A new study, conducted jointly by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the RSPB, has highlighted a catastrophic decline in Scotland’s Mountain Hare population. With numbers suspected to have fallen to less than 1% of the level recorded just 60 years ago.
From 1954 to 1999, it is estimated that hare numbers decreased by almost 5% per annum, with declines worsening to almost 30% annually between 1999 and 2017. The study also found that population declines were [much] more pronounced on managed, moorland sites as opposed to alpine locations – highlighting the loss of open habitat to conifer plantation as one reason for the long-term negative trend. However, it is also thought that an increase in culling on moorlands managed for driven grouse shooting (DGS) is responsible for the more severe declines observed over recent years.
The Mountain Hare is our only native hare species and is listed as ‘near threatened’ by the Mammal Society – highlighting the hares status as a species of conservation concern in the UK. Despite this, they are still killed en masse in the UK by grouse moor managers aiming to control LIV (Looping Ill Virus), a disease spread by ticks which has the potential to severely reduce Red Grouse numbers. Those associated with DGS claim that killing hares limits the spread of ticks to grouse, as well as actively bolstering woodland regeneration. A claim disputed by campaigners who label the practice as cruel and unjustified.
Now, we have all seen the gruesome pictures circulated from some Scottish grouse moors showing the discarded corpses of Mountain Hares left forlorn on the moor. We have all seen the supposedly ‘historic’ images of trailers laden with hundreds of dead hares and doubtless, have all by now observed the troubling documentation of stink pits filled with dead hares [among other species]. For this reason, I will avoid addressing these here. This is not a post on ethics nor morality.
What I will ask, however, is how – given the findings of this in-depth and rigorous study – those employed in the business of DGS can sustain culling faced with the stark impact of their actions? Sure, many inside the industry are currently practising ‘voluntary restraint’ on the matter and forgoing the killing. I have no doubt that some [more likely some than most] are, although it is clear that this is far from enough. For years anecdotal evidence of hares ‘thriving’ on grouse moors has provided enough justification to sustain culls: no longer. The evidence is clear – grouse moor management is pushing a species already threatened by climate change and habitat loss closer to extinction. It cannot go on. And as the Mountain Hare slips closer to the brink, change must come fast.
As someone who has written at length, and often to my personal detriment, about the possibility of coexistence and cooperation between wildlife conservation and sporting interests, I have been granted some hope recently by an increase in the number ‘shooting folk’ speaking out against illegal raptor persecution on grouse moors. Sure, this has yet to lead to anything remotely resembling action, but the potential for change is beginning to appear – largely due to the tireless work of the campaigners applying justified pressure to the industry. Will these same people now raise their voices for hares? They should.
I stand by my belief that there are sportsmen out there who do genuinely care for our wildlife. The only problem with this outlook is that, compared to those who clearly do not, these people remain muted and absent from the public debate. Happy to disagree quietly and twiddle their thumbs on the sidelines. Now, as is the case with raptors, it is time for these people to speak up, stand up and be counted, or rightfully face enforced change.
Attempts by the Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) and Scottish Gamekeepers Association’s (SGA) to politicise the issue of Mountain Hare culls and, in the case of the former, use it as a stick with which to beat the RSPB, are void in the face of cold, hard evidence. And are most unhelpful. Such manoeuvrings should be ignored by all reasonable folk who need only look at the long-term and short-term evidence to see the truth.
Personally, I accept wildlife management as a fact of life. And it is; though practices should never be untouchable. Especially when they are proven to have an adverse impact upon the continued survival of a threatened species. Should the game industry fail to curb this problem, I sincerely hope the Scottish government does. Much like Hen Harriers, Mountain Hares require change now.
On the subject of which, you can sign this open letter to Roseanna Cunningham calling for an end to the unregulated killing of Mountain Hares on Scottish grouse moors.