RSPB Scotland's Species and Habitats Officer James Silvey discusses taking an evidence-based approach to the current unsustainable practise of mountain hare management.

Myth-busting mountain hare management claims

Certain species are synonymous with the uplands in Scotland: golden eagle, red grouse, ptarmigan and of course the mountain hare. But if you were to take a walk in some areas of the highlands you might struggle to see many mountain hares or in some areas, any at all. The reason? In some areas years and years of large-scale culls on intensively managed grouse moors have reduced the numbers of this emblem of our mountains to catastrophically low numbers.

Recent media activities of some landowning and gamekeeping representative bodies have attempted to paint a much rosier picture of the status of mountain hare in Scotland. They suggest that decisions need to be made on the basis of recent evidence, and not ideology. The evidence they currently refer to is a recent piece of GWCT research that analysed data on hare counts gathered by estates from 2001-17 and found that mountain hare fare better on managed grouse moors despite large-scale culls. It is telling, though, that these interests wilfully exclude and ignore other recent scientific work on mountain hare population trends, thereby contradicting their own call for decisions to be evidence-based.

Last year two independently peer-reviewed reports provided compelling evidence that hare numbers had declined precipitously and that the range of mountain hares living in Scotland had decreased (Massimino et al. 2018 & Watson & Wilson 2018).  Indeed, the evidence is crystal clear: mountain hares have declined across Scotland and in areas where red grouse management is the primary land use, these declines have recently been the most severe.

In 2015 and 2017 RSPB Scotland and a coalition of 10 other environmental organisations called on the Scottish Government to enact a moratorium on mountain hare culls and highlighted that the current guidance of voluntary restraint was not working and would continue to fail. Since then mountain hare culls have been documented across the Scottish uplands and on the 1st of August 2019 the mountain hare open season will begin again.

So what will change? Well, sometime in August we expect the Grouse Moor Management Group to deliver its findings on the environmental impacts of grouse moor management including the management of mountain hares. The person heading this review has given assurances that it will be strictly evidence based. As such, we trust that it will highlight the current unsustainable practise of mountain hare management and recommend better protections for mountain hares to ensure their long-term future as part of Scotland’s upland fauna.

RSPB Scotland agrees with those lobbying on behalf of the shooting industry and landowning sector that decisions should be based on evidence. We, however, believe that decisions should not be based on selective evidence, but should include all recent published science on the issue.

Note: This blog was updated on 12/07/2019

  • Allie, this is a misrepresentation.You say " Indeed, the evidence is crystal clear: mountain hares have declined across Scotland and in areas where red grouse management is the primary land use, these declines have been the most severe". That is both not what Watson and Wilson say and is untrue. Watson and Wilson excluded from their study any area which had been planted with trees. As soon as any square was planted or one of its neighbouring squares was, they dropped it from their study. Watson and Wilson only looked at Grouse moor and other moor, not at forested sites. The reason is that Forestry is a such an unfavourable land use for hares it is almost pointless studying them on it.. The role of forestry in driving hare declines is well recorded.. Witness the simultaneous near disappearance of the mountain hare from southwest Scotland, along with the disappearance of grouse moor and the planting of huge forests. The most severe declines have been on afforested sties, not on any type of moorland. 

  • Unfortunately, I think anything coming from GWCT needs to be treated with the utmost caution. They cannot be viewed as an independent scientific body whilst their entire output is designed to justify whatever the shooting industry wants. I would be very interested to see the last peer-reviewed paper produced by GWCT the conclusions of which were found to be unpalatable / unacceptable to the Countryside Alliance, BASC, the NGO or SGA.

  • I see no reason  to ignore the long term historic data provided over a long period by Dr. Adam Watson. The recent published science merely confirms the long term historic data.