Snipe, Sniping and Snippy Tweets

Snipe (adjective) – to criticize a person or persons from a position of security

The Shooting Times published a snippy tweet this morning, taking aim at their favourite (non-feathered) target, Chris Packham.

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This isn’t the first time that shooting waders has led to cross words. Chris Packham has previously criticised UK shooters for continuing to shoot a number of species that are in decline, including snipe and woodcock. He has sometimes got his facts wrong, most famously when he wrongly accused sportsmen of shooting lapwings and had to issue an apology. Lapwings happily enjoy full legal protection, but amber-listed snipe and red-listed woodcock do not and continue to be shot legally, in season, despite the fact that both species have suffered significant declines in recent years.

Snipe breed in wet moorland and damp pasture. They have declined most severely in lowland areas (declining 61% in just 20 years between 1982 and 2002), principally as a consequence of the intensifying management of grasslands where damp, tussocky meadows have been cut, rolled and drained to improve grazing for livestock. They have fared better in the uplands but may also be declining here, most especially where similar intensification of moorland management has seen peatlands dried out and degraded by repeated burning.

The UK’s resident woodcock prefers damp woods, but they are doing just as badly with a survey in 2013 revealing a severe decline in occupied sites of 51% in southern Scotland and overall just one in three woods yielding encounters with these charismatic little birds.

Snipe and woodcock nests probably suffer from occasional predation by corvids, mustelids, sheep, deer, pet dogs and even hedgehogs. Of course, some nest predation is natural, but when the system strays too far from its original balance and where the quality and extent of an animal’s habitat is declining, negatively impacting on recruitment can be the final nail for a struggling population.

But it is the loss of adults that is always more challenging than the loss of young. If each animal only replaces itself once in its life then a population can remain stable. But shooting adult birds chips away at the breeding population, targeting a demographic that is far more critical to the overall survival of the species than the loss of chicks predated in nests.

However, The Shooting Times were unrepentant today, shooting back at their critics on Twitter, claiming that those who shoot snipe “often lead the way in protecting their habitat.” And then they went further, claiming that “the small number that gets shot has not been shown to impact on the population over the long term” and that shooting Snipe thus followed a “responsible use model”.

Similar claims are sometimes heard by those defending the shooting of woodcock, with the added complication that the UK’s declining resident woodcock are swelled in number by hundreds of thousands of European and Siberian birds whose population is considered to be stable. “What’s the problem with shooting these birds?” say the gunmen.

Now I am not exactly a fan of all things labelled “responsible use”, but I am a defender of the principle. I can see the expedience in trophy hunting for example. In Africa far more habitat is protected in hunting concessions than in national parks used solely by photographic tourists. Ban trophy hunting, as so many seem keen to do, and you risk losing all that habitat to people and cows. It’s already happening and its why scientists and conservationists are urging politicians to refrain from well meaning but ultimately ill-informed populist calls for a ban. Never mind that many might question what business any of us have telling people in Southern Africa how to manage their wildlife. There are those in Africa who view it as a form of neo-colonialism.

But the case of woodcock and snipe in the UK is not exactly analogous to the case of shooting lions in Africa. Lions are actually increasing in many areas where hunting them is permitted, while they are declining in Kenya where hunting them was banned more than 40 years ago. In other words, a ‘harvest’ of a few lions from healthy and even increasing populations may be distasteful, but it is in my view defensible as an example of genuinely sustainable use.

This is simply not the case with either woodcock or snipe. Both these birds are suffering active declines and although DEFRA have stated that “It is unlikely that hunting has had a significant impact on recent population trends for woodcock, snipe and golden plover; trends are likely to be influenced more by the quality and extent of habitat,” we might reasonably wonder whether shooting might be adding to the problem. DEFRA hardly have an untarnished reputation amongst conservationists these days, having issued all sorts of nonsensical statements in recent years, and even this one is couched in caveats. Who says it is unlikely? Where is the science? And what is a “significant impact” in this context? Meanwhile the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust state:

“We do not believe that a ban on woodcock shooting would help recover our resident woodcock, in the long term, for three reasons. First, there is an indication, at a national scale, of a reduction in hunting pressure over the last 20 years, with many people deciding voluntarily that they no longer wish to shoot woodcock. Second, a ban might remove the motivation for many landowners to manage their woods in ways that will maintain suitable habitat for woodcock. Third, parts of western Britain have no history of breeding woodcock, but host large numbers of migrants, so shooting in these areas does not put residents at risk except during cold spells when residents might move south and west.”

These arguments seem rather thin. Firstly, arguing that a ban isn’t needed because people aren’t shooting them so much any more isn’t an argument. So long as some people are shooting them then there is a potential impact. Secondly, it is a sad inditement of landowners if they are purely motivated to look after habitat so that they may have a chance of shooting a few snipe. We are not talking about subsistence farmers needing compensation for the real and opportunity costs of living with elephants and lions! In any case, stewardship schemes already exist for those who need more motivation. Thirdly, it may be true that those woodcock shot in some parts of Western Britain today are mostly non-residents and hence part of the large stable population of migratory woodcock which may indeed be able to sustain a degree of “harvesting”, but the data on this seems patchy and even the GWCT admit that resident birds may move West in cold snaps, increasing the risk that they are accidentally targeted by shooters believing themselves to be safely shooting birds from an unthreatened population.

