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Hares in Context

An Aberdeenshire leveret
An Aberdeenshire mountain leveret

There has been some excitement in the press about a collective call from several charities and NGOs to ban the culling of mountain hares pending more research on their distribution and the efficacy of killing hares to reduce louping ill. This issue crops up now and again under various guises, usually as a veiled attempt to undermine moorland management and cause trouble for grouse shooting.

I love hares, but I also understand the importance of controlling tick-borne diseases as a means of sustaining the management that supports them. In some areas, louping ill can be so bad that grouse production would scarcely be viable, and then what would happen to the hares?

The most cataclysmic hare declines took place when grouse shooting faltered, and mountain hares simply vanished in a puff of smoke when gamekeepers were withdrawn from the Galloway Hills. In the Southern Uplands, their decline is charted alongside the arrival of mass afforestation and the destruction of the moors, with an 80% drop in hares recorded in gamebags between 1961 and 2009.

Let’s make no bones about it; withdraw predator control and heather management and hares will simply vanish.

On my family’s hill farm, white and brown hares were shot in good numbers until the First World War, after which point moorland management was abandoned and the white hares disappeared along with most of the heather. Sixty years later, the surrounding moors were planted with trees, and now we have no brown hares either. These are the real issues we have to tackle if we are genuinely interested in hare conservation. Elsewhere in Scotland where management for grouse has continued, hare numbers are strong and steadfast.

Scientifically robust research into precisely how hare culling works to control disease would be a huge asset for keepers and syndicates making decisions about management, and this should clearly be a priority in the longer term, but we shouldn’t let emotive headlines and lurid photographs distract us from the real problem.

Mountain hares are a captivating and wonderful species in their own right, but (crucially) they are part of the system. Get hares and you get a whole range of predators to eat them too. Commentators periodically bemoan the lack of eagles in Dumfries and Galloway, failing to make the connection between healthy prey and healthy predators. Rather than invest in proper habitat management in the Galloway hills to improve the ground for natural prey species like hares, foresters and raptor enthusiasts actually feed the last few eagles on dead goats and offal from an artificial feeding station, anchoring the birds in an area that simply cannot provide for them while describing themselves as conservationists.

If we filled the Galloway hills with hares, eagles would soon follow, just as surely as peregrines would resurge if grouse made a comeback. As it is, we have few hares, less grouse and our uplands seldom produce enough pipits to feed a merlin. Using elements of traditional management, we could start to see the return not only of hares but also of once common species like blackgame, ousels, harriers and all the other birds that I often have to travel miles to see.

If we are serious about making real progress with mountain hare conservation, we should focus on their staggering decline in range over the past century; in which context, culling where they are massively abundant seems rather less important.

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1 thought on “Hares in Context”

  1. Same old question Patrick. How did the hares manage before human intervention to create habitat and protect them from predators? They are not entirely dependent on grouse moors as habitat but they, like many other species, have flourished in human modified ecosystems (farmland birds, urban foxes, etc. etc.). OK, I understand the alternatives to grouse moor being plantation forestry and sheep grazing but what about more natural alternatives where restored landscapes are more valued by more people for a wider set of ecosystem services? Yes, we need to know more about hare populations and drivers but let’s not get hung up in the old shifting baseline syndrome that pins hare populations (and other wildlife species) down to some rose-tinted Victorian keepered landscape. I want to see wilder, more natural hills with wilder, more natural numbers of animals underpinned by trophic cascades and natural mosaics of flora controlled and directed by edaphic conditions and natural succession, not by management solely for game. I just don’t buy the status quo that insists management and predator control are necessary for the protection of valued species when management for single game species itself creates the conditions of predators to flourish and then impact on other non-game species by spill-over predation. It’s called symbiosis. Reduce the game species (grouse and pheasant) to more natural levels and the predation pressure will reduce with it thereby relieving the pressure on other ground-nesting birds. You can still have shooting, just as walked up – surely a more challenging and wild prospect? I keep asking people in the industry why they won’t acknowledge this logic. Money. Jobs. Economy. Community. Culture. Only Liam Stokes has answered me in a sensible fashion wherein he pretty much agreed with my reading of the situation though we disagree on the detail (everything is always more complex than it first seems in ecology) and on the whole ethic of field sports of course. We just need to get the PES (payment for ecosystem services) formula right and apply it appropriately which could, I would hope, re-balance the dependency of remote rural communities game, forestry and marginal grazing systems towards wildlife/landscape management, woodland and sustainable farming systems. Look to the future, not the past for answers to maintaining healthy rural communities. or may be I’m just too optimistic… with my green-tinted visions?

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