SCOTLAND'S mountain hares are prospering thanks to one of the best grouse shooting seasons in memory, estate owners and gamekeepers claim.

The population of hares is thought to be around 350,000 but the landowners' organisation Scottish Land & Estates said there had been concern recently that hare numbers might be falling.

Now grouse moors in the Angus Glens, Speyside and Highlands have reported that their numbers have increased along with grouse levels. Heather moorland managed for red grouse is recognised as an extremely good habitat for hares.

But the League against Cruel Sports, which opposes the artificial management of habitats for country sports, said "robust" scientific data was needed to determine the true population as available data continues to show a long-term decline in mountain hares.

The mountain hare is easily distinguished by its white appearance during the winter months and brown during the summer.

It is known that its population fluctuates in seven to 10-year cycles, however managed grouse moors give this iconic Scottish species a sustainable future, SL&E said.

Danny Lawson, head gamekeeper on Glenogil Estate in the Angus Glens, added: "I have seen more mountain hares this year than at any time since I came here.

"Our mountain hare population has been increasing along with grouse over the last three years because our heather management gives them good grazing and because of predator control over the estate and other neighbouring estates.

"Good weather in the breeding season helps mountain hare numbers and the last two seasons, 2013 and 2014, have been very good for both grouse and mountain hares.

"Like grouse, mountain hare populations have to be carefully managed. Culling is legal and is necessary in some circumstances and such management should be done sustainably and be supported by a sound management plan."

Tim Baynes, director of SL&E's Scottish Moorland Group, said gaps in our collective knowledge about the secretive mountain hare could lead to assumptions about population changes which were not correct so his organisation supported research by SNH on counting hares.

"What does seem certain from the long term observations of moorland managers on the ground is that there is a strong link to land use; hare numbers are likely to go down where moorland is unmanaged or afforested but will increase where managed for red grouse," he said.

But the League Against Cruel Sports has long campaigned against habitats "artificially managed" to ensure birds like grouse survive "simply to be shot."

The League's Scottish director Robbie Marsland also challenged SL&E's view on mountain hares.

"Reliable and robust scientific data is needed to confirm the mountain hare population in Scotland," he said. "The only such data available shows mountain hares to be in long term decline. As such, the League continues to oppose the culling shooting and snaring of mountain hares."

Rabbits and hares belong to the Order Lagomorpha. According to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) the mountain hare is Britain's only native member of this group, as rabbits and brown hares are thought to have been introduced by the Normans and the Romans, respectively.