In short, the precautionary principle should surely be being applied. Rather than crowing that there is no scientific evidence that shooting waders is contributing to their decline, The Shooting Times would do better to argue that in the absence of convincing evidence that the UK’s most embattled birds aren’t negatively impacted by shooting them their readers might be well advised to curb the urge to shoot them. After all, we so often hear about the sportsmen’s fondness for their quarry and many countrymen still work hard to protect black grouse without any opportunity to shoot them. Might we not hope that individuals would continue to care about snipe and woodcock, even when not allowed to shoot them? Indeed, some forward-thinking country sports enthusiasts have already sworn off shooting these birds.

We live in a time of discord. A nation divided, with incivility increasingly normalised. It’s about time everyone stopped sniping at each other and focused on finding common goals before we all charge merrily into the abyss, still calling each other names, united only by our mutual disdain. Not all shooting is bad for the environment, and although some people may object to killing things on principle, I would suggest that they choose their battles carefully. Shooters meanwhile should appreciate that their sport is under scrutiny like never before. If they want to make a convincing case that it has a future then they need to look much harder at what should constitute acceptable practice. Happily, some already are.

Mountain Hare status downgraded to unfavourable in the UK – what does this mean?

On Monday news emerged that the mountain hare’s conservation status in the UK was being downgraded from “favourable” to “unfavourable”. Monitoring threatened habitats (as listed in Annex I of the Habitats Directive) and species of particular interest (as listed in Annexes II, IV and V) is an obligation arising from Article 11 of the Habitats Directive, while Article 17 of the Habitats Directive requires EU member states to report on the status of monitored habitats and species every six years.

As part of this process, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish government’s own natural heritage advisors, have now taken the decision to reclassify the mountain hare’s status. This decision comes in the light of recent evidence revealing catastrophic mountain hare declines, particularly in areas managed for intensive driven grouse shooting activity.

In amongst the long list of references cited in support of this decision were two key papers: Watson & Wilson 2018 and Massimino et al. 2018. I have written about these papers before (here and here), but the key finding from both papers is that mountain hares have suffered significant declines in recent decades. In some cases these declines have been as great as 99% from levels recorded in the 1950s, while mountain hare populations have shown significant and severe decreases of at least 50% across around one third of their range. These same analyses reported no significant increases anywhere.

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Fig. 1 Average abundances and population trends across the UK range of the mountain hare (Lepus timidus) as reported in Massimino et al. 2018 showing severe declines of at least 50% across 34% of their range.

This most recent SNH report notes that the range occupied by mountain hares in Scotland has remained approximately stable during the period 2007-2018, but that the population (estimated at between 93,600 and 709,300) has decreased. A number of threats are identified as having contributed to this decline, including habitat changes, but only two factors are identified as being of “High importance/impact” and these are: “Hunting” and “Management of Fishing Stocks and Game.”

This assessment chimes with the report by the charity OneKind that identified sport hunting and culls (ostensibly for disease control) as the two main reasons that mountain hares are killed.

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Fig. 2 Reasons why mountain hares are killed, based on Kinrade et al. 2008

Mountain hares are already theoretically protected against unsustainable killing by the European Union’s Habitats Directive. However, they are routinely culled on a large scale on many grouse moors, in part because of a belief that doing so protects red grouse against the tick-borne louping ill virus, and despite a lack of any scientific evidence that this approach serves to increase grouse numbers.

Curiously, given that the mountain hare’s reclassification to “unfavourable” status should mean that special conservation action needs to be undertaken to arrest further declines and aid population recovery, the SNH report also appears to note that no conservation measures are needed. That strikes me as odd.

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Fig. 3 Extract from SNH report to EU detailing threats to Mountain Hares and the incongruous claim that no conservation measures are needed.

So, what exactly does this reclassification mean? For assessed species, the four key parameters are: range, population, habitat (extent and condition) and future prospects.  Each of these parameters is separately assessed as being in one of the four following conditions: Favourable, Unfavourable-inadequate, Unfavourable-Bad, or Unknown. ‘Unfavourable-Bad’ signifies that a habitat or species is in serious danger of becoming extinct (at least locally) and ‘Unfavourable-Inadequate’ indicates a change in management or policy is required but that the danger of extinction is not so high – at least for now.

In addition, EU Member States are also required to make an overall assessment of the conservation status of each of the assessed habitats and species, with this overall assessment typically reflecting the least favourable of the individual parameter conclusions. In the case of the mountain hare, its range and habitat were both assessed as ‘Favourable’ in this most recent assessment, but because its population is declining and looks set to continue to decline, the status of its population and future prospects were assessed as ‘Unfavourable-Inadequate’, and thus the mountain hare’s overall status has been downgraded to reflect this.

