Scottish sporting estates are taking part in the current data gathering exercise being undertaken by the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust to help assess the distribution and natural range of mountain hares in upland areas. This is just one of the ways in which estates work closely with conservationists and scientists on an ongoing basis to try to monitor populations of the secretive mountain hare (Lepus timidus), which is native to Britain and Ireland.

In addition, three estates in the Lammermuirs have developed a partnership with the Lammermuirs Hare Group, an independent group of conservationists, over the past three years, to support data gathering and research. The Lammermuirs Hare Group conducts pre-breeding dawn counts in Spring on Meikle Says Law, Lammer Law and Newlands Hill. They have found stable or rising numbers of sightings over the last three years with a peak of 118 (Meikle Says Law), 37 (Lammer Law) and 55 (Newlands Hill). Annual counting will allow the assessment of trends. The Group have begun to correlate dawn counting with night-time counting using a thermal camera and have offered to contribute to any national survey.

The Lammermuirs Hare Group is also studying the extent of movement of mountain hares using radio-telemetry. Considering that the hare is an animal built for running, its very limited range of less than a square kilometre is perhaps a surprise.

Graham Pettigrew, who heads the Lammermuirs Hare group, said: “We are very grateful to the head-keepers and owners of these three estates for enabling our studies. At our regular meetings, we have had productive and friendly discussions and we find an impressive willingness to accommodate our plans and requests.”

Helen Savage, co-ordinator for the Lammermuirs Regional Moorland Group, said: “Estates across Scotland work really closely with scientists and conservationists in a number of scientific fields. There is widespread support for the current work on understanding mountain hare populations. The hares are well camouflaged when they stand still, but we do see lots of them here, especially in the spring. Heather moorland actively managed for grouse provides a very good habitat for mountain hares.”

Craig Jones of the Lammermuirs Regional Moorland Group, said the recent report published by the James Hutton Institute, in partnership with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and Scottish Natural Heritage about mountain hare counts[1], is an important addition to the roster of evidence about how best to monitor mountain hare populations. Craig has been counting dung accumulations on high ground in the Lammermuirs every six months over the past two years and the hare population has remained stable over that period.

Craig Jones said: “My approach is to monitor the dung accumulations every six months in specific locations across the hills while I’m working. The hares are habitual creatures and tend to congregate in the same areas. We also count the number of hares visible during the spring and when we are counting grouse ahead of the start of the season. I believe these approaches combined give me a valuable index of trends in hares, allowing me to assess whether there are more or less hares compared to previous years. The population appears to have remained stable over the past two years.”

Mountain hares tend to thrive on managed grouse moors and there is evidence that they benefit from the varied vegetation on offer. The short upland vegetation is preferred by the animals as their main food source and the longer vegetation is used for cover.

Many estates in Scotland also have lowland shoots and forestry interests. Typically, gamekeepers will monitor hare populations to ensure that the population does not get out of control and also to protect saplings which would be damaged by an excessive number of hares.

Craig Jones continued: “We didn’t cull any mountain hares in 2013 and that year the population was completely decimated, possibly by diseases or maybe by not enough food around to sustain them. Since then we only cull a small number every year if it is required. If we noticed a decrease in the dung accumulations this could certainly be an indication of low hare densities and then it wouldn’t be advisable to reduce the numbers. We’re keen to maintain a sustainable population and we welcome all research into the best way to approach hare counts. I think it would be worthwhile combining dung counts with night-time surveillance using lamps or spotlights. Both approaches combined will help give us a more accurate assessment of the population. We’re also keen to take part in any training from conservation organisations if this is an option in the future.”

Background Notes

  1. Mountain hares are considered a species of community interest, under the European Community Habitats Directive. The UK government has a legal obligation to ensure the sustainable management of the species.
  2. The GWCT is working in collaboration with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Scottish Land & Estates and other organisations to update current research into the distribution and range of mountain hares. The results of the survey will provide the most up-to-date science on this issue. Entries from estate owners and landowners are currently being collected, with a closing date of 31 March 2018.

[1] Research published on 26 January 2018 recommended using the following methodologies to count mountain hares – 1) systematically counting the hares at night using a spotlight and 2) counting accumulation of dung over a four to six-month period. The full SNH-commissioned report 1022 can be downloaded from SNH’s website as follows: https://www.nature.scot/snh-commissioned-report-1022-developing-counting-methodology-mountain-hares-lepus-timidus-scotland

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