By Libby Anderson
The recent launch of Green MSP Alison Johnstone’s consultation on greater protection for foxes and hares is doubly welcome. Firstly, the proposed new legislation aims to close the legislative loopholes – the now notorious exceptions in the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 – that have allowed mounted fox hunting to continue in the guise of “pest control” and have hampered enforcement, even when numerous people witnessed what appeared to be breaches in the law.
These problems have been acknowledged by the Scottish Government which has announced its own proposals for reform, albeit with a concerning potential new exception for the licensed use of more than two dogs. Apart from that, both approaches are welcome and OneKind hopes and believes they will be complementary.
The second important aspect of Alison Johnstone’s proposal is for a general ban on the killing of mountain hares. OneKind has campaigned hard in recent years for the widespread culling of this iconic species to end, as have a number of major conservation organisations.
Predictably, this latter proposal has drawn a negative reaction from the land management industry. The Chairman of Scottish Land and Estates called for regulations to be based on “evidence, not ideology”, rather implying that Alison is following an animal rights agenda without a scientific basis. “The current population is estimated at 135,000 and is constantly renewing”, said David Johnstone immediately before the launch. He added that recent research suggested mountain hares “are doing better on grouse moors than anywhere else in Scotland”, and attributed this to “legal predator control” and “flourishing” heather, a key part of their diet.
As a non-scientist, non-academic observer I would be foolish to make any over-definitive statements about the complexities of counting hares, but I do wonder about the SLE’s confidence in a “constantly renewing” population of mountain hares. It would not be the first time that representatives of “the industry” have made comments that contrasted sharply with the advice of independent.
OneKind recently requested correspondence from our national conservation body, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) about mountain hare control and populations over the past two years. Some of this has already been published in the press (Sunday Times and The Ferret website), including comments about misleading and inaccurate claims from the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and the Grampian Moorland Group that SNH had required land managers to carry out mountain hare control on specific estates.
The correspondence also contains SNH officials’ comments on a Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) briefing sent to Scottish Ministers in August 2018 following publication of a paper by Dr Adam Watson and Dr Jeremy Wilson on mountain hare declines in north-east Scotland.
The GWCT briefing stated, among other things, that mountain hare numbers “appear to be stable over the long-term” and that “the Scottish range of mountain hares has not shrunk since the mid 1990s”. It concluded: “Biologically implausible statements about the current population status in parts of Scotland do not reflect past, current or future reality and potential for management of this national asset.”
Here is part of the SNH advice in response to the GWCT briefing, under the wider heading “Points of disagreement”:
“Mountain hare numbers are stable in Scotland.
“There is no evidence that the range of mountain hares in Scotland has changed since 1996. This is, however, a measure of presence/absence within 10km squares so a reduction in range would only flag when a population was lost locally.
“The briefing cites the JNCC report as evidence that the BTO Breeding Bird Survey accords with NGC (GWCT) data on trend. The report looked at correlations between the methods but the briefing fails to mention that both detected declines in mountain hares (BBS = -26%; NGC = -36%).
“The BTO analysis of the UK and Ireland BBS data showed a 37% decline between 1995 and 2015, with the population reaching a low in 2010 followed by a 15% increase. BTO analysis of the Scottish data alone, however, shows a different pattern with a statistically significant decline of 55% between 1996 and 2014, and the increase occurring between 2009 and 2015. The Scottish analysis was made available to the GWCT in 2017. Data from 2016 and 2017 shows that the upturn has not been sustained, so we conclude that the information is evidence of an overall decline. Contrary to the assertions in the briefing, the north-east data is therefore consistent with this national trend.”
(Notes: JNCC – Joint Nature Conservation Committee – a public body that advises the UK Government and devolved administrations on UK-wide and international nature conservation. The JNCC provides the conservation status assessment and report for the European Union.
BTO – British Trust for Ornithology – the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is the main scheme for monitoring the population changes of the UK’s common and widespread breeding birds on an annual basis, producing population trends for 117 bird and nine mammal species. The 2018 report showed evidence of mountain hare decline in Scotland, as described above.
NGC – National Gamebag Census – the NGC is a central repository of records from shooting estates in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, maintained by the GWCT. The records comprise information from shooting and gamekeeping activities on the numbers of each quarry species shot annually (‘bag data’).