Notably, the range and population parameters are only measured relative to baselines set in 1994, and the current population of mountain hares is considered “approximately equal” to this “Favourable Reference Population”, but because the population is actively declining from this (arguably false – see Fig. 4) baseline, it has had to be reclassified as ‘Unfavourable-Inadequate’ overall.

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Fig. 4 Decline in relative abundance of mountain hares in Scotland since 1954 as reported in Watson and Wilson (2018). Note the level when the baseline was set in 1994.

All of this might have been expected to unite conservation organisations behind recent calls for a moratorium on current hare culling practices but predictably, given that the report identifies hunting and management for hunting as the key threats to mountain hares, one supposed conservation organisation has been quick to express skepticism about the reclassification. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has again demonstrated its stance as a greenwashing organisation for the shooting community, releasing a muddled press release that appears to be trying to shift the finger of blame, claiming that instead of hunting “Habitat change resulting from loss of moorland to forestry and increasing predation in areas where no control takes place should be the primary concern”.

GWCT further state that “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.”

This is simply untrue, as anyone can read for themselves in the SNH report which explicitly identifies hunting as one of two key threats to mountain hares, with management related to hunting the other. It is also sad to see GWCT falsely representing the RSPB, when in fact it is SNH that have made this assessment. Of course, the SNH report does cite peer-reviewed RSPB research amongst the sources which have informed its assessment, but it is by no means only the RSPB that have highlighted these declines, with the Watson and Wilson paper a joint venture between the RSPB and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the Massimino et al. paper a product of the well-respected British Trust for Ornithology.

The conservation status of threatened species has often been hotly contested, especially when it is linked with hunting (as has happened with the wolf in Sweden). One suspects that the GWCT may be upset not to see their own paper (Hesford et al. 2019) on mountain hares cited amongst the references, but given the inconsistencies and unsupported claims in this paper, perhaps SNH simply considered it to be of minimal use in informing their assessment. Driven grouse shooting apologists will continue to attempt to muddy the water regarding the negative environmental impacts of their sport, but the evidence continues to pile up against them while the pressure on the Scottish Government to rein in this rogue industry grows daily.

 


Hugh Webster is an independent conservationist and author of The Blue Hare, a fable about mountain hares and the restorative power of wilderness.

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Driven Grouse Shooting: to license or to ban?

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Driven grouse shooting has to change. It is a sport underpinned by landscape scale wildlife crime, the systematic removal of raptors across our uplands that has left hen harriers, peregrines, goshawks and golden eagles, to name just a few, either missing entirely or significantly suppressed across huge swathes of our uplands. The science is conclusive, doubted only by those with the most severe cases of wilful blindness, people unwilling or unable to accept that any form of shooting may be associated with criminality or environmental harm.

And raptor persecution is just part of the problem.

Driven grouse shooting also relies on a management regime that involves regular burning of the moors. So-called muirburn is a complex phenomenon; periodic well-controlled burns may be associated with a range of positive effects but the fact is that grouse moors burn the ground too often. Wet peat bogs are of little use in rearing red grouse and so gamekeepers promote their transition to drier heather heath by repeated burning. Indeed, inappropriate burning is cited as one of the main reasons contributing to the ‘unfavourable’ condition of 87% of upland bog features in Scotland (Scottish Natural Heritage 2010). Despite the Muirburn Code advising against burning on deep peat, Douglas et al. (2015) found that 28% of all 1km squares subjected to burning in Scotland were located over deep peat, while the annual number of burns increased by 11% per annum between 2001-2011 as grouse moor management has intensified.

Peat bogs typically preserve organic material for thousands of years, turning up amazingly preserved animals and plants from time to time, but repeated burning dries out deep peat, allowing oxygen in as the water level drops, restarting aerobic respiration and kickstarting decomposition. As the microorganisms driving decomposition are sparked into activity by this injection of oxygen they respire aerobically for the first time in millennia, releasing large amounts of locked up carbon into our atmosphere and transforming peat bogs from carbon sinks into carbon emitters. Deep peat in its natural wet state should be the UK’s greatest asset for sequestering carbon, but in their damaged state, dried out by excessive burning, they are in fact contributing to climate change rather than combating it.

This burning regime also excludes trees from our moors and prevents the development of or any sort of vegetational diversity. Heterogeneity is astonishingly limited, restricted to the different ages and heights of heather maintained in this highly managed landscape. As a consequence, when it rains the water flashes off our denuded uplands, scouring out gullies in the already damaged peat and flooding local communities with a pulse of water that sees villages and farms inundated downstream. This water is additionally loaded with organic material and nutrients, all washed out of the decomposing peat, that silts up reservoirs and pollutes water supplies.

And of course, driven grouse shooting depends on a remarkable campaign of legalised predator control that removes countless mammalian predators from our national parks, alongside illegally persecuted pine martens, wildcats, badgers and a grisly by-catch of hedgehogs, ring ouzels and other threatened species caught in the ubiquitous and largely unselective network of traps and snares that cover our uplands.

