Mountain hare populations move in cycles and so, it would appear, do calls for a ban on legitimate management of their numbers.
In late July, a call was issued by OneKind asking the Scottish Government to ban any form of hare culling. And last week – just over two months on from that initial publicity – a coalition of 10 organisations asked for government to issue new controls with mountain hares facing ‘local extinction’ in some areas.
We respect the right of campaign organisations to put forward their proposals, no matter how strongly we may disagree with them based on evidence that land managers see on the ground each day.
However, as we witnessed with this fresh tranche of publicity last week, public pronouncements are often made based on no evidence at all.
In December 2014, SNH, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and Scottish Land & Estates issued a joint position statement on mountain hare culling, which can be read here.
There were a number of key points made within that statement. Firstly, that whilst voluntary restraint should be exercised by estates, culling was still acceptable where and when it was required. Secondly, that a three-year scientific study was to be carried out involving SNH, the James Hutton Institute and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust to trial methods of measuring mountain hare numbers to underpin better monitoring and to improve the quality of the information used to assess population status and the sustainability of hare management measures.
With that study now nearing completion, which will further enhance our evidence base for management of hare populations, it may seem wise to most to wait for the research and then implement its recommendations following dialogue with various stakeholders.
Yet last week’s call for a ban sought no such thing. It said voluntary restraint was not being practiced because culls were still taking place – despite the joint 2014 statement with SNH making clear that culling activity was still acceptable.
It also made wild claims of local populations of mountain hares on grouse moors becoming extinct. Despite some media outlets choosing to accept that theory, again, there is absolutely no evidence to back up such assertions, as we made clear in our statement.
Whilst such a media hullabaloo can be viewed firmly through the prism of the impending review of grouse moor management, as announced by the Scottish Government in May, it belies a firm grasp on the detail of the management of mountain hares.
In certain parts of Scotland, we are seeing mountain hare populations at low levels, even at zero, especially in the north and west of the country. Crucially, however, none of these regions where numbers are low is grouse moor territory. Indeed, it would seem that where there is a lack of grouse moors that mountain hare numbers are suffering most. Yet, bizarrely, that seems to be of little concern to those now calling for a ban on measured hare management.
We know that managed moorlands are ‘centres of excellence’ for breeding mountain hares but what we do not know is the number of mountain hares that exist on land owned by some of the groups that signed up to last week’s statement. We know that many of the 10 organisations accept the need for and indeed practice deer culls on their land – an exercise widely accepted by environmental stakeholders and by politicians – but appear to rail against the need to similarly manage mountain hare numbers.
Land managers well know the reasons for periodic culls of mountain hares, whether it be to prevent the spread of tick, to protect fragile habitats or to prevent the failure of tree-planting schemes. All of these reasons we have written about extensively for a number of years. We have also seen organisations such as the Grampian Moorland Group film on estates to demonstrate why culling is occasionally needed, with this video available to view below.
However, it is frustrating for those on the ground to see such demands made by campaigners that bear little reality to what is taking place on land across Scotland. We expect the publication of the joint research will stoke up this matter again in the coming months but we hope, by that point, that evidence-based research will go some way to better informing the noise that mountain hare management now makes on a regular basis.
Tim Baynes, Director, Scottish Moorland Group