How Chris Packham, RSPB and DWT pushed "shameful nonsense" about mountain hares on grouse moors
Updated: Mar 30
Rarely, if ever, has there been has a species been used to perform a confidence trick as profound as the one perpetrated on the back of the poor old Lepidus timidus, the mountain hare.
Put simply, the animal, which thrives better on well managed grouse moors than anywhere else, and in England survives largely because of grouse moor management, is used, with enormous success by campaigners, to belabour grouse shooting as the cause of its imminent extinction.
This is an act of deceit that makes selling an emperor a non-existent suit look like slow business.
This is, in part, because many of the people who discuss grouse moor management are very likely to go to great lengths to avoid going near one, prefering to believe the nonsense talked by some activists purporting to be "conservationist". The vast majority of what has been said about Mountain Hares is just wrong.
First, a research paper promoted by RSPB, which claims that mountain hare numbers have dropped by 99% as a result of mass shooting. Then the RSPB's Vice President, St Christopher of Packham, says that the grouse moors have committed 'genocide', a strong term. Then, finally, none other than Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, a well known purveyor of unalloyed truth, have expanded on the detail of St Christopher's theme, in their homely about the impending extinction of England's last population, of L.timidus, by telling the world that, “Mountain Hare culls have been carried out in an attempt to reduce 'Louping-ill Virus' (LIV), a tick borne disease which causes mortality in red grouse, on grouse moors across the UK”.
Well, that's it then. It must be right. RSPB says 99% decline. St Chris says genocide. DWT says UK wide slaughter. Worse still it is all down to the evil grouse shooting community. Who would argue with that?
Well, we would.
These claims are so spurious that we find it unbelievable that the people who make them don't know that they rubbish.
Let us deal with the 99% decline. That is a lot. To put it in human terms, if we had that sort of population crash there would be around 6,000 people left in Glasgow, 15 left in Ballater and even the mighty London would only have enough people left to half fill Stratford-on-Avon. So you would think you would notice. None of the people we have met who work on the moors believe a word of it, even on the grouse moors where mountain hares are periodically culled you don't see that level of reduction but it must be true because the RSPB says so.
Leaving aside the rather obvious point that you can't mass kill something that isn't there, imagine for a moment what this claim means. It is generally accepted that whilst mammal populations are very hard to estimate because the pesky things are mostly nocturnal and secretive, that the best guess is around 130,000 mountain hares in Scotland.
If RSPB are right and the population has dropped by 99%, the initial population would have been 13,000,000. That would have been roughly three for every man, woman and child in Scotland. Does no one think we might have noticed 15 million white, terrier-sized animals?
Where would they have all found enough to eat or even somewhere to sit?
These claims are utterly ridiculous, but we are prepared to be convinced. Where was this research done? Where are these places? We can't find out. It is not in the paper and no one will say, so we cannot go and check. Could we take you to places where there have been huge reductions, even extinctions of mountain hares? Well, yes, we could. The problem is that they are not grouse moors. They are forests.
If you want to get rid of mountain hares, don't bother shooting them on the open hill, it won't work. Put a fence round a piece of hill, plant trees and kill all the herbivores inside it, all the deer and all the mountain hares. No one will mind. The RSPB and its wilder fellow travellers, and even St Christopher and his friends in the comically mis-named Green Party, will say nothing.
Using trees to exterminate mountain hares has another advantage, even if you miss a few, they can't survive for long. Mountain hares are open landscape animals, and once the forest grows, they will not live there. Added to which the new forest provides a home for predators like foxes and crows who forage out on to what is left of the open hill, killing hares and their leverets, further reducing what is left of the population.
This brings us back to St Christopher. Many of our committed readers will recall his groundbreaking televised discussion with a luminary from the Green Party, in which the favoured alternative use proposed for grouse moors was forestry.
There are times when even we are surprised at the paucity of thought that is applied to these issues by people who set themselves up as experts. We have become used to the big lies, like grouse shooting causes floods, or muirburn causes global warming, but at least St Christopher has never claimed to be an expert in hydraulic engineering or atmospheric chemistry.
He has no such excuse for complaining about a supposed genocide of mountain hares, whilst simultaneously promoting the only absolutely certain way to bring such an event about.
He must surely know this. He is after all the ultimate TV know-it-all. His fans love the way he patronises his co-presenters. His schtick is that he must always knows more than anyone allowed near the set. So he can hardly say that he is unaware that planting trees on grouse moors would ring the mountain hare's death knell. Surely he cannot have been happy to see these wonderful animals disappear, yet that would be the outcome of the plan to change the landscape for ever.
That brings us to the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, a giant in the world of unambiguous truth, and their claim that mountain hares are subject to mass culls, 'on grouse moors across the UK'.
Across the UK is a very simple concept. If we say that children go to school 'across the UK', it means that they go to school in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. When the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust says that mountain hares are culled to help control tick borne disease, 'across the UK', their version of the UK is subtly different. It excludes Northern Ireland, Wales and England, and for good measure the Isle of Man.
It also excludes most of Scotland and even most of Scotland's grouse moors. Their version of 'across the UK', means a 'maybe few little bits of Scotland'.
Why do mountain hares make people twist the truth? Who knows? It may simply be that they hate the rural communities whose lives are bound up in the moorlands so much, that anything goes.
It may be that they actually believe this stuff. It doesn't really matter. What matters is the truth and the truth about mountain hares is available if you care to look for it. There is a fine piece of research carried out by GWCT, that looks in elegant detail at the question of where mountain hares do best.
They looked at series of moors, driven, walked up and abandoned (re-wilded if you prefer) counting the hares every spring, as they did their grouse counts. What they found was clear and statistically robust. Mountain hares did worst on the unmanaged moors and best on the driven moors. Nor was the difference a minor one. One of the driving moors had 35 times more hares than an unmanaged moor.
None of this is a surprise to anyone who can read and think. The literature is full of references to how well mountain hares do on properly managed grouse moors. This is for the simple, and blindingly obvious, reason that they need exactly what grouse need. They want short, young heather to provide nutritious food at the right height, and longer heather for cover, they want freedom from excessive levels of predation by foxes, stoats and corvids and they want peace and quiet. They get all of these things on a driven grouse moor, so why is anyone surprised when that is where they do best.
In case anyone doesn't believe this, here is a quote taken from a publication by the Mammal Society:“Mountain hare numbers have declined locally where favourable habitat such as former grouse moors have been afforested or heather removed by excessive grazing. Young forestry plantations can support high densities of hares which sometimes cause significant damage to trees, but those high densities decline once the forest canopy closes, and the ground vegetation is diminished.”
So, in Scotland the politicians who protected the mountain hare are committed to destroying its habitat, and in England, the people who want it protected are campaigning to stop the heather management and predator control that has enabled it to survive.
Is it any surprise that rural communities have had enough of this shameful nonsense?