And so, we come to the vexed question of how best to address these multiple harms. Many people, heartily sick of this damaging and unrepentant industry, are now calling for a ban, with the campaign for a ban led by Dr Mark Avery, Dr Ruth Tingay and Chris Packham. Others, such as the RSPB, are hoping that licensing may provide a way to retain some of the environmental and social benefits of driven grouse shooting, while mitigating the harmful practices the sport has come to rely on.

And there are undoubtedly some benefits associated with the sort of management practiced on driven grouse moors. While grouse moors do not promote biodiversity in any meaningful ecological sense, they do sustain a particular community of organisms, including some for whom the moors may represent a last refuge. Curlews, lapwings, golden plover and mountain hares are all often more abundant on driven grouse moors than elsewhere. Critics of a ban say that if driven grouse shooting were to be banned then landowners would be forced to find other ways to earn revenue from their land. Should the moors become covered in forestry, as has already happened across large amounts of Dumfries and Galloway, then these species would suffer.

I am not sure how valid these claims are. More enlightened estates have already abandoned driven grouse shooting and have successfully diversified their income streams to incorporate a mixture of walked-up grouse shooting, deer stalking and ecotourism. There is an argument that the high densities of red grouse and mountain hares found on driven grouse moors are unnatural and a more natural balance might see a decline in their numbers alongside a diversification of the floral and faunal community.

But we cannot necessarily expect every estate to pursue such an enlightened approach in the wake of a ban. Bans foster resentment and some estate owners may be motivated to adopt the worst environmental alternatives, simply out of spite. Additionally, a ban may be no more effective in ending raptor persecution than the laws we have now. After all, killing birds of prey is already banned, but the problem remains that these crimes are incredibly difficult to detect and prosecute. Ending driven grouse shooting may remove one motive for persecution – the need to produce large numbers of red grouse ready to be shot – only to replace it with another. In Scandinavia and Spain, wolves are sometimes persecuted simply as an act of protest against laws imposed by a liberal urban elite. Raptors could well become similar victims of this embittered debate. Freed from any need to limit persecution, having already lost the sport they loved, one can imagine certain elements in the shooting community relishing an open season on raptors, hanging eagles from road signs in the same way decapitated wolves are displayed in Spain.

And so, for me, the major appeal of licensing is that it offers a way to shape how our uplands are managed, retaining the carrot of grouse shooting to recruit estate owners and their employees to the cause of restoring damaged peatlands, managing watersheds to mitigate downstream flooding and diversifying landscapes with a prescribed mix of woodland planting and moorland management. Unlike raptor persecution, muirburn and moorland drainage are easily monitored and regulated. The threat of losing one’s license, even for a year, might also act as a greater disincentive to raptor persecution than existing laws, where only the guilty gamekeeper suffers on the rare occasion that they are caught red-handed. License conditions will be key to making such a scheme a success, but the idea has enough potential to deserve a try.

Critics of licensing say that driven grouse shooting is dependent on raptor persecution. Fundamentally, driven grouse shooting may not be economically viable without removing the eagles and hen harriers that otherwise prey on the “shootable surplus” key to sustaining a moor’s shooting. Mark Avery has spent years seeking compromise but has reached the conclusion, after endless rounds of discussion and attempted partnerships, that a ban is the only way to end driven grouse shooting’s harmful impacts on our uplands. The onus now is on the industry itself to show that it can switch to a more sustainable form. If it can’t, then a ban may well be the only legitimate solution.


 

Hugh Webster is an independent conservationist and author of The Blue Hare, a fable about mountain hares and the restorative power of wilderness.

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The dubious ethics of giving hunted animals a ‘sporting chance’

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I was idly flicking through the channels on TV last night, a rarely rewarding experience these days, but one show caught my interest. “Wild Alaska” was following a camouflage-clad husband and wife on a black bear hunt in the Alaskan mountains and at the moment I joined the programme they were lying on a rocky outcrop scoping a bear 300m away. I began to worry as the woman expressed concern at the range, admitting that she’d never shot over more than about 100m before, but her husband expressed encouragement and she decided to take the shot on. She missed.

The bear didn’t flinch, suggesting to me that she had missed by a wide margin. She fired again. She missed again. The bear raised its head, apparently alerted now that something was up. She fired a third time and seemed to miss again, but the bear was agitated now and span round. Her husband began firing and the bear was now provoked into movement, galloping towards the firing hunters (I had lost track of how many shots had been fired by now) before disappearing into a ravine.

The hunting couple looked at each other, looking a little bit guilty and a little bit worried.

Perhaps conscious of the rolling cameras, they decided to go and look for a blood trail. The husband claimed he couldn’t sleep if he thought there was an injured bear out there. I wondered how that sentiment sat against his willingness to injure the bear in the first place and was further disgusted by the desultory effort invested in this search. A cursory look around in the thick scrub ensued after which the husband declared himself mystified as to the bear’s fate. It occurred to me that a dog would have helped but the sheepish couple were heading home because “it’s vital to be safe and get off the mountain before it gets dark.” Right. Safety first.

