England's only mountain hare population is thriving, new study shows
A new study carried out by GWCT has shown that, despite previous reports to the contrary, England's only population of mountain hares is thriving.
The mountain hares, which were reintroduced to the Peak District in the 1800s by shooting estates, were counted by gamekeepers across 16 grouse moors estates in the Dark Peak area of the Peak District. They used a new counting methodology developed in Scotland alongside the James Hutton Institute and NatureScot, and counting was undertaken at night using specialised equipment.
A previous report, last year, had suggested that the population of hares could be 'at risk'. However keepers working in the area, who know the moors inside out, were confused by this report, as they saw mountain hares frequently as they went about their work.
The Peak District Moorland Group, National Gamekeepers Organisation (NGO), Moorland Association (MA) and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) believed it was vital to establish the facts by using best practice, and collecting data in the most reliable and scientific way possible. GWCT trained the Peak District gamekeepers in the counting methodology, which is the best practice method of counting mountain hare populations.
The study found that far from being at risk, the number of hares recorded could be equivalent to a population density of around 52-126 mountain hares per km2 – a similar population level to those recorded within the species’ core range in Scotland this year.
And, of course, the reason that mountain hares are thriving in the Peak District is thanks in main to the hard work of upland keepers who carry out moorland management on the moors.
While the high altitude and cold temperature of the Dark Peak lends itself to the species, evidence also suggests that mountain hares respond well to grouse moor management. A GWCT paper studying data up to 2017 looking at hare distribution in Scotland showed that "they are strongly associated with heather moorland, and particularly that managed for red grouse shooting where hare densities can exceed 200 km–2. High hare densities on grouse moors are associated with heather habitat management and predator control carried out by gamekeepers, which is thought to benefit hares."
As leading mountain hare expert Dr Nick Hesford says in this video which was made by the National Gamekeepers' Organisation to accompany the study, "in my opinion, the mountain hare is explicitly linked with grouse moor manangement. If you lose grouse moor manamgenet your predator abundance will increase. You'll lose your habitat management; and these are two principal requirements that the mountain hare requires to survive. So if you lose your grouse moor management, it is likely you will lose your mountain hare."
Richard Bailey of the Peak District Moorland Group, who helped arrange the study, said:
“Mountain hares are predominantly nocturnal animals, so it makes sense that the night time counts are providing more successful and reliable population estimates than day time counts”, explained Richard Bailey of the Peak District Moorland Group coordinator who helped arrange the surveys.
“This population of mountain hares has survived thanks to the habitat management and predator control undertaken by gamekeepers in the Dark Peak area. This research confirms that the hard work is still benefitting the species.”
The results of this study just show how important it is to actually "follow the science" – something the government seems very keen on! – rather than just making knee-jerk decision on the basis of a single report or campaign from people who may not have all of the facts. None of us have all the facts; before this study was carried out, the only measure of the mountain hare population in England was hearsay: one person's view against another's.
Until the study has been carried out for a few more years, we still won't know the true status of this mountain hare population. What we can do is encourage a healthy population of hares, help to create the habitat that they need, and raise awareness of this iconic species and the hard work gamekeepers do to ensure they thrive.