More good news for the Peak District mountain hare

It is often said that he who pays the piper calls the tune and when it became clear that the People's Trust for Endangered Species had financed the Manchester University study into the Peak District's mountain hares, many feared that there would be another stitch up.

In fact this fear has only been partly realised. Such are the rigours of peer review that it is difficult to avoid all factual reality.

What is true is that when the BBC covered the release of the paper, its tone and treatment were typically dire, but that is no more than we have come to expect from an organisation that appears to see only conflict and horror in the countryside. What is also, sadly, not surprising, is that the quotes provided by the lead author and the funders are similarly doom laden.

The lead author, Dr Carlos Bedson, is quoted as saying, “Our findings are deeply concerning. Whilst there are a couple of places where mountain hares are abundant, most of the Peak District Hills have very few hares remaining.” Unsurprisingly PTES was even more stricken and said that, 'both the scientific data and anecdotal evidence showed numbers had been dropping annually'.

[Dr. Carlos Bedson, the lead author of the report © carlosbedson.com]

So far so bad, and it is bad, because having read the report in detail, it is striking how what is written, the actual science, does not support the media quotes from either the lead author or the pressure group who paid for it. What is good, at least from the point of view of the mountain hare population, is that the research shows that they are doing rather well, in places, some might say very well.

Let us not get carried away. Positive though the news is, it is based on a methodology, (daytime counting without pointing dogs), which is widely recognised as inferior to night time transect counting with lamps, but, if anything, the method used will underestimate the number of hares, its failings hardly dilute the good news.

Similarly, do not forget that when the shooting estates offered to help, the author, after speaking to some of his funders, refused to even meet anyone involved in shooting estates. This was on the bizarre basis that, if he spoke to any particular stakeholder, it might induce bias. What the paper now reveals is that, in the event, he spoke to all sorts of stakeholders, and is grateful for their help, and this only compounds the feeling that the fear of even meeting a gamekeeper or asking a few simple questions, came not from a risk of engendering bias, but rather, a concern that it might have compromised his ability to maintain the ones that already existed.

A classic example, is the fact that the paper references the historic culling of mountain hares in Scotland in an attempt to prevent the spread of the disease louping-ill, and says, “we then speculate whether the same has occurred on grouse moors within the Peak District”.

Had he spoken to anyone who is involved in grouse moor management, and asked if such culls had ever taken place in the Peak District, he would have been told that they never have. Nothing like them has ever occurred. By avoiding all contact, he was free to include speculation which is likely to damage the stakeholder group he refused to speak to, or even meet.

To be fair this should obviously have been picked up at peer review. It is disappointing that this clearly pejorative speculation should not have been sorted by the simple expedient of telling him to find out or take it out. But in the end it is his responsibility. Why speculate, when you can just ask?

But all that said, why is it good news? It is excellent news because it shows that according to his estimation, and that is likely to be an underestimation, mountain hare populations are healthy and stable. Yes, I know that is odd, but if you read the paper, the same person that told the BBC that there were very few hares remaining and that he was deeply concerned, actually says in the published paper that the Peak District mountain hare population is stable. That isn't our construction, they are words taken from the paper he wrote.

“Hare populations are characterised by significant yearly fluctuations, those in the study area increasing by 60% between 2017 and 2018 before declining by c15% by 2020 and remaining stable in 2021.

He further states, “The present study estimated 3562 hares suggesting a stable population over the last two decades.” and “Estimates for 2002 compared with 2019 appear similar and suggest a stable population.”

Even better is that he gives us a yardstick by which to judge how our mountain hares are doing. The paper tells us that in its northern European range of the mountain hare population density is 1-6 hares per sq km. This is very helpful. As a lot of estimates look at the population levels of mountain hares on Scottish grouse moors, where population density can be very high at 50-200 hares per sq km. This obviously risks making English populations look small by comparison. Having a European figure is a much fairer yardstick.

So what did he find? He looked at lots of different habitat types and, even using daytime counting (never the best idea for a nocturnal animal) he only found one type of habitat, unmanaged dwarf shrub heath, essentially abandoned grouse moor, where the population was low enough to fall within the northern European norm of 1-6 per sq km.

Even that, at 4.8 hares per sq km, was at the high end. All the others had levels well above European norms. They ranged from 10-32 hares per sq km. None of them up to Scottish grouse moor standards, but way better than typical of northern European populations.

Again, the dubious disconnect between what the report actually says and what was reported by the BBC is apparent when you read what the author says in the paper. “The mountain hare densities we recorded are higher than many comparable populations in Europe”. That's pretty clear. But he then lists the exceptions, where mountain hare populations are better than the Peak District. They are three studies relating to Scottish grouse moors, with densities of 200-280 hares per sq km, and “on predator-free heather dominated islands off mainland Sweden” with a hefty 400 per sq km.

