The number of mountain hares in the eastern Highlands has dropped by more than 99 per cent since 1954, according to a new study – prompting calls for urgent action to protect the species.

New research by the UK government’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Scotland reveals that mountain hare populations on north eastern moorlands decreased by nearly five per cent a year from 1954 to 1999, and then at 30 per cent a year from 1999 to 2017. Numbers are now less than one per cent of what they were in 1954, researchers say.

The much sharper decline since 1999 is blamed on a boom in mass culling by sporting estates in order to protect grouse stocks for shooting. But the Scottish Moorland Group, which represents landowners in Scotland, questioned the research and insisted that hare populations remained high in many areas.

The Ferret reported in May that data released under freedom of information rules revealed that up to 38,000 mountain hares a year were being killed on sporting estates. The figures, produced for the Scottish Government in 2017, suggested that large-scale mountain hare killing has been routine in Scotland for many years.

Nearly 38,000 mountain hares killed in one season, new data reveals

The new study analysed counts of hares on north eastern moorland managed for red grouse shooting and on neighbouring mountain land. It concluded the decline before 1999 was likely due to land use changes, such as the loss of grouse moors to conifer forests.

But the large increase in the rate of decline since 1999 was attributed to intensive grouse moor management, which since the 1990s has included mass culls on many estates in the belief that hares spread disease to grouse. Conservationists pointed out that the culls were unregulated and disputed that grouse suffered because of hares.

The lead author of the study was the veteran upland ecologist, Dr Adam Watson, who has been monitoring mountain hares near where he lives in north east Scotland for decades. “Having counted mountain hares across the moors and high tops of the eastern Highlands since 1943, I find the decline in numbers of these beautiful animals both compelling and of great concern,” he said.

“We need the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to take action to help these iconic mammals of the hill. I hope they will listen to the voice of scientific research.”

Professor Jeremy Wilson, RSPB’s head of conservation science in Scotland who helped analyse the data, said that “severe recent declines” on grouse moors were “strongly correlated with the start of mountain hare culls for which there is no clear scientific justification”.

Urgent action is needed if the future conservation status of mountain hares is to be secure. Professor Jeremy Wilson, RSPB Scotland

He added: “Urgent action is needed if the future conservation status of mountain hares is to be secure.”

He was supported by Duncan Orr Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, who argued that large-scale culls were “both illegal under EU law and unwarranted as a method for controlling grouse disease”.

Orr Ewing called for SNH to better protect hares, which he described as a “keystone native species” of the Scottish uplands. “This authoritative research suggests that we should be very concerned about its population status in its former strongholds,” he said.

“We expect this subject to be given thorough consideration by the current independent grouse moor inquiry, which is looking at how grouse moors can be managed sustainably and within the law.”

Sarah Moyes, of animal welfare charity, OneKind, said the new study provided further evidence that large-scale killing of hares was routine in Scotland, despite the Scottish Government calling for “voluntary restraint” from shooting estates.

“We are reinforcing our calls for the Scottish Government to take urgent action to protect mountain hares before even more are persecuted in the coming months,” she added.

However, a spokesman for the Scottish Moorland Group questioned the research, insisting that hare populations remained high, according to many estates.

“This research is very much out of kilter with other respected research on mountain hares. As recently as October 2017 SNH reported to the Scottish Parliament that evidence of a national decline in mountain hares since the mid-1990s is not conclusive,” he said.

“This latest research also flies in the face of what estate owners and land managers see every day on the ground – that hare populations are very high.”

Mountain hares are only culled when the populations are sufficiently high and culls only control a very small percentage of the population. Spokesman, Scottish Moorland Group

Scottish Moorland Group also expressed concern that the authors of study did not obtain data from moorland managers, adding that it supported the approach of SNH, which recently published research on methods of counting mountain hares.

“It should be remembered that mountain hares are only culled when the populations are sufficiently high and culls only control a very small percentage of the population. Culling, which covers a range of activity from shooting for food to habitat protection, is legal and is conducted under a code of practice agreed by the moorland sector,” said the group’s spokesman.

“It will, however, come as little surprise that RSPB Scotland has chosen to release this paper, continuing its political campaigning against grouse moor management, on the day that the season gets underway. It is obviously an attempt to influence the ongoing independent review of grouse shooting which includes mountain hare management.”

The new report says that on higher, alpine sites, the numbers of mountain hares fluctuated greatly but increased overall until 2007, and then declined, although not to the unprecedented lows seen on moorland sites.

The mountain hare is the UK’s only native hare and was listed as “near threatened” in a recent review by the Mammal Society.

The Ferret revealed in 2016 that a leading member of the Cairngorm National Park Authority had advised gamekeepers to hide heaps of dead mountain hares in the back of their trucks to prevent photographs being taken and publicised. The suggestion was made at a meeting with gamekeepers after the publication of photos showing a shooting party with trucks piled full of dead hares at the Lecht in the Cairngorms.

Gamekeepers advised to cover up dead mountain hares

The Scottish Government stressed that ministers were legally obliged to safeguard the conservation status of mountain hares and took that responsibility seriously. “We will consider this evidence alongside existing data sources in considering whether further action is required to protect mountain hares,” said a spokesman.

“The independently-led Grouse Moor Management Group, set up to examine how to ensure grouse moor management is both sustainable and legally compliant, is also looking at mountain hare management as part of its remit,” he added.

“The group will report back to the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform in Spring 2019. It is important to acknowledge that it may be necessary to control mountain hare numbers in some specific circumstances, however large scale culling cannot be justified.”

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