New study reveals shocking decline of mountain hares on Scottish grouse moors

[Photo shows shot mountain hares, dumped and left to rot on Glenogil Estate in the Angus Glens. Photo by OneKind]

Press release from RSPB Scotland (14 August 2018):


New study shows mammals at less than one per cent of original levels

Mountain hare numbers on moorlands in the eastern Highlands have declined to less than one per cent of their initial levels, according to a newly published long-term scientific study.

Counts of mountain hares from six decades of consistent spring counts on moorland managed for red grouse shooting and on neighbouring mountain land were analysed in the research by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the RSPB.

From 1954 to 1999 the mountain hare population on moorland sites decreased by nearly 5% every year. This long-term moorland decline is likely to be due to land use changes such as the loss of grouse moors to conifer forests, and is reflective of wider population declines that mountain hares are facing across their range.

However, from 1999 to 2017 the scale of the moorland declines increased dramatically to over 30% every year, leading to counts in 2017 of less than one per cent of original levels in 1954.

[Graphs from the study give a vivid illustration of the dramatic decline of mountain hares on the study’s grouse moors from 1999 onwards]

The dominant land use in these sites was intensive grouse moor management.  Here, the unregulated practice of hare culling as a form of disease control, ostensibly to benefit red grouse, has become part of the management of many estates since the 1990s, despite the absence of evidence that it has any beneficial impact on total numbers of grouse shot.

On higher, alpine sites numbers of mountain hares fluctuated greatly, but increased overall until 2007, and then declined, although not to the unprecedented lows seen on moorland sites.

The Mountain hare is the UK’s only native hare and was listed as Near Threatened in a recent review by the Mammal Society indicating that the species is of conservation concern in the UK.

[Photo of a blood-soaked mountain hare dumped on Glenogil Estate, Angus Glens. Photo by OneKind]

Dr Adam Watson, of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who was lead author of the work, comments:  “Having reached the age of 88 I am both delighted and relieved to see this paper published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.  Having counted mountain hares across the moors and high tops of the eastern Highlands since 1943, I find the decline in numbers of these beautiful animals both compelling and of great concern.  We need the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage to take action to help these iconic mammals of the hill – I hope they will listen to the voice of scientific research

Professor Jeremy Wilson, RSPB’s Head of Conservation Science in Scotland who assisted in analysis of the data, said: “It has been an honour to support Dr Watson in the analysis of his extraordinary long-term data set.  These data reveal severe recent declines on grouse moors that are strongly correlated with the start of mountain hare culls for which there is no clear scientific justification.  Urgent action is needed if the future conservation status of mountain hares is to be secure.”

Duncan Orr Ewing, Head of Species and Land Management at RSPB Scotland said: “The mountain hare is a keystone native species of the Scottish uplands. This authoritative research suggests that we should be very concerned about its population status in its former strongholds. We consider that large-scale population reduction culls are both illegal under EU law and unwarranted as a method for controlling grouse disease.

Management of this species should now be more tightly controlled by Scottish Natural Heritage to safeguard mountain hare populations. We expect this subject to be given thorough consideration by the current independent grouse moor enquiry, which is looking at how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law.”


The full paper citation: Watson, A. and Wilson, J. (2018). Seven decades of mountain hare counts show severe declines where high-yield recreational game bird hunting is practised. Journal of Applied Ecology. [UPDATE 8am: Now available to read in full here]

Unfortunately we’re not allowed to publish the paper in full but here’s the abstract:

Amusingly, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s response to these damning results is a pathetic attempt to discredit the study by claiming, “Many of the gamekeepers in the survey area didn’t see the author undertake counts, even when they were working in these areas daily“.

The response from Scottish Land & Estates (issued via Media House!) isn’t much better: “We are perplexed that the author of this report did not seek to get data from moorland managers“. Er, that’s probably because Dr Watson knows that gamekeepers’ data aren’t exactly reliable and besides, he was collecting his own data, using a consistent method, for 70 years.

