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'Grouse moors can save mountain hare' claim gamekeepers

By Tom Ramage

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Scotland’s gamekeepers are calling for surplus mountain hares from grouse moors to be translocated to other parts of the country to reverse the hares’ unfavourable conservation status.

This summer Scottish Parliament voted to fully protect the mountain hare and end all management of the native species, unless under licence from Nature Scot.

The mountain hare (R A Greenwood)
The mountain hare (R A Greenwood)

The vote was in reaction to a lengthy fight by campaigners and environmental groups who sought an end to controversial management culls on grouse moors during the legal open season.

Now gamekeepers have come up with a plan to use grouse moors as ‘donors’ in order to rebuild populations in areas where hares have been lost.

Land use change such as afforestation has shrunk the mountain hare’s Scottish range markedly over the last few decades, by removing the species’ preferred habitat.

But with grouse moors capable of holding up to 35 times more hares than non-managed moors, gamekeepers believes their surplus could be used to improve the hares’ conservation status.

‘Live trapping’ of hares from moors could enable them to be translocated safely to areas which want them - and previously hosted good populations, gamekeepers say.

That type of intervention has been used to relocate beavers from the Tay, where they damage farmland, to places like Exmoor where the first beaver dam in 400 years was filmed last week.

It also reduces the numbers lethally controlled under licence to protect land management activities such as tree planting and woodland regeneration schemes.

“Management of hares on grouse moors is is no longer possible. Whilst we don’t agree that full legal protection is the way to improve hare conservation, we need to move on,” said Alex Hogg, chairman of The Scottish Gamekeepers Association.

“So, instead of leaving hares to build to high number on grouse moors and then crash through the spread of disease caused by over-population, it makes good sense to live trap a portion of them to bolster other areas, and keep a smaller, healthier population on the moors, which are effectively their last remaining core grounds.

“That can expand the hare’s range, away from grouse moors, and make them more resilient. This is something we have communicated to Scottish Government officials and hope to discuss further, as well as with Nature Scot this month.

“Grouse moors will effectively become donor sites from which to expand the mountain hare’s shrunken range. It’s a win which would be very achievable.”

Pine martens, Capercaillie and Sea Eagles have all seen UK populations bolstered at various times through translocation.

Gamekeepers believe that there will be a demand from other areas of Scotland to build hare populations, particularly in the south and west where their habitat has been lost.

“This is a move which all people interested in conservation should roundly support. Parliamentarians, whichever way they voted on protection, should get behind it,” added Mr Hogg, MBE.

“Some of our members have already been informally approached from people wanting to see hares back on their land. Some remember seeing a few in childhood but haven’t seem them for decades. Places like the south and west of Scotland used to have viable hare populations at one time but not any longer beyond very fragmented small pockets.

“This is an opportunity for grouse moors to be positively associated with their improved conservation status, something the Parliament desires.”

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