Manchester University and the Mountain Hare Madness
Mountain hares are delightful animals. They are our only native Lagomorph. The others, brown hares and rabbits are both introduced species. The brown hare arrived in pre-Roman times courtesy of the Celtic Tribes, and the rabbit was brought over by the Normans. Both are that dreaded thing, non-native invasive species (NNIS).
Indeed it seems likely that the brown hare had an effect on mountain hares not dissimilar to the impact of grey squirrels on reds, out competing them everywhere that the brown hares could thrive and eventually leaving them only the cold and unthrifty mountain tops.
As NNIS you would expect the conservation mafia to be keen on their removal but you would be wrong. The rabbit is promoted as a environmental engineer, a mini terrestrial beaver, keeping the sward short for the benefit of many interesting species and providing a ready food source for the beloved predators in general and the sacred raptors in particular. Brown hares, (or the idea of brown hares, as most people only see them on TV) are so loved by the general public that they are treated as honorary natives.
Until relatively recently mainstream conservationists showed little interest in mountain hares. The Scottish population, tellingly, did better on grouse moors than on nature reserves or abandoned moorland, what is now called 'wildland' and no one wanted to draw attention to that awkward fact.
Although rarely publicised, the relic English population in the Peak District not only did better on grouse moors but had actually been reintroduced by the moor owners some 150 years ago.
All this changed with a campaign in Scotland based on a claim that mountain hares had declined by 99% because they were being mass culled by evil grouse shooters. The people accused of this lagomorphicide were not just shocked, they were dumbfounded.
You only had to walk on a grouse moor to see that this was utter nonsense. You only had to read the research to see that there were far more hares on a well managed moor than on an unmanaged one, up to 30 times more. You only had to think for a moment, and ask yourself, is it likely that there will be less hares where the habitat is managed in a way that suits them and the things that eat them are controlled, and more where the habitat is allowed to become unsuitable and there are loads of common predators eating them and their babies?
Unfortunately, the RSPB and its more aggressive allies, were right to assume that many politicians don't look, read or think. The mountain hare was protected before anyone had a chance to insist that the counting technique developed by the government's own agency could be applied across the board, to see who was telling the truth.
Bizarrely many of the maligned shooting estates are now happily using the counting technique, which involves walking quietly along transects of suitable habitat at night with a powerful torch counting the hares you see. We don't know if the nature reserves are using it, but if they are they appear strangely quiet about any results.
This has caused a change in the attitude of the conservation industry to the Peak District mountain hares. In the face of logic, reason and observed reality, they claimed that grouse moor managers, that's the people whose predecessors re-introduced mountain hares and whose efforts have kept them in existence, are exterminating them. This is sort of crazy, but in conservation crazy works far too often. Obviously, not in the boring business of conserving species, but in far more important areas of fundraising and political lobbying, crazy is often a route to success.
As a result the gamekeepers - that's the people who put out wildfires, find lost dogs, pick up litter, pull off-roaders out of bogs where they have no right to be, redirect the lost, report egg collectors and fly-tippers to the police, and still find time for essential habitat management and legal predator control - decided to not get caught twice.
They approached one of the acknowledged experts in the technique of hare counting agreed for use in Scotland (because it gives the most reliable results) and asked if they could be trained to undertake the counts on the land they manage, under the experts supervision. Having been trained, they carried out a series of transect counts and had the resulting data assessed by the scientist. What this showed is that the moors they are responsible for have good, to very good, populations of mountain hares. No reasonable or informed person would find this surprising. It is what you would expect, based on experience, much of the published research and simple common sense. To help the wider public understand what they had done and found, they even made an interesting short film about their work.
What needs to happen next is both simple and obvious. The keepers and their scientific helpers, are quite clear that this is a snapshot of only part of the range available to mountain hares in the Peak District. They will now continue to monitor on the same transects every year to identify changes and trends in population but they can only do the land they manage.
The right to roam on the moors is limited and does not allow you to conduct scientific research on such land without the permission of the landowner. Consequently they would need permission from organisations such as the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and the Peak District National Park Authority to extend, their important study, as it should be extended, into the wider landscape, beyond their boundaries.
The obvious solution is that all these bodies should come together with the estates, around the agreed methodology and all carry out annual transect counts. This would provide an agreed basis for assessing population and, over time, population trends, and allow the comparison of changes in habitat and management with changes in hare population. All that would be a sensible basis for the conservation of mountain hares in the Peak District. It is very unlikely to happen.
Whilst the counting was being organised it became apparent that someone else was counting them. A chap from Manchester University was counting hares for his doctorate, funded by organisations from the conservation industry. What could be more sensible than making contact and comparing notes? After all, isn't everyone after the same thing? A better understanding of what we need to do to keep the mountain hares of the Peak District safe.
In the event, having consulted some of his funders, he refused point blank to even meet a gamekeeper. The reasons he gave were that, if he did, those funding his research might be disgruntled, and he felt it was necessary to remain objective, not taking sides with any stakeholder.
Leaving aside the obvious point, that to refuse to speak to one stakeholder, apparently because you are being paid by some of the others, is hardly evidence of objectivity, indeed quite the reverse, where does this leave the likelihood of the conservation industry working co-operatively with the private moor owners, shooting tenants and gamekeepers, for the greater good of the mountain hare? Well, in view of their predicted disgruntlement, at the prospect of the researcher they have hired, even speaking to a gamekeeper, in the same bracket as a snowball in hell.
Does this matter? You bet it does. It is another nail in the coffin of the ecology of the Peak District moors. First, we have stop heather burning, when the locals predict wildfires as a result, they are ignored. The wildfires come. The locals are blamed. Next, the locals say there are more raptors, and that ground nesting birds are doing better on grouse moors, the Breeding Bird Survey confirms that the locals are right, the Breeding Bird Survey disappears. Now the locals say that mountain hares are doing well on grouse moors. What do you think the chances are that this particular finding will be welcomed by the RSPB, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts or the Peak Park?
Nothing, not even truth, perhaps especially not truth, can allowed to stand in the way of their preordained narrative. They say,“Grouse moors are an ugly, industrial landscapes, biodiversity deserts, devoid of birds in general and raptors in particular, a scorched heather monoculture with no mountain hares” and so it must be. The fact that all of that is demonstrably wrong, only makes them shout louder. What has the world come to when a person funded to do research by conservation organisations, into a mammal population they say is at risk of local extinction, refuses to even meet a gamekeeper because he is frightened of upsetting his sponsors?