I was shocked and probably you are too, even if you are a hunter; perhaps especially if you are a hunter. The people I know in the UK and Africa who like to shoot take great pride in the ethics of their sport, and would undoubtedly condemn such cavalier hunting in strong terms. This couple should never have taken on this shot given their evident lack of competence. They couldn’t even hit the bear when it was stationary, let alone ensure a clean kill. Having unloaded countless shots at the running bear they were left uncertain whether they had finally hit and injured the animal, while their attempt to then ascertain whether this was the case was pathetic.

But are UK hunters really so much better?

It is a curious fact that the British shooting establishment are perfectly happy to be critical of shooting cultures elsewhere – tut-tutting the songbird hunters of the Mediterranean and the American deer hunters happy to shoot deer with buckshot, or perhaps worse, pose with bloody dildos next to their dead trophies – but they are obstinately unwilling to be critical of any form of hunting still practiced within the UK, exercising impressive mental gymnastics in their desire to defend their sport from criticism and exhibiting a depressing inertia in their failure to set their own house in order or embrace change.

This blindspot for what takes place on their own doorstep serves an obvious purpose. The widely held view amongst the shooting community is that for a minority such as themselves, solidarity is the best way to ensure survival. But this approach has had the undesirable effect (for shooters at least) of uniting those who do not oppose all forms of shooting (like the RSPB) with those who believe all bloodsports should be banned (like the League Against Cruel Sports), and it seems to me that this has ultimately widened the increasingly pernicious divide amongst those with an interest in British wildlife, putting at risk many historically productive collaborations to the detriment of our shared natural heritage.

I have sometimes been accused by shooting apologists of being anti-shooting. I am not, although in recent years the ignorance, aggression and criminality exhibited by some members of the shooting community has made me more sceptical about the sport. But to be fair, ignorance, aggression and criminality are not the sole preserve of the men with guns. And to be clear, I still believe that shooting can serve conservation.

Conservation after all is different to animal rights. But an ethical approach to hunting demands consideration of animal welfare as well as conservation outcomes, and this is an area where both the shooting community and occasionally conservation organisations have come unstuck.

Consider driven bird shooting. There are many environmental concerns linked to the practice of driven grouse shooting in particular, while the ecological effect of releasing tens of millions of alien pheasants into the countryside every year is understudied. At the very least they have likely contributed to increased populations of carrion crows and other scavengers which in turn are thought to be pushing birds like curlews closer to extinction in the UK. But for now, let’s just consider the sporting ethics of shooting a bird on the wing that has been driven towards you by a beater.

Curiously, most UK hunters would frown on anyone willing to take a shot at a running deer due the risk of merely injuring the animal, but without any sense of contradiction, those same individuals would frown on anyone shooting a standing bird on a driven shoot.

Deer must not be shot on the move, but pheasants and red grouse must be shot on the wing, despite the real risk that birds may not be killed cleanly. It would be considered ‘unsporting’ to shoot them while they simply stood still. Why the difference? 

Admittedly, the spread of a shotgun’s pellets make shooting a flying bird a more viable proposition, but birds are still injured. Why is it acceptable to risk ‘winging’ a bird, but not a deer (or a bear)? And this is not a small risk. Although the proportion will vary, significant numbers of birds are injured on every driven shoot. Some are picked up quite quickly and dispatched, but even this shortening of their agony would hardly be acceptable in any other form of animal slaughtering for food. It seems the fun of shooting a flying target trumps any concern for the animal’s welfare.

I have no issue with someone going out and shooting a deer or a rabbit with a rifle, if they are sufficiently skilful to ensure a clean kill, eat what they shoot and keep a careful eye on the local population’s capacity to absorb that animal’s loss without detriment to the wider ecology. Indeed, deer stalkers often benefit UK ecosystems nibbled to the bone by these numerous ungulates. But I find it harder to be so sanguine about driven bird shooting in particular and any form of shooting that risks injury to quarry species so recklessly. It may be sporting, whatever that means, but it isn’t humane, and for me that makes it indefensible.

 

 

Splitting Hares – Part 2

Last year, a paper was published by the highly respected Scottish ecologist Dr Adam Watson – celebrated as the most widely published ecologist in Europe before he sadly passed away – and Professor Jeremy Wilson, head of the RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science in Scotland. This paper, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology and titled “Seven decades of mountain hare counts show severe declines where high‐yield recreational game bird hunting is practised, was a mini bombshell, documenting headline-grabbing declines in mountain hares by as much as 99% since the 1950s.

But perhaps what was most controversial was where those declines were reported to have taken place, as Watson and Wilson reported that moorland managed for grouse shooting (sites with more burning) had become associated with the highest rate of decline since 1999. They further suggested that the most likely explanation for the recent precipitous declines was the deliberate targeting of mountain hares by gamekeepers following intensive culls.

