A NEW counting methodology for mountain hares has been agreed to help defuse the simmering row about the species' numbers in Scotland – and its proper management.

The new approach has been rolled out following the 2018 publication of a three-year research project that compared different methods of counting hares on the hill.

Commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage in the wake of an outcry by animal rights campaigners over the culling of mountain hares, the project was undertaken by the James Hutton Institute and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and settled on two methods that provide reliable information – night-time surveys, using either lamps or thermal imaging equipment, and assessment of the animals' dung accumulation.

Of those two, night-time surveys using lamps emerged as the most simple and cost-effective method, and were thus the key recommendation of the research, which dismissed daylight survey techniques as unlikely to provide a reliable or repeatable population index.

The lamping approach requires a walk and count along 2km transects using a hand-held spotlight. Mountain hares are usually most active just after sunset, and surveys typically start just after this. Current guidelines recommend that night surveys are best conducted in the early winter, from October to December, ideally in clear, dry weather avoiding windy conditions, rain, snow and fog. Surveys undertaken at this time provide an index of post-breeding abundance.

Nearly 70 gamekeepers and land managers across 47 estates have now attended formal training workshops led by GWCT, covering the importance of counting for management planning and conservation, lamp methodology practice, equipment, use of count cards and selection of survey sites.

Over 60 sites and 240 transects have already been mapped for repeat surveys. Due to continuing demand, the programme of training workshops will run again in 2019 and be extended to nature reserves and other types of landholding in order to establish a fuller picture of populations on the ground.

Night-time lamping surveys carried out using the new methodology in late 2018 are revealing further insights into the species' abundance, and apparently supporting the gamekeepers' case that the numbers are healthy enough to warrant control. In one reported case, 102 mountain hares were counted on a single walked transect in the central highlands, whilst another study site, with four walked transects, yielded a count of over 200.

GWCT said that these results came from 'much the same areas' as daylight counts on behalf of the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology and RSPB had suggested significant declines in hare numbers.

GWCT head of policy, Ross Macleod, said: "In providing count guidance training to land managers and gamekeepers across the different Regional Moorland Groups in Scotland, we have been struck by the professionalism all have shown in getting to grips with the new methodology as a key tool in the conservation of mountain hares. We look forward to continuing the process in 2019."