Mountain hares in steep drop in Scotland

Hunters and naturalists want stocks of wild creatures to remain healthy and strong. A paper just published, however, details a case where their interests diverge.

Mountain hares in steep drop in Scotland

By Richard Collins

Hunters and naturalists want stocks of wild creatures to remain healthy and strong. A paper just published, however, details a case where their interests diverge.

Sport-hunting is big business in Scotland and moorlands are managed to increase grouse numbers for ‘driven’ shoots.

Zoologists Adam Watson and Jeremy Wilson, writing in the Journal of Applied Ecology, claim that this practice has led to a massive decline in hare numbers.

Hares have been counted systematically in grouse-shooting areas and adjoining mountains since the 1950s. The results show numbers fell 4.6% each year up to 1999.

Between 1999 and 2017, losses increased dramatically to 30.7% annually. Hares living higher up in the mountains fared better until 2007; “the density index increased by 2.0% annually from 1954 to 2007” but declined by 12.3% since then.

There are several likely reasons for the losses. Converting moorland to forestry led to earlier reductions in hare numbers; “before 1999, declines were associated with conifer planting and were least severe where heather burning characteristic of grouse management was present” the researchers say.

Another alleged culprit is a sheep-tick which carries a viral disease known as louping-ill, an ailment afflicting livestock, particularly sheep. Loup is an old Scottish term meaning ‘leap’; victims jump into the air.

Grouse, and occasionally people, become infected. The hare, a host species of the tick, is suspected of carrying the infection to grouse.

Hares have been culled since the 1990s, although, according to Watson and Wilson, there is no evidence that the practice has helped control the spread of louping-ill.

Damage to young trees by hares is another excuse for culling. According to data just released under freedom of information rules, up to 38,000 hares are killed on Scottish sporting estates each year.

The hare of the highlands is of the ‘mountain’ variety. Britain’s only native hare species, it was once common throughout the entire island. Around 2,000 years ago, the brown hare was introduced from Europe. Slightly bigger and faster than the local one, it prospered in lowland areas.

What we now call the ‘mountain’ hare was forced to retreat to higher ground.

This is a ‘keystone’ species playing a crucial role in the highland eco-system. Some plants and animals depend on the habitat changes it brings about. The Scottish sub-species is closely related to our Irish one, though it’s slightly smaller, generally lighter in colour and turns white in winter. Only the occasional Irish hare becomes white.

Brown hares, said to be better coursing quarry, were introduced to Ireland during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Thankfully, there has not been a repetition of what happened in Britain; the aliens aren’t so happy here and the mountain hare has managed to hold its own.

There are isolated communities of browns in the North, where most introductions took place, but the species was not

reliably recorded in the Republic during the national hare survey of 2006/7.

“Anecdotal reports suggest that a small population .. may exist between Julianstown, Co Meath and Balbriggan...” says the survey report.

Not having to compete with its brown cousin, our hare, unlike its Scottish relative, is found throughout the country, right down to sea level. Ireland has isolated, and genetically unique, red grouse populations but our damp mountain and moorland habitats don’t support such high densities.

Adam Watson and Jeremy Wilson. Seven decades of mountain hare counts show severe declines where high-yield recreational game bird hunting is practised. Journal of Applied Ecology. August 2018.

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