SLE’s press statement continues: “It will, however, come as little surprise that RSPB Scotland has chosen to release this paper, continuing its political campaigning against grouse moor management, on the day that the season gets underway and it is obviously an attempt to influence the ongoing independent review of grouse shooting which includes mountain hare management“. They’re such hypocrites, given what they published on Monday, blatantly timed to coincide with the start of the grouse shooting season!

Anyway, back to more important and relevant matters…..

Under the European Union’s Habitats Directive the Scottish Government has a legal duty to maintain mountain hare populations in a state of good health. In 2014 SNH called for a period of voluntary restraint on hare culls. Data from this study shows that declines continued in many areas despite this period of “restraint”.

In 2015 and 2017 ten environmental NGOs, led by RSPB Scotland, called for a moratorium on mountain hare culls until further information could be obtained to prove that populations were healthy and sustainable. The Scottish Government did not enact this moratorium with the reasoning that there was a lack of evidence to prove that populations were declining.

In 2016, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham, in answer to a Parliamentary Question from Alison Johnstone MSP, stated:

If evidence emerges that large-scale culls are continuing, the Scottish Government will consider the case for tightening regulation of this issue.

Also in 2016, Roseanna addressed a OneKind rally outside the Scottish Parliament and said the Scottish Government opposes mass culls, that legislation to protect mountain hares has not been ruled out, but that the Government needs evidence before it can act.

Earlier this year, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in Parliament that the brutal, military style mass culling of mountain hares on grouse moors was “not acceptableafter seeing video footage from OneKind, League Against Cruel Sports and Lush.

The time for talking has ended. The shocking results of this new scientific study cannot be ignored.

Please join 15,000 people and sign OneKind’s open letter to the Scottish Government and SNH calling for an end to this barbaric unregulated slaughter.

UPDATE 20.30hrs: Scottish Land & Estates admits it needs help to interpret scientific data (here)

27 thoughts on “New study reveals shocking decline of mountain hares on Scottish grouse moors”

  1. I’ve just watched a very brief (about 45 seconds) item on the BBC News channel about Dr Adam Watson’s report on mountain hare numbers in northeast Scotland. Typical of BBC, it spent about ten seconds summarising Dr Watson’s finding, then gave about 30 seconds to a spokesman from the Scottish Moorland Group pontificating about the usual alleged “problems” posed by the hares, particularly in relation to passing louping ill to grouse. No indication at all of Dr Watson’s reference to the unproven nature of this hypothesis, almost certainly leaving most viewers with the impression there was no doubt in the veracity of the moorland group’s allegations.

    Interestingly my own amateur studies of grouse moor biodiversity, on the moors of Renfrewshire and north Ayrshire, also noted a rapid decline in mountain hare numbers in the mid to late 1990s, coinciding with a trend developing among gamekeepers to “hit them hard,” mainly through snaring, shooting and hunting with working dogs. Some friends of gamekeepers soon joined in this unpleasant activity, often boasting about their dogs killing a dozen or more hares each in a single morning session. This happened in a Regional Park, with the Park Authority apparently taking no action to protect the hares. By around 2015, mountain hares apparently became extinct within the boundaries, with no obvious connectivity to extant populations. A reintroduction programme would seem to be the only means of restoring the mountain hare population, which could be feasible given that driven grouse shooting has been abandoned, on all but one of the four grouse moors within the moorland block.

  2. That gamekeepers failed to notice Dr Watson counting Mountain Hares should come as no surprise as they’ve consistently failed to notice anyone poisoning, shooting and trapping protected raptors on their beat for decades.

  3. I may have missed it, but what is the trend for populations on moorland sites not managed for grouse production? How do they compare for land under this regime?

  4. Well the government now has the evidence of recent mass culls, followed by scientific literature on the effect of the culls. The media, led by the BBC as usual provides a commentary which suggests there is little or no issue.
    It is not up to anyone other than the government to issue a regulation or to instruct SNH (who seem quite happy with the culls), to take firm steps.

