James Silvey, Species and Habitats Officer (All Nature) at RSPB Scotland takes a look what a recent paper on mountain hare numbers means for the species

Catastrophic declines of mountain hares: what RSPB Scotland believes should happen next

In 2015 and 2017 RSPB Scotland led a coalition of 10 other environmental organisations in calling on the Scottish Government to impose a moratorium on mountain hare culls on grouse moors in Scotland. This action came from a serious concern that these unregulated culls were effecting the local and national population status of hares. We argued that until evidence could be supplied that suggested that hare populations were healthy and sustainable the moratorium should remain in place.

Instead of this precautionary approach, Scottish Government opted to allow those who carry out these culls to self-regulate, in a period of “voluntary restraint”. The reasoning behind this decision was an apparent lack of evidence to show that hares were declining or that culls were impacting populations. Now, the situation can no longer be said to be in doubt; evidence showing catastrophic declines of mountain hares in one of their stronghold sites in the north-east highlands has been published in a paper today.

The authors of this paper (Watson & Wilson) analysed over 60 years’ worth of mountain hare count data collected over a vast area of the species stronghold in the north-east highlands.

The paper shows that from 1954 to 1999 the population in moorland sites (mean elevation 370m) decreased by nearly 5% a year. This worrying trend was likely due to changes in habitat and illustrates the wider declines that mountain hares continue to face across their range. However the declines then accelerated on moorland sites from 1999 to 2017 with the scale of decline increasing to an astonishing 30.7% per year. This resulted in counts in 2017 at less than 1% of original levels in 1954. 


Map showing the study area

So what has caused these declines of over 99%?

The predominant land use in these moorland sites is intensive grouse shooting. Whilst hares can benefit from the intensive management intended for grouse (hare declines were lowest on grouse moors up to 1999) this is only when they are not being culled. The dramatic increase in declines on grouse moors in 1999 is likely due to a shift in management and the start of the ill-informed practise of culling mountain hares as a method of tick and disease control to boost grouse numbers (note there is no evidence that this is an effective management tool).

With predator control (both legal and illegal) and beneficial habitat management, grouse moors should be a haven for mountain hares and act as their stronghold sites. Instead, this paper shows us that over the last 19 years grouse moors have become the worst place for hares and this is almost certainly due to the practise of culling.

The paper also shows us (as we feared) that voluntary restraint has been completely ineffective in protecting mountain hare populations. There have been numerous records of culls continuing through this period and data from the paper clearly shows that during the restraint period (2014-present) mountain hare numbers continued to fall by 30% a year within the study area.

The amount of evidence showing declines in mountain hares and that the practise of culling is unsustainable and damaging to populations is inescapable. Scottish Government must act now to put in place better safeguards to protect our hare populations otherwise, as the start of another hare season is now in full swing, declines will continue.