THEIR numbers were throught to be dwindling, victims of a changing landscape and the heavy hand of man.

But now fresh analyses has suggested that Scotland's mountain hares are thriving  - especially wild areas where human activity is at its most intensive.

A study undertaken by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) has found that grouse moor, and the efforts taken by shooting estates to preserve their land, are a "net benefit" to hare populations.

The mountain hare is the UK’s only native hare and was listed as Near Threatened in a recent review by the Mammal Society indicating that the species is of conservation concern in the UK.

HeraldScotland:

The report examined mountain hare counts during a 16-year period from 2001 to 2017, during the spring across Highland, Grampian and Tayside. 

It found that populations of the elusive mammals was "significantly higher" on driven grouse moors than on unmanaged areas or moors managed for "walked-up" shooting.

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However, the GWCT data flies in the face of research released last year by the Dr Adam Watson, of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and RSPB Scotland which said that between 1999 and 2017 hare numbers dropped by more than 30 per cent each year - with some counts finding fewer than one per cent of the original levels spotted in 1954.

The charity claimed that the dominant land use in these sites was intensive grouse moor management, and warned that culling of the animals to prevent the spread of disease to grouse chicks was behind the decline.

Dr Nick Hesford, GWCT, lead author of the study, said that his report showed that hare populations were bolstered by grouse moor management.

He said: “Our findings contrast with the conclusion of recent declines on moors managed for driven grouse shooting recently reported by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the RSPB.

“Our data refute the assertion that hare culling on driven grouse moors has an overall impact on the Scottish mountain hare population.

"Instead, we found that abundance indices were higher on moors where driven grouse shooting takes place, and less so where grouse were walked-up or not shot at all."

HeraldScotland:

Pointing dogs were used to search blocks of moorland for grouse, with mountain hares sightings recorded to calculate an index of their density.

The GWCT study calculated average abundance indices for the Highlands at 10.6 hares per sq km and Grampian at 10.1 per sq km, said to be  "broadly" in line with those reported in 1951.

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In the third area, Tayside, although a lower abundance was noted, indices remained “relatively stable” on driven moors compared to declines of 40 per cent per annum on non-grouse moors.

 Previous studies have found that foxes can account for 90 per cent of hare mortality, meaning efforts by gamekeepers to keep their numbers in check may have improved survival rates, while strip burning to promote new heather growth could help bolster the animals’ diet.

Dr Hesford added: "The benefits of grouse moors to hare populations, probably from fewer predators and better foraging, appear to outweigh the disbenefits from sporting harvest of hares or tick-related culls, and driven grouse estates seem to provide a net conservation benefit to our mountain hare populations.”

HeraldScotland:

Tim Baynes, Director of the Scottish Moorland Group, said: “Land managers value the high numbers of mountain hares found on moorland managed for driven grouse, which are not seen elsewhere in Scotland.

READ MORE: Are we loving our wild landscapes to death?​

“This GCWT research provides robust data to demonstrate that predator control and muirburn provide the conditions for mountain hares to flourish.  This is built on the latest scientific data and counting methods which landowners and keepers have embraced in close cooperation with government and stakeholders such as SNH.

“Claims have been made on the basis of rudimentary evidence that hare populations have recently declined. This new research firmly rebuts those observations.”

A spokeswoman for RSPB Scotland said: “We acknowledge the publication of this work by GWCT and note its findings regarding mountain hare counts over the last 16 years on selected sites.

"Our own analysis of the work carried out by Dr Adam Watson involved 70 year’s worth of counts over 59 sites and showed that in some areas mountain hares have declined by over 99% over the long term. This analysis was further complemented by a recent BTO study that found that mountain hares had significantly declined across more than a third of the species range." 

She added: "The north-east highlands of Scotland are a stronghold for mountain hares and their management on grouse moors will be one of the topics reported on by the independent Grouse Moor Review Group.

"Given that this is a European protected species, it is essential that the Scottish Government implement urgent measures to ensure the sustainable management of the species, and especially when current voluntary approaches seem to be inadequate”