Mountain hares are culled on grouse moors because of the suspicion that they may act as reservoirs for the tick-borne louping ill virus (LIV) which, as the theory goes, may impact on grouse chick survival and hence profits. But even this tenuous justification is suspect, as there has never been any empirical link made between hare culls and improved grouse densities.

At a time of increasing public awareness regarding the management of our uplands for driven grouse shooting, the Scottish government has been subject to growing pressure on the specific issue of hare culls, with 36 Parliamentary Questions on mountain hares being asked in the Scottish Parliament between May 2005 and September 2017, and recently a broad coalition of organisations, including RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Scottish Raptor Study Group, Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, Cairngorms Campaign, National Trust for Scotland, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Mammal Society, John Muir Trust and Mountaineering Scotland have joined OneKind in calling for a moratorium on the hare culls. In response, and following publication of Watson and Wilson’s explosive paper, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has promised that her government will “be exploring all available options to prevent the mass culling of mountain hares.”

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Fig. 1 Declines in mountain hare abundance on moorland sites managed for driven grouse shooting since 1954. Note zero abundance does not equate to extirpation as the surveys did not set out to count all hares, merely to get a measure of relative density (Watson and Wilson 2018).

But voices from within the shooting community immediately expressed skepticism about Watson and Wilson’s findings, with the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Organisation stating that the reported declines did not tarry with what their members were observing on the ground and Tim Baynes, director of the Scottish Moorland Group, saying there was no evidence “to substantiate claims that periodic culls are endangering mountain hare populations”. At the same time the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust pointed to the fact that that their own records, in the form of the National Gamebag Census (NGC), did not show any significant decline in hare numbers.

Admittedly, the survey sites monitored by Watson and Wilson and the NGC were not the same, so one explanation for the disagreement is that there has been genuine variation in the rate of decline across these different sites, but another explanation is that the per capita death rate has been increasing – that a greater proportion of the hare population is being killed each year. This explanation for the discrepancy between the two datasets was one I proposed at the time – noting that because the NGC only records dead animals, not living ones, it was quite possible for increasing hunting effort to generate apparently stable numbers of dead animals even while the population itself was declining. Indeed this scenario gains credibility when you consider that grouse moor management has been intensifying in recent years, as illustrated by the increasing use of muirburn in the hills (the number of burns in Scotland increased by 11% per annum between 2001-2011).

Now however, a new paper has been published, authored by a collection of scientists from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, that apparently directly contradicts last year’s paper from Watson and Wilson. In this paper Dr Hesford and his colleagues state that rather than exhibiting declines, mountain hare abundance indices “were higher and relatively stable on moors where driven grouse shooting was practised relative to lower indices and declines on moors where grouse were either walked-up or not shot.”

And they went further, stating that “Watson and Wilson (2018) used a method for counting mountain hares that was not consistent, employindogs at some study sites but relying on visual observations only at others” before citing a recent study that  “suggested that diurnal transects without a trained dog would be unlikely to producreliable indices of mountain hare abundance”. They concluded that “the estimated population trends presented in Watson and Wilson (2018) should be treated with considerable caution.” In scientific circles this is about as disparaging as it gets. 

So what’s going on? In this Trumpian era, where we are all encouraged to select from a menu of “alternative facts”, we now have the regrettable situation where those who wish to believe that driven grouse shooting is causing declines in mountain hares can point to one peer-reviewed scientific paper, while those who wish to defend shooting can point to another. Both sides want their viewpoint to be supported by the ultimate arbiter – science – but they can’t both be right. Are mountain hares really more abundant on grouse moors than other habitats in the UK? Are they in decline? And are culls driving that decline? In my view, the answer to all these questions is probably yes.

Let’s consider the abundance question first. Hesford et al. report that mountain hare numbers are higher on driven grouse moors (where grouse arflushed by beaters toward a stationary line of hunters) than on moors where grouse shooting was walked up (where hunters walk in a line, using dogs to flush grouse ahead of them), while hare numbers under both these management regimes were higher than on moorland  where there was no shooting at all.

For anyone familiar with Scottish moorland, this is not really that surprising and Watson and Wilson never made any claims to the contrary. Although mountain hares are not the intended beneficiaries of grouse moor management, mountain hares thrive in the same conditions that allow red grouse to reach such extremely high densities. Regular burns maintain the carefully cultivated patchwork of tender young heather plants mixed with sheltering stands of older heather, all in the absence of almost any mammalian or avian predators – the former being controlled by mostly legal means, while the latter remain suspiciously suppressed due to a suspected culture of illegal persecution.

Hesford et al. do not compare the number of hares on driven grouse moors to the number of hares that can occur in woodland – the hares’ natural habitat across most of their near-circumpolar range – and the possibility exists that hares may reach even higher densities in certain woodland types. We know that hares thrive in young plantations where they enjoy nibbling on the vulnerable saplings, but they do significantly less well in mature plantations of the sort that now cover much of our uplands, and prior to 1999 this was where Watson and Wilson documented their greatest declines.