“the north-east data” – the results of the population monitoring by the late Dr Adam Watson, mentioned above. Long‐term field counts of mountain hare, dating from the 1950s, led the authors to suggest that intensification of game bird management has resulted in severe, recent declines in mountain hare numbers, exacerbating longer term declines associated with land‐use change.”
It is always dangerous to quote selectively, but I have read the SNH advice several times and I keep coming back to these two sentences:
“Data from 2016 and 2017 shows that the upturn has not been sustained, so we conclude that the information is evidence of an overall decline. Contrary to the assertions in the briefing, the north-east data is therefore consistent with this national trend.”
Genuine question: how does this square with the GWCT comments that the Watson/Wilson conclusions are “biologically implausible” and the SLE statement that the population is “constantly renewing”?
Here is another message, written by an SNH official in September 2018, that calls the latter notion into question. It discusses an initial draft of a report into the socio-economic impact of grouse moor management commissioned by the Scottish Government.
“Section 2.2.1 para 1 states “while there is emerging evidence of severe localised declines in NE Scotland, other evidence suggests that at the national level mountain hare populations appear to be stable”. I agree with the first part of this statement, but in our Article 17 assessment and associated advice to SG we note that there is additional evidence (from Massimino et al 2018) that suggests declines may be occurring in other areas of the hares’ range, therefore leading to questions over whether hare populations at the national level are stable. Our conclusion following input from the SAC sub group is therefore that hares are in unfavourable-inadequate status. Our position on this has evolved since discussion with the SAC, the publication of the NE data and the Massimino paper and our view on the national trend is now different to that expressed in the above statement. Given the political sensitivities around hares, this difference of view is important. Note that in the Key Messages (Section 5.1.1) they state “On the balance of evidence, the conservation and population status of mountain hares remains unclear” which I would agree with, but it seems slightly at odds with the earlier statement in 2.2.1.”
(Notes: Massimino et al 2018 – A research paper published in the journal Biological Conservation exploring the use of data collected for poorly monitored species, as an add-on to existing bird surveys.
SAC subgroup – the SNH Scientific Advisory Committee has a number of specialist subgroups including one on mountain hare conservation status. The sub-group has advised SNH staff in relation to scientific matters regarding the conservation status of mountain hares in Scotland.)
The draft report under discussion was subsequently amended.
So where is the answer? There may soon be a more definitive review to consult.
Every six years, EU Member States are required under Article 17 of the Habitats Directive to report on the implementation of the Directive. The fourth report is due this year and SNH is responsible for collecting Scottish population data on mountain hares for submission to the European Union. Clearly it is essential that the national conservation body has access to the best and most up to date information from all those who hold it.
Unfortunately, as stated in the SNH correspondence, officials have found that the GWCT does not make game bag data available to others (including SNH) to include in analyses. It is available only as interpreted summaries published by GWCT. One official wrote that SNH had requested the data a number of times, but it had been declined on the grounds of confidentiality.
The GWCT had stated in its August 2018 briefing that evidence from gamekeepers and land managers can be a valuable source of Practitioner Knowledge. The SNH response stated:
“We fully agree with this and have requested survey and associated bag data from estates and their representative organisations several times. The GWCT briefing refers to data from 40 sites but we received information in April for only two. Recent correspondence with SLE and GWCT suggests that practitioners do not see it as a good use of their time to collate this information but we remain open to receiving it, particularly if it provides a broader picture than the data available in peer-reviewed papers.”
These data are necessary for essential legal purposes and it is, to say the least, concerning that their retention in private hands appears to be frustrating the work of officials to prepare the Article 17 report.
But that may be a side issue. Despite these difficulties we must assume that the Article 17 report will represent the most recent and accurate knowledge of the Scottish mountain hare population. Someone has to say, definitively, whether the population is “stable” and “constantly renewing” or whether the hares are in “unfavourable-inadequate status”.
Finally, in focusing solely on conservation and on numbers, any response to the proposed Bill ignores one of its central tenets – that the killing of a wild mammal affects the welfare of the individual. Every one of these hares is a sentient individual. Sentience means having awareness and the capacity to suffer. That is a matter of science too, and surely, in the 21st century, our ethics, laws, and practices must take far more account of it.