There are some other oddities relating to the subsequent statements to the BBC. The paper says that its estimate of the hare population is 3562 (2291-5624), and compares this to a previous recent estimate of 3361 (2431-4612). On this basis it is understandable that the author says the population is stable. But what we cannot find is anything that supports PETA's claim that 'scientific data' showed that 'numbers had been dropping annually'. It is one thing to pay for a study and, perhaps be disappointed by its positive results, and we can feel their pain, but quite another to simply contradict what the report actually says.

Scientific papers, even if you've paid for them, may not be everyone's easy read. It is therefore not unusual for people to base their comments on little more than a perusal of the abstract, with which every paper starts.

Unfortunately this can hardly justify PTES's deep misunderstanding of a relatively simple concept, explained in very simple language. The words quoted above, are not hidden in the arcane depths of the paper. They start on line 14 of the abstract. The bit that even idiots read. So, which bit of “A stable population over the last two decades”, explains the interpretation that the, “Evidence showed that numbers had been dropping annually”?

The saddest part is the feeling that the researchers refusal to talk to the people he talks about, the people who manage the grouse moors, means that he can't begin to address the most interesting questions that his research throws up. This is why, when it is an established fact that Scotland's driven grouse moors have very large populations of mountain hares, higher than anywhere in Europe other than some odd Swedish islands, did he appear to find that similarly managed ground in the Peak District was not as productive?

Furthermore, why are grouse moor bogs, with the same vegetation as restored bogs apparently blessed with less hares? Apart, that is, from his weird suggestion that estates have been conducting mass culls. The idea that such activity could take place in the Peak District, in the presence of over 13 million visitors, and in a landscape with a greater density of conservation industry employees than almost anywhere on earth, and nobody noticed, is frankly ludicrous. But that seems to be his main attempt at an explanation.

These are important questions, because whilst the conservation industry has had most of the money for repairing bogs, grouse moor managers have been quietly getting on with doing the same thing, often at their own expense. If they are missing some vital ingredient, then we need to know. Sadly the author's refusal to even talk to anyone his funders might disapprove of, means that years of opportunity have been wasted and we are left with no explanation that will stand serious scrutiny.

Nor, does he take the opportunity to examine the effect of two of the most obvious challenges faced by the Peak District's wildlife, wildfire and disturbance. Looking at the areas he studied it is odd that he does not look at the wildfire issue, there are plenty of examples on RSPB and National Trust managed land and there can hardly be no effect, yet the subject is ignored. Even excluding the risk of mortality, there is the question of displacement. Mountain hares can't eat ash. They are presumably displaced to live in denser populations on the bits that escape the fire. Did that happen? Who knows?

Whilst the paper appears to not even consider that disturbance might be an issue, an odd position considering the secretive and nocturnal nature of this species, it does, inadvertently, cast a light on the potential risks that may need to be considered. In walking his daylight transects about 1 in 5 of the hares observed were actually flushed by the observer, this rose in some habitats to 1 in 3. Does that matter? Well, it might. Hares do not conceal themselves because they are lazy, it is an important part of their strategy for staying alive in a hostile environment. When they are tucked up out of sight they are avoiding predators, conserving energy and digesting the poor quality food they live on.

Obviously the periodic arrival of a researcher flushing a third of the local hare population once in while, is neither here nor there. But this is the Peak District, with 13 million visitors, and many are not just walking quietly along like the researcher. They are mountain biking, fell running, mass hiking, illegally off-roading with all sorts of vehicles, and even the walkers are often accompanied by wide roaming dogs. To make matters worse, fell running and mountain biking now take place during the night, when previously the hares had some peace. Not any more. Yet this issue is apparently of less interest than speculating about non-existent mass culls.

So what should happen now? It is, of course, high time that people stopped using mountain hares as pawns in a grubby game of politics, and started to look seriously at what is best for them. If, and it is a big if, they genuinely care about the conservation of the species, enough to talk to the people who own and manage swathes of the creatures habitat, and whom they have made it their life's work to attack, there is a real chance that progress could be made and the status of the mountain hare, as a valued part of the Peak Districts fauna, assured in perpetuity.

What ought to happen, is that Natural England should take a dispassionate look at counting techniques, the best of which is clearly that agreed with the Scottish regulator, night time transect counts, and set up a co-ordinated annual monitoring programme across all suitable areas in the Peak District. This should involve NGO staff and volunteers, estate workers, and scientific experts. This would, over time, not only allow a far better understanding of population trends but also enable the identification of the key determinants of mountain hare success, and advance our ability to conserve this wonderful species.

The two surveys that have happily come to similar conclusions, that the mountain hares of the Peak District are in good heart, must surely be seen as opening a door to greater cooperation in the animals best interests. It will be a test of sincerity.

Will the conservation industry take this opportunity, or will it, as so often before, and as evidenced sadly on this occasion by these linguistic gymnastics, simple plough on with increased confrontation?