  5. It should come as no surprise to anyone that these poor creatures’ numbers have diminished to such a degree…we have all seen the terrible pictures…the ignorant savages who carry out this slaughter are apparently untouchable. Isn’t all this comparable to what happened to Red Squirrels, who were legally hunted right up to 1927, courtesy of the Highland Squirrel Club but who now are viewed as precious and whose ensured continued presence costs millions every year, Greys are being scapegoated and mercilessly and routinely killed .
    Presumably, once there are only a few left, Hares will suddenly be given protected status and all will be well…and so, on goes the disgusting cycle of slaughter anything which is perceived to be, or might potentially be, interfering with some human activity…when virtually extinct, worry about image and pretend to care. Give protected status.Guilt assuaged. These vile people who apparently consider themselves above normal behaviours will it seems to me, continue perpetrating this outrage unabated until they are forcibly stopped.

    1. Readers should be made aware of the fact that UK native Red Squirrels were rendered “virtually extinct” in Scottish pine woods centuries before Grey Squirrels became widespread in England. Research comparing the genetics of the introduced Reds, which were introduced from Scandinavia, with fossil remains of our native subspecies, resulted in significant genotype differences being revealed. Other research has contradicted the widely believed ideas that some ‘conservationists’ regard as gospel. If left to their own devices, these non-native forms of Red and Grey Squirrels are likely to thrive in their most favoured respective woodland habitat types. In mixed woods, the ratio of different tree species would either cause separation of species within the wood, or in some cases Red Squirrels might dominate, especially in their traditional ecosystem of Scots Pine. One species will remain or ultimately become commoner than the other, in all probability the Greys, but isn’t that the norm for different species? The current approach by Government agencies (e.g. SNH) are a complete waste of financial resources, as well as delivering poor scientific recommendations. I expect the scientists and conservationists who promoted the idea of a national, extremely costly cull of Grey Squirrels would deny the points I have made here. However if the cull proceeds and Greys exterminated, which seems impossible, many areas of the UK would be devoid of any squirrels! I have studied populations of Grey Squirrels in the Glasgow area, and claims by some Government scientists and other ‘experts’ have been contradicted by my findings. In particular I could not find any significant impact on breeding bird populations, nor could the local foresters show me ANY evidence of damage to mature trees, which some of them originally claimed were “all being killed by [Grey] squirrels.” In some cases, local hooligans or aspiring gamekeepers were allegedly being encouraged by some landowners or their foresters (not usually Local Authorities), to trap and/or shoot Grey Squirrels under false pretences. However if you point out this information to the punters, they just come up with more fake excuses to continue the killing of Grey Squirrels. I sometimes wonder if they are guilty of hating non-native humans or animal so-called “invaders”, simple as that.

  6. The mass slaughtering of mountain hares and the poisoning of raptors is a disgrace and the former should be made illegal (although persecution of raptors is already illegal this needs to be properly enforced). On a recent trip to Glen Clova and the Cairngorms we were shocked to see very little wildlife other than rabbits and deer. Always in the past we have seen hawks, including golden eagles, and on this visit saw not a single raptor. Over on the moors in Glen Isla the heather had been burnt down to within a centimetre of its life and wildlife was absent. All the better for grouse shooting of course… The law needs to be strengthened and enforced properly.

  7. The big push by the Grouse Lobby at the moment appears to focus on putting pressure on conservationists to “work with gamekeepers and land managers.”
    In light of the deception practised by these grousers and their associated allies over many decades why would conservationists see them are reliable, truthful partners. In the real world I would wager that most folk understand this is simply an attempt to gain access to the research and data by the Conservation Lobby to attempt to pre-empt any damaging information prior to it’s release. Achieving this would allow them to further muddy the water as they present even more lies to. once more, fool the casual observer.
    The cull of the Perthshire Ravens is predicated on the same “citizen science” by gamekeepers who have either lied convincingly over the decades or have been so inadequate in their employment that they cannot count animals which used to form the backbone of mammalian life on the land they claimed to be guardians of. This means that there is a high probability of the “citizen science” practised by these gamekeepers being completely wrong and the so called “facts on the ground” being designed for entirely different and scientifically unsound reasons. As such it should be OFFICIALLY terminated right now before even more damage is caused.,
    It’s time to close down the entrire industry of driven grouse shoots as they have proved conclusively that they cannot be trusted and are definately not fit to be partners in any scientific research and will simply form a disrupting and misleading influence. They should be ostracised.

