Update: Success!

On 17 June MSPs voted to increase protection for mountain hares. Thank you to everyone who contacted their MSP and all those who have worked tirelessly over the years to make this happen. The result of this vote means the mountain hare will eventually join a list of protected Scottish wildlife that includes species such as the red squirrel and pine marten. For more information about what this news means and what RSPB Scotland would like to see now from a new licensing system for mountain hares read our recent blog.

image of mountain hare with rspb scotland logo

Scotland's receding hare line

The debate around the health of Scotland’s mountain hare population has been going on for years and essentially comes down to one simple question:

Are numbers of mountain hares in Scotland increasing, decreasing or stable?

Broken down like this it would appear the answer is simple and only requires someone to actually go out and count Scotland’s hares, but herein lies the problem. How and when do you count Scotland’s hares and at the end of the counting what does the figure mean? Only years of counts can answer the question of how the population is faring as we require multiple years of data to compare. In the meantime, what if hares are declining, do we continue to do nothing until we have more information, or do we apply more effective safeguards to protect populations?

Information published in 2018 by both the BTO (based on mammal counts on Breeding Bird Survey Squares) and a paper by Watson and Wilson (summarising trends from over seven decades of counts in the Cairngorms by Adam Watson), indicated severe declines of mountain hare populations. These declines were especially apparent since the late 1990s and especially apparent on grouse moors, places that in habitat terms would be expected to support high hare densities and previously did so.

Informed by these new data, Scottish Government reported to the EU that our mountain hare populations were in unfavourable conservation status, requiring that special conservation action was needed to arrest further declines and aid their recovery.

mountain hare on hill

But what has caused this decline and unfavourable status?

The answer to this question lies largely at the feet of intensive grouse moor management and the now widespread, routine practise of culling hares as part of disease control to protect grouse stocks for shooting (see previous blogs here). Significant public and scientific concerns around the declines of mountain hares and the grouse sector’s management of the species, led to their inclusion in the Grouse Moor Review Group’s report on the environmental impacts on grouse moor management (aka the “Werritty Report”). The findings of this report were published in late 2019 and whilst we were disappointed the report didn’t recommend increased protection for hares, it did outline the need for reporting on the number of hares shot and the sharing of data with the relevant statutory bodies. It also recommended that SNH should “generate a more robust evidence-base on the distribution, numbers and management influences on Mountain Hares to better inform management…” in essence, a national monitoring programme.

Back in 2018 a report was published detailing methods for counting hares on moorland which would form the basis of any forthcoming national monitoring programme. The results of the programme would answer the original question at the start of the blog, job done?   Well, no, not quite.

The planning, formation, implementation, analysis and reporting of any scheme is likely to take years. In addition to this, hares can exhibit cyclical populations (boom or bust) and if populations continue to be managed as they currently are, it may take many years of monitoring on a suitable scale before conclusions can be drawn. This will also mean many more years of potential decline.

A report published by SNH in May 2020 acknowledged that “Assessing trend in mountain hare populations in Scotland will require decades of monitoring”. So, whilst other long-term data sets (such as the BTO’s British Breeding Survey) can be fed into the future monitoring programme, its highly likely that the original question will remain unanswered by this initiative for many years.

mountain hare in snow

What now?

Whilst we support the development of an independent national monitoring programme and the recommendations of the “Werritty” Report, the recent evidence showing declines in hare numbers cannot be ignored. With evidence indicating that large scale population reduction culls still continue despite calls from the Scottish Government and landowning bodies asking for restraint, greater protection for mountain hares must be enforced. Self-regulation is failing.

We therefore call on Scottish Government to take the following actions;

  • Increase the protection for mountain hares in Scotland. This could be implemented NOW by Scottish Government accepting the amendments proposed to the Animals and Wildlife Bill by Green MSP Alison Johnstone for increased protection of mountain hares.
  • Implement a strict licensing system for any local control of hares . Any killing of mountain hares for justifiable purposes (eg. protection of newly planted trees) should only be carried out following authorisation of SNH to ensure adequate safeguards for mountain hares and due consideration of all public interests.   
  • Establish an independent national monitoring programme for mountain hares. This should be managed by SNH with all data shared with SNH for analysis and reporting regularly and transparently on conservation status.   
  • The recommendations of the “Werrity Review” should be implemented in full and urgently.