Mark Ewart of the Southern Uplands Moorland Group believes the proponents of rewilding should engage with the debate over translocation of mountain hare in order to safeguard the future of this iconic species
There has been huge debate in recent years over the number of mountain hare in Scotland and reports that they are facing a catastrophic population decline.
Gamekeepers and land managers have reported good populations of blue hare for many years, although the population has cyclical fluctuations.
Heather moorland actively managed for red grouse offers an ideal habitat for mountain hare. It is partly due to the control of predators, and partly due to the young heather growth (encouraged by regular muirburn), that the moorland is kept in good condition for both red grouse and hare.
On managed grouse moors, mountain hare populations are up to 35 times higher than on unmanaged moors. As I write, social media are full of videos showing hundreds of mountain hare running in large groups across grouse moors in the snow. When there has been a significant snowfall it can be easier to spot the hare as they tend to move to lower slopes to search for any vegetation that isn’t completely buried under inches of snowfall.
In 2018 NatureScot commissioned research into mountain hare counting methods. Six estates in the East Cairngorms Moorland Partnership recorded a density of between 57 and 136 hares per square kilometre, suggesting an estimated population of at least 2,000 mountain hares on the area that was surveyed. These numbers give an idea of the heathy population regularly recorded on grouse moors, hence the need for occasional management to prevent over-grazing and to keep the population in check.
The Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and land managers throughout the country are currently considering the suggestion that there could be a translocation of mountain hare from grouse moors, where there is a surplus population, to areas of unkeepered land, where they are locally extinct.
Translocation is a serious proposition which, carried out properly, would benefit areas that have no mountain hare currently.
The hare is a timid animal and the translocation would have to be conducted without causing undue stress, preferably at night and with proper veterinary oversight. Observing best practice and with due care, there is no reason that hare could not be moved to a neighbouring area, in line with other species translocations which have proved successful. Only those areas with a good population of hare would be selected to provide donor animals.
For many years, the Lammermuirs and Moorfoot hills and the moors of the East Cairngorms have all had healthy populations of mountain hare. There is a strong case to be made for translocating some hare from the Lammermuirs to augment areas where their populations have become fragmented or have recently died out. One prospective location which has been mooted is the nearby Langholm Moor, which was recently acquired by new owners through a community buy-out.
This area, for example, would be well-suited to the establishment of a population of hare. Indeed, in the past there were mountain hare at Langholm, when it was a grouse moor managed by gamekeepers. There are other possible locations not too far away, such as the Moffat hills.
If conservation holdings are serious about supporting Scottish wildlife they could engage with gamekeepers and see if we can work together to support a population of mountain hare in the area. Deliberate action such as predator control and management of grazing will need to be taken, to support the re-establishment of this fragile species.
There is no need for mountain hare to die out in Scotland. Environmentalists could engage with gamekeepers who have long experience of sustaining healthy populations of mountain hare. That would be a win-win for all.