CONFLICTING research into the conservation status of mountain hares has sparked fierce debate on the species' population levels.

On one hand, RSPB Scotland has called for an immediate halt to mountain hare culls on the back of what it described as 'a shocking new report' from the EU.

The conservation charity said that the latest government agency statement on protected species and habitats showed an 'alarming' decline in hare populations. The status of the mountain hare has been downgraded to unfavourable, meaning that special conservation action needs to be undertaken to arrest further declines and aid their recovery. Head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, Duncan Orr-Ewing, said: “We have been extremely concerned about the state of our mountain hare populations for many years.

“In the last 12 months new, robust evidence has shown that populations have declined precipitously, chiefly in areas managed for driven grouse shooting. This reclassification to unfavourable status demands urgent action.

He continued: “The recognition from Scottish Government’s own advisors that the mountain hare population is now unfavourable means that increased protection of this iconic species is needed. Self-regulation and claimed ‘voluntary restraint’ from culling by the industry has been nothing short of a pitiful failure.

“We urge the Scottish Government to take action where the industry has not and to urgently increase the protection of mountain hares in Scotland until their status is secured.”

However, a spokesperson for the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust disputed the RSPB's claims, saying: "It is the natural variability of mountain hare numbers and the absence of a national mountain hare count rather than any clear evidence of major declines resulting from hunting, as suggested inaccurately by the RSPB, that has led to the change of status for mountain hares in the report.

"Data from hunting records across Europe have shown that mountain hare numbers tend to fluctuate in cycles. The characteristics of these cycles vary, but typically the population can fluctuate from below half to almost double the average population size every 4 -15 years. The most recent population estimate in the UK ranges between 81,000 and 526,000 hares."

The GWCT say they have found robust mountain hare numbers using SNH-approved count methods close to sites that the report to which the RSPB refers states as having zero hare abundance, and that their research that was published in 2019 demonstrates that mountain hares are most widespread in north-eastern Scotland on managed grouse moors, where their numbers can be up to 35 times higher than areas where grouse are not shot. Early results from other work conducted by GWCT indicates range contraction in south-west Scotland and on estates with no grouse shooting interest, compared to range increases in north-east Scotland on estates managed for grouse shooting.

The GWCT spokesperson continued: "Habitat change resulting from loss of moorland to forestry and increasing predation in areas where no control takes place should be the primary concern to everyone with an interest in the conservation status of mountain hares."