Mountain Hares close to extinction on NE Scotland grouse moors

That paper on Mountain Hares summed up by its title, abstract and in two graphs:

Title: ‘Seven decades of mountain hare counts show severe declines where high-yield recreational game bird hunting is practised‘ by Adam Watson and Jeremy Wilson, published in Journal of Applied Ecology.


  1. Recreational hunting is widespread and can benefit nature conservation when well‐practised, monitored, and regulated. Management for recreational red grouse Lagopus lagopus scotica shooting on upland heathland in the UK causes conservation conflict because the intensive habitat, predator, and disease management needed to maintain high‐grouse densities for “driven” shooting has detrimental environmental impacts, notably for raptor populations.
  2. Sustainable management of mountain hares Lepus timidus scoticus, a game species in the same landscapes, poses a challenge. Control of transmission to grouse of a viral disease, louping‐ill, for which mountain hares are a host, has become an additional motivation to kill mountain hares since research during 1993–2001 suggested that culls might reduce infection rates in grouse.
  3. We analysed population trends of mountain hares from spring counts on moorland managed for grouse shooting and on contiguous alpine land. On moorland sites, a long‐term decline (4.6% per annum) from 1954 to 1999 increased to 30.7% per annum from then until 2017, with a density index falling to <1% of initial levels after 2008. Before 1999, declines were associated with conifer planting and were least severe where heather burning characteristic of grouse management was present. Grouse moors had the highest rate of decline after 1999.
  4. On alpine sites, the density index increased by 2.0% per annum from 1954 to 2007, then declined by 12.3% per annum but remained within the previous range of variation.
  5. Despite lack of evidence that it increases grouse numbers, reduction of louping‐ill transmission to grouse became a more frequent justification for mountain hare culls at a time consistent with it causing these recent, rapid mountain hare declines on grouse moors.
  6. Synthesis and applications. Long‐term field counts suggest that intensification of game bird management has resulted in severe, recent declines in mountain hare numbers, exacerbating longer term declines associated with land‐use change. Management practices founded on misinterpretation of earlier research are the probable cause. Regulation of hare culling would provide a framework for formal tests of whether culls affect grouse surpluses. It would also provide an opportunity to examine mountain hare populations’ resilience to culls of varying size and seasonal timing.


Long-term Mountain Hare numbers on montane areas.


Long-term Mountain Hare numbers on grouse moors.

And the paper has just (ahead of the 7 o’clock news) been discussed by Duncan Orr-Ewing (of RSPB) and Adam Smith (of GWCT) on the Today programme.






12 Replies to “Mountain Hares close to extinction on NE Scotland grouse moors”

  1. A pathetic discussion on Radio 4 Today programme this morning (about 6.50am if you wish to listen later)…
    Duncan Orr-ewing put the evidence from the paper very well. The other guest, from a land-management and grouse-hunting charity (sorry, forgotten which and its not listed on the programme website yet) basically just said that the population of hare naturally fluctuates wildly, and the RSPB study did not go to any of the multiple areas where the hare was doing well, and that the RSPB were essentially wrong. His defence was that the population was stable. The culling for grouse disease was mentioned in the intro but not discussed by either guest. The RSPB defended their data by stating that other groups had independently gathered similar data, and that intensive moorland management was affecting many populations by having increased hare culling, increased raptor control and increased muirburn.

  2. The abstract doesn’t tell us how extensive the research was on managed grouse moors. However, one of the authors, Adam Watson had been counting hares here since 1943, so his judgement is probably one to rely on.

    1. Downloaded the whole paper…… there were something like 130 sites surveyed every year across managed grouse moors, adjacent land and higher, alpine land… download it for free and enjoy reading it – although the statistical methods bit was way above me, I understood how they gathered their data. It was gathered by CEH, a national research body, and analysed with the RSPB. The data was gathered by 8 different fieldworkers, and seems like the sites were originally chosen for grouse moor management studies.

  3. Dr Wattson in his book about msmmals claimed that hares were already locally extinct where mass culling was taking place. As you say, it is time, and past time, for the government to take firm action. It’s just a pity that the appropriate body, SNH, will do nothing unless firmly instructed. It should be possible to issue a regulation based upon existing legislation to force action.

  4. So Mountain hares will be the first non raptor to join that ever increasing list of things extinct or near extinct on grouse moors along with Peregrine, Hen Harrier and increasingly Short-eared Owl. Whole thing of course stinks the Scottish Gov’t needs to act now because Westminster certainly won’t.

  5. One draws a reluctant conclusion that the Scottish Government is not one iota concerned about tourism in remote parts of Scotland nor the image and message that their condoning of wildlife slaughter sends to the world?

    1. The same conflicts between the forelock tugging supporters of organised crime and the others, more conservation minded, exist in someScottish parties, including the SNP. Who wins in each case is never easy to determine. I’m still hopeful the hares will get some relief, but it is not guaranteed.

  6. Are the Scottish estates ‘crying’ over the hot weather impact on grouse numbers like those in Yorkshire?

    Sadly the media reports impact on rural communities and fails to mention numbers achieved being underpinned by #wildlifecrime.

  7. If you look at the raw data for individual moorland sites, the results are simply jaw-dropping.
    Some sites only ever yielded a few hares, and these often didn’t decline by much. However, most of the sites that held good numbers of hares back in the 1950s showed catastrophic declines, often to zero. As an example, at site number 7, 96 hares were seen in 1954, which rose to 525 hares by 1957, then fell to 0 by 2017. Here are some others:
    Site 8: 1957 – 245, 2017 – 6
    Site 9: 1957 – 48, 2017 – 0
    Site 13: 1957 – 111, 2013 – 0
    Site 15: 1964 – 30, 2017 – 0
    Site 38: 1957 – 57, 2017 – 0
    Site 40: 1958 – 165, 2017 – 0
    Site 43: 1988 – 40, 2017 – 0
    Site 52: 1958 – 162, 2017 – 0
    [nb – sites were surveyed for slightly varying periods, hence the different start dates]
    Put simply, on most of the ‘best’ sites, the hares were hunted to extinction.
    Once the hunters get a species in their sites, it looks as thought the only acceptable population level is zero. All advocates of ‘partnership working’ should take careful note.

    1. Since they seem to have no target hare densities which would remove the perceived tick threat or reduce it to acceptable levels then you have to assume that their aim is a zero hare population. If hares are as numerous as they now claim then what is the point of the cull ? The absence of any objectives backed by science makes this about has rigorous as the raven cull.

  8. The Angus Glens Moorland Group is absolutely beyond the pale! Here is a comment I posted on the Rewilding Scotland FB page an hour ago, I’d add in advance what are the odds that in the video to the side of the person filming the hares and out of sight behind the knoll there are lines of beaters?

    ‘The Angus Glens Moorland Group has just (re)posted a video shown earlier this year which is supposed to make us believe that mountain hares are still thriving on grouse moors even after ‘culls’. This is obviously in desperate reaction to the dire reports about what the grouse moors have been doing to mountain hare populations that’s just been made public. I’d recommend that as many people as possible pop over and look at it. Is it just me or does this look like a bunch of highly agitated hares that have been driven on to a knoll to make it seem as if they exist in swarming multitudes? I’ve left comments to that effect, as I did earlier this year when I saw this for the first time. I’m afraid something finally snapped when I saw this, I just can’t take one single iota of their utter condescension and smears anymore – this was the utter pits not least in how they insult our intelligence!!!!’

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