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A new joint initiative urging voluntary restraint on large scale culls of mountain hares has been launched

24th December 2014

Photograph of A new joint initiative urging voluntary restraint on large scale culls of mountain hares has been launched

The move by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) should, along with several other measures, help ensure that future management is sustainable.

Ron Macdonald, SNH's director of policy and advice, said: "We are asking estates for restraint on large-scale culls of mountain hares which could jeopardise the conservation status of mountain hares.

"We recognise that some culling is occasionally needed to ensure healthy grouse stocks, but available evidence shows that large-scale culls of mountain hares are only effective when other tick-carrying animals are removed, or there is an absence of them in the area. Where such animals are not removed we urge that hare culls should not be undertaken.

"We do not support large-scale culls and we will work with estates to put in place effective but sustainable management of mountain hares."

Douglas McAdam, Chief Executive of Scottish Land & Estates, said: "Culling is legal and is necessary in some circumstances, such as to protect young trees or to support management for red grouse and we support that. We believe such management should be done sustainably and be supported by a sound management plan as part of an overall management approach.

"While culling will be an ongoing requirement in certain areas and situations, we support the call for voluntary restraint where large-scale culls could jeopardise the conservation status of mountain hares."

Adam Smith, Director (Scotland) of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, said: “We want to ensure that the strong positive relationship between mountain hares and management for red grouse continues. The shooting of mountain hares on Scottish moors can be done sustainably, and under certain conditions more intensive culls may be appropriate as part of a package of actions to sustain moorland management.

“However, moorland managers should carefully assess the need for and impact of their actions on their own and neighbouring hare populations, and regularly reassess this management. A contributory part of refining this adaptive approach to management is finding practical ways to assess hare abundance with greater accuracy."

SNH has also joined forces with the James Hutton Institute (JHI) and Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) to begin a three-year joint study to trial several methods of assessing mountain hare population densities to determine the number of hares in a particular area.

Mountain hare populations are under threat from habitat loss, fragmentation, and in some areas, from large, local culls on grouse moors. Although not a fully protected species, the UK is obliged to ensure that the status of hare populations is not threatened in any way.

The project will develop a reliable and cost-effective field method that can be used to form the basis of a longer-term monitoring programme for the first time. This will lead to a better understanding of how hare populations are faring at both local and national scales, and to better-informed decisions about their sustainable management.

Currently most of the information on hare population trends is drawn from reports to GWCT about the number of hares shot on estates (game bags). The last national estimate, published in 1995, suggested that there were 350,000 mountain hares in Scotland, but this estimate had error margins of plus or minus 50%.

The new project will trial various methods to identify the most suitable way of counting hares - with the objective of making reliable estimates of population density. One of the aims of the study is to develop a method which doesn't rely solely on scientists but uses methods that could be collected by people working in the uplands.

Scott Newey, research scientist with JHI, said: “As leaders in field research on mountain hares, we at the James Hutton Institute welcome this initiative. We believe that reliable and easy to obtain estimates of animal abundance or density are key to their sustainable management. This is challenging for mountain hares because methods need to be tailored to the species and their various habitats. This project aims to develop methods that can be used by all land managers to estimate mountain hare numbers in upland areas of Scotland."

Ron Macdonald added: “This new study will lead to an improvement in the quality and quantity of information available on mountain hares in Scotland. We know there are genuine concerns about the state of mountain hares in Scotland, and this study will help us better understand the impact of land management on hares. This is important to ensure that current hare management measures are sustainable.”

Douglas McAdam, Chief Executive of Scottish Land & Estates, added: "This study is extremely important in order that we can better monitor and understand the management and conservation status of mountain hares through an evidence led approach.”

This estimate predates the trend over the past 10-15 years towards intensive culls on some grouse moors which can result in locally depleted hare populations. Both the GWCT game bag data and independently-collected information on hares from breeding bird surveys by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO),) indicate that mountain hare numbers have declined between 1995 and 2009. When combined, these data give a statistically significant decline of 28%, although care is needed when interpreting this sort of data for species like mountain hares, because they show natural population fluctuations which may make it difficult to interpret overall population trends.

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