A receding hare line? Not on our moorlands

David Johnstone ,
27 Jun 2019

Managing land in Scotland is a subject that often triggers passionate debate, none more so when it comes to the care of our native mountain hare.

Green Party MSP Alison Johnstone this week launched a private member’s bill at Holyrood to introduce new controls to protect hares and also foxes.

While this may appear an attractive proposition to some people, the reality is that it would have far reaching consequences in terms of species and habitat conservation.

Furthermore, if animal welfare is of paramount concern that there is already a raft of measures in place to achieve these aims.

Presently, control of mountain hare populations is subject to legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2011 and an EU Habitats Directive which requires their number to be maintained at a ‘favourable conservation status’. 

In justifying the need for the Bill, Ms Johnstone points to an RSPB-backed study which claimed that mountain hare numbers were less than 1% of the levels found in 1954. That research stood out like a sore thumb from other studies and assessments that told a very different story. 

This 1% figure is far removed from the latest science for counting hares which has been rolled out following a three-year project that was commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) – the government’s own nature body.

Published earlier this year, new Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust research rebuts the post-1954 study and estimates the current mountain hare population to be 135,000 – a figure which constantly renews as mammals breed each year.

Importantly, it also found that the management of driven grouse moors appeared to provide a net benefit to mountain hare populations, even after population control was factored in. But Ms Johnstone does not sound too keen on grouse shooting, despite the very substantial contribution it makes to rural communities.

More counting and management planning for conservation in line with the Principles of Moorland Management, developed by Scotland’s Moorland Forum, will further assist maintenance of this net benefit.

In the Highland region, for example, the density of mountain hares on driven grouse moors was 35 times higher than on moors not managed for shooting. In large parts of Scotland, where there are no grouse moors – they are completely absent from the landscape. The GWCT research published this year reported that, in Tayside, on moors where no management for grouse shooting was taking place there was evidence of annual declines of 40 percent per year.

We know hare numbers are healthy on grouse moors because they are protected from fox predation, and heather – a key part of their diet - is flourishing. 

However, this also leads to the population having to be sustainably controlled, in a similar way to the 100,000 deer that are culled in Scotland each year to prevent grazing damage. 

There is significant work ongoing in relation to counting methodology for mountain hare populations and there is widespread recognition among land managers that control of hares should ensure populations remain sustainable. The Principles of Moorland Management best practice guidance, which is supported by 29 organisations, provides comprehensive guidance on appropriate methods of managing mountain hare populations. 

Mountain hares are an subject that will features in the forthcoming publication of the Scottish Government review of moorland management led by Professor Alan Werritty. That will lead to the Scottish Government bringing forward its proposals on how it will take the review findings forward in terms of regulation or legislation.

It is incumbent that all of us with in an interest in moorland management make every effort to communicate, to MSPs in particular, that we have a very positive and constructive story to tell. Moorland management is good for species and habitat conservation. The population of birds such as the Lapwing and Curlew would be severely diminished without it. It delivers a multitude of environmental benefits and makes a major social and economic contribution to rural communities across Scotland. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity to make this case.