Land managers in Scotland have taken a major step forward in the establishment of an evidence-based approach to counting and recording data on mountain hare populations, it was announced today.

New training methods and innovative technology will enable conservation bodies to record and assess hare populations and give more sophisticated advice on sustainable hare management.

Increased surveying of hare populations will also contribute to a better understanding of the overall conservation status of mountain hares.

The sites surveyed under the new methodology have recorded encouraging numbers of hares on areas managed for driven grouse shooting, which is consistent with previous research.

ln a joint sector statement today, The British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Scottish Countryside Alliance, Scottish Land & Estates, the Scottish Association for Country Sports and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association said the developments are a game-changer in tackling a controversial issue.

The new two-pronged approach to counting means that gamekeepers and land managers are all using a consistent counting methodology and are able to record real-time population data on an innovative app.

The app, which uses the EpiCollect5 platform developed by Imperial College London, is being rolled out to Scottish estates to allow collection of hare population statistics which can be evaluated and inform expert advice on levels of hare management.

Its development follows the introduction of a new mountain hare counting method which has been established by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), James Hutton Institute and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).

Over the past year 111 gamekeepers and estate staff have undertaken training at 70 sites, across 58 estates in Scotland, from the Lammermuirs in South East Scotland, to the Highlands. The training, provided by GWCT, is based on SNH’s recommended approach to assessing mountain hare populations, using lamps to count the hares in a specific area soon after dusk. Mountain hares are usually most active just after sunset.

The first set of data recorded under the new system showed an average of 13.7 mountain hares encountered per kilometre walked by the surveyors, based on the first 27 sites surveyed. The training has been extended beyond grouse moors to nature reserves and other types of landholding.

It is believed that the total current mountain hare population in Scotland stands at approximately 135,000, most of which are found on driven grouse moors. On managed grouse moors, mountain hare populations are up to 35 times higher than on unmanaged moors.

Ross Macleod, of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, said: 

“We believe that this will become the default means of recording numbers and making a return, removing the need to write out count cards and send them in for further input. Most importantly, this will enable us to build up a prompt, accurate picture of the number of mountain hares on properties undertaking counts. The willingness shown by gamekeepers in training and applying robust count methods underlines their commitment to evidence-led species management.”

“Our count guidance training is open to all types of land managers, not just those properties managing moorland for grouse. Research from GWCT published in 2019 demonstrates that mountain hares are most widespread in north-eastern Scotland on managed grouse moors, where their numbers can be up to 35 times higher than areas where grouse are not shot. However, it’s vital that we understand what’s happening to mountain hare numbers across all areas, particularly where moorland has been lost to forestry or grazing and where no predation control takes place. At present, we have only one holding involved in counting that is not actively managed for grouse. Every land use with an interest in the conservation status of mountain hares should be contributing.”

The method sets up 400-hectare survey sites, called tetrads, in which there are four 2-kilometre long transects. Between September and December, one to two hours after dusk when mountain hares are most active, these transects are walked and the number of hares seen recorded. Data is entered into the app and are immediately available to the GWCT to compile. The same survey is then repeated two weeks later on the same site. GWCT has trained land managers on how to select an appropriate survey site, taking into account outline proposals made by SNH for a National Monitoring Scheme for mountain hares.

David Johnstone, Chairman of Scottish Land and Estates, said:

“The fact that we have an agreed method of gathering the data and a more effective way to record the data instantly and share reporting with others is a game changer in our approach. The key priority is to have hares in good conservation status and the results so far from driven grouse moors are very encouraging.

“Landowners are committed to sustainable management of mountain hares and they want to see a good diversity of species thriving on our moorlands. It’s very heartening that 58 estates have already completed the training.”

Alex Hogg, Chairman of the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, said:

“Keepers have been very willing to adopt this approach favoured by the scientists and conservation bodies. We have always recorded data on mountain hare populations but it is certainly worthwhile to use the same system across the whole of Scotland and to be able to instantly record counts and upload the data for analysis. It is clear that the techniques employed to manage land for grouse shooting also benefit mountain hares.”

Multiple estates in the Cairngorms, including Mar and Invercauld, were among the first to utilise the new night-time counting methodology. It is believed that there is an estimated population of at least 2,000 mountain hares on the area that was surveyed – all of which was on grouse moors. The East Cairngorms region is considered to be a particular stronghold for mountain hares.

Image caption: Mountain hares at Invercauld Estate. This image should be credited to: Steven Rennie Photography.

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