Peak District Mountain Hares: Abundance or a struggling population?
The Peak District holds England’s only Mountain Hare population and there has been a great deal of concern in recent years about an apparent decline in numbers.
However the National Gamekeepers Organisation, Peak District Moorland Group, Moorland Association, British Association of Shooting and Conservation and the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust have combined to produce their own research into Mountain Hare populations in the Peak District National Park. Against a deafening torrent of negative publicity over grouse and pheasant shooting, the full set of English shooting organisations have responded with a PR exercise that sets out to show them as cuddly conservationists providing ideal conditions for a massive hare population. In this blog I’ll drill down into the accuracy of the shooting organisation’s claims and look closer at the motivation for producing the research now.
[Mountain hare in the Peak District. Photo by Craig Jones]
University sponsored research
Carl Bedson of Manchester Metropolitan University has been researching Peak District mountain hare density. He’s been awarded his PhD and his research is currently being peer reviewed, so not published yet. GWCT have got in first with their own research, see here:
and accompanying video that does its best to discredit Bedson’s work before its even been published.
The main criticism is under reporting of mountain hare numbers and methodology used by Bedson as published in this paper. Bedson points out his study may not be representative as it includes areas where higher than average hare populations have been reported (so Peak-wide numbers may be lower).
Bedson’s survey area was Holme Moss with varied blanket bog habitat of heather, bilberry and cotton grass. Three recording methods are compared: daylight visual surveys detected 14.3 hares per sq km, night time thermal imaging detected 12.1 hares sq km and camera traps detected 22.6 hares sq km. There is a robust academic discussion of the pros and cons of each method but the overall conclusion is a much lower density of hares than has been reported in Scotland.
In the Peak we haven’t seen large scale culls like those observed in Scotland leading Watson & Wilson (2018) to conclude catastrophic declines in Scottish mountain hare populations were due to intensive culling. This paper is relevant because it’s disputed by the shooters.
Shooting sponsored research
The GWCT paper is based on Scottish National Heritage methodology of walking parallel transects at night with a powerful torch. Twelve survey sites and 108km of transect were covered, on heather dominated driven grouse moors. This produced an astonishing average of 7.8 hares per km which they say equates to a density of 52 -125 hares per sq km. The paper references Hesford et al 2019, which is a study of hare numbers on Scottish shooting estates, when hares are disturbed during grouse counts and results show abundant hare numbers even after intensive culling – in contradiction to Watson & Wilson 2018.
Also in contradiction is Hesford et al 2020 which shows mountain hares expanding their range with data based on questionnaires sent to grouse moor managers. These papers along with National Gamekeepers blog and video make the case that grouse moor management is essential for healthy mountain hare populations. The reintroduction of mountain hares to the Peak District in 1870 coincides with almost 100% of Peak uplands subject to historic and current grouse moor management. Hare numbers we see today are a result of that management.
I can’t help but notice that GWCT’s Peak District paper along with Hesford et al 2019 and 2020 are all essentially gamekeepers and grouse moor managers marking their own homework.
Night time transects
[Dark Peak Fell Runners (DPFR) on Kinder Scout, 2022. Photo by Bob Berzins]
Walking a straight line in darkness across pathless moorland may seem like an extreme activity but for me and members of DPFR it’s a completely normal occurrence. Our fell running club is the largest in the country and has been around since 1976. Winter nights see the true athletes train on the road but those seeking adventure get out on the moors with a head torch. We have an aversion to paths and a typical 10km run involves traversing pathless moorland following a compass bearing. There’s always a few who think they can spot easier terrain so they run parallel to the rest of us. This is pretty much the exact methodology that GWCT recommend to count hares.
But that night on Kinder, the nature count was one short-eared owl and one mountain hare. If we see 3 or 4 hares on a run, that’s a cause for celebration. Seeing 8 hares is a once per year event. Our runs take us over almost all the areas surveyed by the gamekeepers. A mountain hare density of 100 per sq km means we’d expect one hare per hectare (100m x 100m area) so we’d see dozens on every run. That doesn’t happen and it hasn’t happened in the 40 years I’ve been running with this club. Where are all the hares the gamekeepers have counted?
