Conservation: The Mountain Hare and shooting’s role in its preservation

Mountain Blue Hare Lepus Tedimus Grouse Moors Scottish Highlands Northern Ireland Shooting Management Population Cull Ticks Louping Ill For The Pot | Conservation Wildlife Trusts Organisations Habitats Loss Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Royal Society Protection Of Birds | Fur Feather & Fin Country Sports & Pursuits Lifestyle GiftsThe mountain hare and shooting are synonymous, since the animals live almost exclusively on the grouse moors of Scotland — and it’s thanks to shooting that they thrive there.

More than 350,000 mountain hare, also known as the blue hare and technically as lepus tedimus, inhabit mainland Scotland while around 80,000 can be found in Northern Ireland. A very small number can also be found in Derbyshire’s peak district and Shetland, Hoy, Lewis, Harris, Skye, Raasay, Scalpay, Jura and the Isle of Man.

With this high population concentrated in Scotland, it’s important the numbers of hare are managed and not allowed to grow too high, particularly since ticks they carry spread a viral disease called louping ill which can be fatal to grouse.

The fact large numbers of hare are shot each year has caused some dispute between wildlife organisations and landowners, particularly in the Lammermuir Hills, southeast of Edinburgh, recently. Organisations like The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have been handed information which shows around 1500 of the animals were shot in the area this year, figures which local gamekeepers privately admit are reasonably accurate.

Dispute has centred around the fact the mountain hare is a protected species, although there is no restriction on the number which can be shot by those managing land for game.

The RSPB and other organisations claim the shootings represent a cull rather than management of a population, while landowners and gamekeepers insist their work has been an act of conservation.

What those who are outraged have overlooked, however, is that without the work of the big estates in that area, the hare may not have a habitat to live in.

Both the Countryside Alliance and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) acknowledge the important role of gamekeepers in hare conservation, where the RSPB does not. Both organisations point to research which shows predator control on land managed for game shooting plays a key role in leveret mortality.

Effectively what this research says is that hare have been allowed to thrive because gamekeepers manage the population of their natural predators. With no foxes to hunt hare and their leverets, and indeed grouse, the population of hare has been allowed to grow.

With hares giving birth to as many as four litters a year, with between one and four leverets per litter, it’s clear the population of mountain hare could quickly explode given the chance.

Given how high densities of hare can damage agricultural crops and young forestry, plus the risk of passing disease to the grouse population, it is clear then that gamekeepers would be irresponsible not to control the number of hare by shooting.

Claims gamekeepers shot too many hare in the Lammermuirs have been disputed by the majority of estate managers in the area. A spokeswoman for the Duke of Northumberland admitted there had been a hare shoot at the estate owned by the duke, but said it was routine. “The shoot was carried out to control numbers and maintain balance within the fragile uplands habitat,” she said. “The bag was of an ordinary size and all the game was sold to the local game dealer.”

Given the fact foxes are the main predator for brown hare leverets, and are famed for their ability to eat the entire production of a local hare population in one sitting, it’s hard to argue the number shot, which represents only a small percentage of the 350,000 population, is unreasonable.

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