Splitting hares

Gareth Dockerty

Gareth Dockerty

Gareth is head of uplands at BASC. Having joined the organisation in 2016, Gareth’s role focuses on ensuring decision makers, stakeholders and the public understand the benefits of shooting for upland habitats and rural communities.

Like buses, we have been waiting years for a formal population estimate of the Peak District mountain hare, and then two show up at once. While the findings of the two studies on the surface are contradictory, the hare population has remained stable for past 20 years. There is no reason to change policy, says Gareth Dockerty.

The Peak District Mountain hare population is having a busy 2022. Their ears must be burning as they continue to be counted, data analysed, and unfortunately used as a political tool.

As we discussed in a previous blog, the Peak District Moorland Group and GWCT’s surveying work has led to similar densities of mountain hares being counted in the Peak District as there are found in their core range in Scotland.

Since the preliminary GWCT results were released, we have now seen a second paper on mountain hares published.

The immediate disparity in the findings is that, where the GWCT and gamekeepers found healthy densities on grouse moors, Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) study found relatively low densities compared to so-called ‘restored bogs’.

Something to build on

Despite disparity in the findings of the team from Manchester, it’s important to note that both studies concluded the Peak District population was seen to be in strong health and within the boundaries of previous population estimates. This is good news for the mountain hare and something that both parties will be able to build on.

While there will always be a degree of scientific disagreement surrounding data collection and methodology, BASC, alongside our partner organisations, hold two major concerns with the MMU study that we will be taking up with them.

First is the study’s simplicity in grouping land blocks. There have been decades of work to rewet and restore environmentally damaged peatlands (caused by government agricultural grants and industrial pollution) across the Peak District. This work has taken place both on moors that shoot grouse and those that don’t.

To ignore this fact is to do a disservice to all those individuals and organisations dedicated to returning the Peak District to good health; shooting grouse is not an obstacle peatland restoration, it is often a key driver.  

Involve the shooting community

Our second concern with the study was that BASC contacted the study lead at MMU in March 2021 to see if a meeting with the Peak District Moorland Group and gamekeepers could be arranged, with a view to help support hare counts on grouse moors.

Sadly, this offer was declined by some of the project’s funders. It was felt that meeting gamekeepers could be seen as ‘taking sides and some funders may have felt ‘disgruntled’. Ideally the study would have had more involvement with the shooting community, and we must learn from this on future monitoring.

More in common that we think

Although both studies come up with different conclusions, there are perhaps common takeaways from both. These can be summarised as follows:

  • Neither study provides evidence that the designation of the mountain hare requires change.
  • Sustainable grouse moor management is vital for the survival of the Peak District mountain hare population.
  • Gamekeepers should be involved in monitoring hares.
  • Scientists should work together to build up knowledge of the hare population and there should be an agreed hare monitoring methodology endorsed by Natural England (as there is with NatureScot).
Ultimately, moving the mountain hare safe from its current position as a political battleground should be a common aim for all of us. 

The Future is bright

Away from these issues, and with collaborative working and consistency in counting methods, the future looks bright for England’s only mountain hare population. 

We look forward to building lasting partnerships for the benefit of this iconic species and ensuring they are resilient to predation, traffic accidents, climate change, disease. If common ground is to be sought, it is surely that we all want to see the mountain hare thriving over and above the challenges of an island population.

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