had their discussions, debates or arguments severely trounced, and on a regular basis.

  7. having read dave adam and grouse mans comments im confused. adam watson is claiming a national scandal is being carried out im guessing on grouse moors?? i get the impression he is just having a ‘pop’ at grouse moor managers and jumping on a band wagon, or perhaps he likes the sound of his own voice? during approx 20 years walking scotlands hills i have spent a lot of time in rosshire and sutherland in particular and could count the number of hares ive seen on both hands. however, anytime walking on what i would class as grouse moor, im tripping over hares. now as far as im aware rosshire and sutherland are predominantly deer forests, have those big bad deer stalkers taken out all the hares so theres more heather for their deer?? in short, if i want to see a hare, and plenty of them, i would have to go to a grouse moor to do it, as i would have to do to see many species of our countries native flora and fauna. i dont understand why some folk have such a large chip on their shoulders. i have a much more pleasureable and fulfilling day walking in grouse country than a “nature reserve” i must say!!

    1. Ah, beefsteak (or should that be meathead?) is back, with his wonderfully nonsensical interpretation of the Scottish countryside.

      Adam Watson is a highly respected naturalist, and an authority on Scottish upland ecology, but I suppose we should all disregard this man’s lifetime achievements in this field, because you and grouseman (hereafter known as Dumb and Dumber) obviously have a far greater grasp of the Scottish countryside and its wildlife.

      1. I’m not doubting or questioning Dr Watsons ability as an ecologist in any way just pointing out its not the first time he has written scathing attacks on grouse moor management. If he doesn’t agree with much of what goes on that is fine, he is entitled to his opinion it doesn’t mean everything he writes is gospel. After all most studies can be made to suit several different agenda. The fact you feel the need to get personal and start the name calling and questioning other people’s intelligence says far more about you than your thinly veiled arguments.

        1. And perhaps with the long history of illegal persecution and perceived mismanagement, Dr Watson has had good grounds to criticise grouse moor management. The fact that he is a highly respected naturalist, and an authority on the Scottish uplands, and unlike those involved in the shooting industry, the man has no ulterior motive, means that many will treat his words as a factual account of what is happening on some estates.

          I will admit that the name-calling was a step too far, and for that I apologise, however you cannot accuse me of having thinly veiled arguments. As I’ve already stated, I have been able to successfully argue many points, and I am still waiting on you to answer a vast number of questions.

      2. nonsensical?? do you walk around with your eyes shut?? i dont need science to tell me something false when i can see with my eyes what is in front of me. why do you feel the need to become offensive to someone that doesnt agree with your airy fairy views on the countryside??

        1. Seeking a healthy and balanced environment can hardly be viewed as an airy-fairy approach. It’s what all right-thinking naturalists should be trying to achieve. Not the vast monocultures of grouse moors, lacking in biodiversity and natural balance.

          You made a comment above, which read as “in short, if i want to see a hare, and plenty of them, i would have to go to a grouse moor to do it, as i would have to do to see many species of our countries native flora and fauna.”

          You have suggested that in order to see many of this country’s native flora and fauna, you would have to go to a grouse moor. That is a particularly wild claim (some would suggest as the result of a vivid imagination), so I would like you to inform me of these species that can’t be found anywhere else. Can we get a complete list of these species that are only found on grouse moors?

          1. Beefsteak, once again you have failed to provide any supporting evidence for your claim. Shall I assume that your statement was yet another shooting lobby lie?

      3. http://www.scottishgamekeepers.co.uk/content/mountain-hares-and-grouse-moors-reality

        theres some common sense for you marco but im predicting you slander it as its the GWCT and you probably dont like them much. but science is science, hares are more prolific on grouse moors due to the management carried out as i did mention earlier from my own casual observations. in short, the way i see it is that without grouse moors hares would be in a much more precarious position, but i suspect you wouldnt care so much if that was the case as this wouldnt enable you to make a dig at grouse moor managers. im sure you would furrow up something else to moan at them about though!!

        1. Hares may well be more prolific on some grouse moors, but that is because all or most predators will have been exterminated, thereby creating a hugely artificial and unbalanced ecosystem with poor biodiversity. Not exactly what people should be striving for.

  8. Hmm I wonder if any pictures of the dozens of goats the RSPB are slaughtering on the bloody bloody sorry bonnie banks of Loch Lomand will appear on this blog. I for one doubt it after all everyone seems to think its ok for them to eradicate a species to suit their agenda based on some very thinly researched science!

    1. I knew it wouldn’t take long. As soon as grouse moors come under any form of attack, some dumb shooter switches the discussion to the RSPB. Laughable, and so predictable.

      However, for your information (and if you had bothered to read the BBC article), you would have realised that the RSPB plan to kill 20 goats this year. For those that really struggle with basic arithmetic, 20 is fewer than two dozen, which safely defeats your “dozens” argument.

      1. It’s hardly switching the discussion simply comparing very similar situations! Mammals being culled to benifit another cause, its hardly a switch in topic! Ok it may be 20 this year but how many next year I never stipulated a timescale! You also are arguing this is just reduction rather than eradication when even Adam Watson admits he doesn’t know how many hares are being killed in comparison to the overall population so who is to say all the keepers are doing is causing a reduction!

        1. It is a complete change of topic as the two situations are very different – one involves the killing of 20 goats to protect rare and scarce plantlife, the other involves killing many thousands of hares on questionable grounds.

  9. I’d like to help the hares and am organising a fundraiser. During February and March I’ll donate 20% of all my sales from hare products to South West Action For Hares. You can share my latest post on the Ingingerness Facebook or Twitter page or visit http://www.ingingerness.com. All support is very much appreciated.

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