    “Finally to dispute the science of Dr. Adam Watson is a disgrace. Here is how Wiki introduces him,
    Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology, Fellow of the Arctic Institute of North America, Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society, Fellow of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society, (born 14 April 1930), is a Scottish biologist, ecologist and mountaineer. He is one of the most recognisable scientific figures in Scotland due to his many appearances on TV and radio. His vast academic output and contributions to the understanding of the flora and fauna in Scotland and elsewhere have been internationally recognised. Dr Watson is widely acknowledged as Scotland’s pre-eminent authority on the Cairngorms mountain range.”

    1. Thanks for the Wikipedia extract on Dr Adam Watson. He is a true conservation hero. I’ve now read the scientific report. He is and should be the main author. His work over many years is well worth reading, both the scientific output and his books.

  8. Strange how the grousers have forgotten
    the very valuable work done by Adam Watson, Gordon Miller, David Jenkins and Robert Moss in 1956 looking at the reasons for population fluctations in red grouse. No thanks or acknowledgement for the benefit to their ‘so called’ industry. Shameful.

  9. So if I have read this correctly:

    1) the Grouse lobby claim to be self-policing
    2) the Grouse lobby claim there are more raptor species on grouse moors than in the whole of Europe
    3) the Grouse lobby promote the drivel that is the Hoffman report (which clearly hasn’t been peer-reviewed – shift the baselines and no wonder you can get any ‘pattern’ you want – let alone the misidentification aspect)
    4) when peer-reviewed scientific data is produced the Grouse lobby disputes that
    5) when the satellite tag pattern is revealed the Grouse lobby disputes that and claim mythical levels of tag failures, deaths due to tags, non-existent wind farms and probably a herd of unicorns

    if everything is so good then surely the Grouse lobby should be falling over themselves to sign up for licensing… but that might involve some independent verification and we know the Grouse lobby doesn’t like independent verification…

  10. Interesting response from the SGA.

    “Many of the gamekeepers in the survey area didn’t see the author undertake counts, even when they were working in these areas daily“.

    Ergo gamekeepers know everthing that happens on “their” ground. If we didn’t see it it didn’t happen.

    Conversely when something bad happens say a White-tailed Eagle nest is cut down with a chainsaw.

    We didn”t see anything guv.

    Which is it?

    The science is closing in and will get you in the end.

  11. A slightly expanded report on this issue was presented on BBC Reporting Scotland at lunchtime, which may be repeated on the evening edition. The man from the Scottish Moorland Group (again I didn’t catch his name) emphatically denied Adam Watson’s assessment that mountain hares on the land in question had declined by 99%, indeed he then went on to claim that the moor was alive with the hares, so much so that it was very difficult to bring them under control. That’ll be just like the predators such as Golden Eagles and Hen Harriers which the grouse shooters claim are “thriving” on Scottish grouse moors! Perhaps the grouse shooting lobby would like to refer us to the evidence that both of their dubious analyses are correct, hopefully to the same professional level as Watson’s rigorous research. I’ve just read Andrew Gilruth’s ‘report’ on Hen Harrier Day at RSPB Rainham Marshes, and need some time to recover from the shocking ineptitude of his interpretation of the speakers. His sophistry knows no bounds! No doubt RPUK will have something to say about it.

  12. These shocking images are a national disgrace.

    Mountain hares are listed as “a species of community interest” in Annexe V of the EC Habitats Directive (1992) which requires any exploitation of listed species to be “compatible with their being maintained at a favourable conservation status”.

    Will the guns fall silent only when these iconic creatures have been exterminated?

    1. The problem with enforcing that is the rather loose definition of what is meant by “favourable conservation status.” One side arguing, that mountain hares are present in far greater numbers than in reality, causes legal difficulty in interpreting the term. I suspect that some grouse moor shoots kill as many hares as possible, after producing inflated estimates of the population. Rarely do we see recreational pleasure in the massacre listed as a justification for the cull. It appears to be the case that most estates are careful to commission ecological consultants who are known to be sympathetic with grouse shooting. Ironically, they are passively assisted by the RSPB’s questionable but legal approach to controlling predatory species on some of their reserves.

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