Indeed, Hesford et al. recorded hare numbers on driven grouse moors in their Highland survey blocks that were 35 times higher than on moors where there was no shooting, whilst even on walked-up moors they were 15 times higher. On the other hand, there was no significant effect of management intensity on hare numbers at all in Tayside.

But, what about the second question. Are these grouse moor hare populations “relatively stable”, as Hesford et al. claim, or in decline as Watson and Wilson suggest?

The first thing to ask is what does relatively stable mean? Hesford et al. state that hare numbers “fluctuated over time in quasi-cyclical manner, fluctuations being more pronounced where hares were more abundant, i.e. on driven grouse moors.” In other words, hare numbers went up and down on all the moors they surveyed, but both those increases and decreases were more dramatic on driven grouse moors. 

Hesford et al. speculate that this yo-yoing is likely due to “density dependent factors” including resource competition and parasitism, whereby as the hares become more abundant they may suffer more intense competition with each other for food and increased exposure to parasites, until a tipping point is reached and their numbers begin to drop, relieving the competition and decreasing their parasite load until their numbers are able to recover. Such dramatic cycling is relatively rare in nature, and Hesford et al. admit that “a lack of cyclicity in hare abundance indices away from driven grouse moors may result from predators suppressing hare numbers.

Thus, in effect, predators dampen these oscillations by limiting the extremes of population growth and subsequent collapse. But where predators have been removed on driven grouse moors it is left to disease and sometimes starvation to curb booming populations. And severe fluctuations are unlikely to be good for the hares in the long term; a wildly fluctuating population runs a greater risk of bottoming out, of suffering a period of decline that is too prolonged or too steep, so that it ultimately results in local extinction.

But what about Watson and Wilson’s claims that hares have declined so much, and that recently these declines have occurred most rapidly on grouse moors? Watson and Wilson’s data derive from seven decades of spring counts, but Hesford et al. were critical of their methodology, stating that Watson and Wilson “used a method for counting mountain hares that was not consistent.”

In fact Watson and Wilson both acknowledge and explain this inconsistency in their paper, stating that “at some sites, hares were counted with the aid of one or more setter dogs, but at others, especially at alpine sites where vegetation was prostrate and too short to provide any concealment, dogs were not used.”

Furthermore, the survey method they used on any one site was applied consistently, while all the moorland sites – where grouse shooting takes place and where Watson and Wilson documented the greatest declines – were surveyed with dogs, just like Hesford et al., invalidating this criticism. Watson and Wilson also provide much more detail in describing their methodology than Hesford et al. do, including ensuring that surveys were carried out within the same time window, when there was no more than 30% snow cover and when wind speed was below Beaufort force 5.

Hesford et al. collected data over far fewer years than Watson and Wilson, but make the unsupported claim that “the most accurate information we have on long-term trends in mountain hare indices in Scotland have been derived from harvest data collected since 1961 by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trusts (GWCT) National Gamebag Census.” They then go on to claim that these data, “together with sightings from Breeding Bird Surveys collated by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), show no significant change in hare hunting bag records or sightings in recent years (1995-2012).” 

It is not clear what justification Hesford et al. have for their claim that the National Gamebag Census (NGC) represents the most accurate long term population data available, nor is it clear that the BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) records always support the NGC data. For example, BBS data has recently revealed a 60% decline in rabbit numbers, while the National Gamebag Census has recorded no significant change in rabbit numbers.

Worse, the literature Hesford et al. cite to support their claim that there has been no significant change in hare sightings in recent years does no such thing. Separately the BBS data and the NGC data recorded -26% and -36% decreases in mountain hare numbers between 1995 and 2009, and although neither decline was considered significant on its own, a joint model in the report cited by Hesford et al. actually showed this decrease to be significant overall.

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Fig. 2 Joint plot of NGC and BBS data showing the significant decline of -28% in mountain hare numbers between 1995 and 2009 (Noble et al. 2012).

Thus the GWCT’s own data, when combined with the BBS data, appears to corroborate Watson and Wilson’s analysis that, while numbers do fluctuate, mountain hare numbers are in long-term decline.

Furthermore, while Hesford et al. were critical of Watson and Wilson’s methods, their counts of mountain hares were undertaken within sample blocks that were selected by an apparently arbitrary process. In their own words blocks were selected to be representative of the habitat for that moor as well as for their accessibility by four-wheel drive vehicles” but no details are given regarding how this qualitative assessment was achieved, nor do the authors describe any checks to see whether the blocks which were so conveniently sited for vehicular access were truly representative of the wider moor. 

I am no statistician, but I also struggled to marry some of the average annual rates of change reported by Hesford et al. with the accompanying graphical figures. For instance, in the Highland region (see Fig. 3 below), Hesford et al. calculate an annual increase in mountain hare abundance of 4.9% on driven grouse moors (the u-shaped dark grey curve that appears to end at a lower level than it began!), but an annual decrease of -6.6% on walked-up grouse moors (the middle light grey curve) and finally an annual increase of 7.6% on the moorland sites that were not shot (the bottom black line). Look at the graph for yourself and see if you can make sense of those numbers.