In 2015 snare sites and other traps were routinely baited with mountain hare carcasses and annual (daylight counting) surveys by a Natural History society showed local extinctions of mountain hares.
[Mountain hare carcass at snare site. Photo by Bob Berzins]
[Mountain hare used to bait large crow cage trap. Photo by Bob Berzins]
We hear the usual mantra from gamekeepers that predator control of “pest” species is essential for healthy populations of “rare” wildlife. However snare traps that are frequently used in the Peak District catch hares around the abdomen. The Hunt Investigation Team filmed this apparently unscathed mountain hare caught in a snare in 2017. The hare died shortly afterwards and a post mortem revealed the cause as internal bleeding and shock.
The gamekeeper video shows a stoat attacking a mountain hare with the implication that gamekeepers perform essential work to eliminate these mustelids. This is a photo of a decomposed stoat in one of the new AIHTS approved “humane” DOC traps. A police officer confirmed the stoat had a crushed front paw only. The traps are supposed to ensure instant death by crushing the head or spine but the only conclusion I can reach is this stoat died from an injury to the front paw, likely to have caused suffering for a considerable time.
Natural England could only say: “It is possible that on occasions, due to a specific set of circumstances, a certified trap will not kill an animal as swiftly and humanely as it usually does.” Not exactly cuddly conservation then.
Another message from the gamekeeper video condemns hare poaching. I’m sure we’d all agree with that. However those who take an interest in compliance with the 2004 Hunting Act will have noticed that police forces around the country devote resources to stopping hare poaching with dogs on farmland and almost no resource to stop fox hunting with dogs. We don’t see fox hunts on Peak District moorland but packs of beagles operate in a similar way with a traditional quarry of hares. This incident in 2020 involved several vehicles, around 30 people and 30 beagles chasing around protected moorland with no dog handler in sight.
It’s not in dispute that the landowner allowed access for this activity. For me it seems totally wrong that this type of activity should happen on around 2 sq km of conservation site where according to the GWCT research we’d expect to find between 100 and 250 mountain hares. The local Natural England Officer seemed to agree by saying this was an Operation Likely to Damage the SSSI. This opens the possibility of enforcement action and a heavy fine under Cross Compliance legislation. However after numerous emails and FOIs I found out an unnamed NE manager declared NE had provided consent but then failed to provide me with any details. The Information Commissioner is investigating.
So is it the case that hare poaching is condemned but packs of beagles chasing around protected moorland get grouse moor owner and Natural England consent?
To illustrate this type of incident is not a one off, this beagle pack and handler were spotted on Bleaklow near A57 Snake summit on Thursday 20th January 2022 in the area where one of the GWCT transects is located. Just to be clear in this example there’s no implication that any landowner gave permission. Natural England are investigating and if you have any further information please contact them quoting NE ref 0102221556EC.
Gamekeepers don’t want mountain hares to be moved onto Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, in other words to make them a protected species in England. If mountain hares were protected this would leave a snare operator liable to prosecution if a mountain hare died in one of those traps. So I would say this PR exercise is directed towards the Government, particularly DEFRA.
I’m not the only one who has found it virtually impossible to get Natural England to enforce conservation legislation on grouse moors. And of course in the Peak District we have that other arm of the Government, the National Park Authority (PDNPA). Cosy meetings between PDNPA officials and shooting representatives at Chatsworth are not minuted.
Over the last 10 years I’ve tried to change PDNPA from within as member of the Peak District a Local Access Forum which is a statutory committee linked to PDNPA. This led to me attending meetings about the running of the National Park such as the Management Plan Advisory Group. I offered to stand for the position of LAF Chair but soon had a phone call from a senior manager who told me this would only be possible if I was gagged from speaking out about grouse shooting, not just during Peak Park business but through all aspects of my life. The reason for this gagging order: complaints from moorland owners. The National Park doesn’t want to hear any dissenting voices.
In my eyes in the Peak District we have a National Park for the benefit of 100 rich landowners, not for the benefit of 13 million visitors who want to see a natural landscape full of wildlife. That wildlife includes the “iconic” mountain hare. We’d all like to see these animals thriving and I hope Carl Bedson’s research points the way to an increased population. As far as the gamekeepers’ claims are concerned, I need to see these demonstrated on the ground because at the moment I don’t believe those numbers of mountain hares exist.