In response to the Watson and Wilson (2018) paper on mountain hare population trends and their views that hare culls are the predominant reason behind rapid decline on grouse moors, the Countryside Alliance’s Jack Knott has said:
Prioritising publicity over scientific evidence may well ensure the headlines for the day, however, it does not help save a species of conservation concern. This study is being used to appease some of the RSPB’s more extremist critics, and even having generated plenty of press clippings it has completely failed to move the debate forward.
In their robust response the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust have questioned the strong emphasis placed by the authors on hare culls on grouse moors being the reason for the decline, pointing out that their own research has found the opposite findings to this latest paper.
According to the paper the 80% reduction in the mountain hare’s population between 1954 and 1999 was due to a change in upland management from grouse moors to conifer plantations and more intensive agriculture. The predator control and heather burning that are part of moorland management was to the benefit of the mountain hare. If it wasn’t for this management, the species would be in a far more perilous position now. This view is widely agreed on.
However, the authors’ view reverses post-1999 where the cause of the decline suddenly becomes the grouse moor. The reason for this U-turn is apparently because of the hare culls that are undertaken to keep the species in check on grouse moors when their densities become too high and the risk of disease is high. As the GWCT states the authors fail to properly recognise their Game Bag Census work that shows no significant decline or increase in numbers shot during this time period.
The authors have failed to appreciate the range of views and evidence on the topic, the Breeding Bird Survey found a non-significant decline of mountain hares between 1995-2015 (Harris et al. 2017), and the losses that have been recorded have been on the edge of their range (Patton et al. 2010).
The Alliance is disappointed that the authors felt it necessary to discuss the ‘rising public debate’, Parliamentary Questions and political petitions, within a peer-reviewed paper that is ostensibly about counting hares. Science is required to further our understanding of the unknown and should not be stretched to fit a line of argument.
As the study itself states, ‘a study of this kind cannot prove the cause of the recent rapid declines on moorland sites,’ but the RSPB-driven reporting around the study seems to guided by the maxim ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’.
We recognise that there is rising concern of over hare culls, and it is therefore the responsibility of those undertaking them that they do so in practical way that can be shown to have no impact on the species population. At the same time an action plan should be enacted to increase the range of hares across the alpine region and away from their hubs on grouse moors. But this public concern also places a responsibility on everyone undertaking research in this area to do so with the utmost regard for neutrality, and to be careful not to inflame tensions that do not help with the conservation of the mountain hare. Conservation must always take precedence over PR.