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Fig. 3 Average mountain hare density (hares per km²) ± SE. Dark grey line on driven grouse moors, the lighter grey line for walked-up grouse moors and the black line for moors that were not shot over in the Highland region. (Hesford et al. 2019)

What is clear is that mountain hares are capable of exhibiting localised explosions in their population (see Fig. 4 below), and the dramatic increases recorded by Hesford et al. on the three driven grouse moors in the Grampian region that they surveyed between 2010 and 2017 may explain the incredulity of some of those in the shooting community who doubt Watson and Wilson’s claims of a more general longer term decline.

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Fig. 4 Average mountain hare density (hares per km²) ± SE. The dark grey line represents driven grouse moors and the lighter grey line records walked-up grouse moors in the Grampian region. (Hesford et al. 2019)

In fact, Watson and Wilson themselves were careful to emphasise that “the severe recent decline on grouse moors in our study area should not be assumed to be replicated across all grouse moors or other habitats occupied by mountain hares in the UK” even as they identified culling of hares as the most “parsimonious explanation” for the severe declines they have recorded since 1999.

And since Watson and Wilson’s data extends over a much longer time period, it would seem reckless to dismiss such an unparalleled dataset without taking the declines it documents seriously. Indeed, even Hesford et al. acknowledge that their much shorter 16-year study “probably captures only part of longer-term population cycles.”

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that GWCT’s own NGC data revealed evidence of a significant downward trend in mountain hare numbers when it was combined with BTO’s BBS data, while another study published in 2018 by Massimo et al. recorded that “statistically significant declines were evident in 34% of the mountain hare’s range” with “a large area characterised by severe abundance declines, indicating an emerging conservation issue for this species”, all of which supports Watson and Wilson’s contention that mountain hares are in decline. 

Hesford et al. do shed some interesting light on the role of gamekeepers. Perhaps surprisingly, hare numbers were lowest in Tayside where gamekeeper densities tended to be highest, actually adding credibility to Watson and Wilson’s suggestion that culls by gamekeepers might be driving the most severe declines, although Hesford et al. choose to highlight the spread of mature plantations in this region when speculating about the cause of low hare numbers. Elsewhere, gamekeepers may have a more positive influence on hare numbers, and where the intensity and extent of heather burning was greatest – in the Grampians – hares were at their most abundant.

Hesford et al. conclude that on driven grouse moors the “benefits to hares from fewer predatorand better foraging opportunities may outweigh dis-benefits from sporting harvests and tick-related culls. An estimated total of 16,763 km² of Scotland* is managed for grouse shooting (Hudso1992), representing approximately 30% of the total upland area. Thus, it seems likely that driven grouse shooting provides a net conservation benefit to Scotland mountain hare population.”

*Hesford et al. got their numbers wrong here, citing Hudson’s (1992) estimate that “16,763 km² of Scotland” was managed for grouse shooting when in fact this estimate pertained to the whole of the UK. Exactly how much of Scotland is managed for grouse shooting remains subject to debate.

That strikes me as an ambitious claim, and a conclusion that will attract some raised eyebrows, particularly since it is in such stark contrast to the most “parsimonious explanation” identified by Watson and Wilson just a year earlier – that excessively zealous culling was most likely to blame for significant declines, while Hesford et al. completely ignore the other studies that have documented mountain hare declines.

Questions have been asked about the methodologies employed in both studies, but for now, with two contradictory datasets, we can perhaps only be sure of a few things, namely that driven grouse moors drive more extreme cycles in hare populations and hares are culled in large numbers on those moors.

It also seems likely that hares are typically more numerous on driven grouse moors where the environment is managed in a way that suits them so well, but there is no question that the moors are managed for the hares’ benefit. And it also seems likely, on the balance of evidence available, that mountain hares are in a state of long term decline, albeit with that trend complicated by localised exceptions and periodic fluctuations in hare abundance.

After all, hare culls for LIV control are designed to reduce hare densities severely, to less than 5 hares per square kilometre, or 95–97.5% less than the highest recorded densities, while some estates aim to keep hare densities as low as 0.3 hares per square kilometre. Moreover, culls typically take place in late winter and early spring when mountain hare populations have the least opportunity to recover.

In any case, wouldn’t it be better to let a more natural balance re-establish itself? Reducing the frequency and extent of muirburn in our national parks while shifting the emphasis away from predator control and back towards the self-willed primacy of nature might mean fewer hares in some areas, but it would also remove any need for culls. We might also then witness an increase in overall biodiversity, while mountain hares could establish smaller but more stable, sustainable populations, free from culls and less at risk from the disease outbreaks and parasite burdens characteristic of populations on driven grouse moors. Sometimes less is more.


 

Hugh Webster is an independent conservationist and author of The Blue Hare, a fable about mountain hares and the restorative power of wilderness.

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