0728 GMT February 25, 2020
The Center for Ecology and Hydrology and the RSPB teamed up to study counts of the animals over several decades on moorland managed for red grouse shooting and nearby mountain land, theguardian.com reported.
From 1954 to 1999, the mountain hare population on moorland sites decreased by almost five percent every year, the study found, saying the long-term decline was likely to be due to land use changes such as the loss of grouse moors to conifer forests.
However, from 1999 to 2017 the scale of the ‘severe’ moorland declines increased to over 30 percent every year, leading to counts last year of less than one percent of original levels in 1954, researchers said.
On higher, alpine sites, numbers of mountain hares fluctuated, but increased overall until 2007, and then declined, although not to the lows seen on the moorland sites, the study noted.
The report stated: “The study found long-term declines in mountain hare densities on moorland, but not alpine, sites in the core area of UK mountain hare distribution in the eastern Highlands of Scotland.
“These moorland declines were faster after 1999 at a time when hare culling by grouse moor managers with the specific aim of tick and LIV [Louping ill virus, which is spread by ticks] control has become more frequent.”
Gamekeepers and estate managers claim culls limit the spread of ticks, protect trees and safeguard fragile environments, and a policy of voluntary restraint is in place. However, campaigners believe the practice is cruel and unnecessary.
The research paper, being published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, stated: “On moorland sites, a long-term decline (4.6 percent per annum) from 1954 to 1999 increased to 30.7 percent per annum from then until 2017, with a density index falling to one percent of initial levels after 2008.
“Before 1999, declines were associated with conifer planting and were least severe where heather burning characteristic of grouse management was present. Grouse moors had the highest rate of decline after 1999.”
Burning the heather removes the old woody plants, and allows young, tasty shoots to grow, providing improved nutrition for the animals.
The findings were revealed after the annual grouse shooting season got under way.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Adam Watson of the Center for Ecology and Hydrology, said: “Having counted mountain hares across the moors and high tops of the eastern Highlands since 1943, I find the decline in numbers of these beautiful animals both compelling and of great concern. I find the decline in numbers of these beautiful animals both compelling and of great concern.