Gamekeepers take lead on mountain hares

Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust staff walking 2km transects at night using the lamping technique to count mountain hares.

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Gamekeepers throughout the Scottish uplands are being asked to take the lead to ensure that mountain hare numbers are sustainably managed for the future by implementing a new counting methodology that provides better insight into their numbers.

The new approach has been rolled out following the 2018 publication of a three-year research project that compared different methods of counting mountain hares.

The work, undertaken by the James Hutton Institute and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), was commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage.

The report identified two methods that provide reliable information and included guidance on how these techniques can be undertaken. The first approach involves night-time surveys, using either lamps or thermal imaging equipment, and the second assessed mountain hare dung accumulation. The night-time surveys using lamps are the most simple and cost-effective method, a key aim and recommendation of the research.

Daylight survey techniques were discounted as unlikely to provide a reliable or repeatable population index.

The lamping approach requires a walk and count along 2km transects using a hand-held spotlight.
Mountain hares are usually most active just after sunset and surveys typically start just after this. Current guidelines also recommend that night surveys are best conducted in the early winter, from October to December, ideally in clear, dry weather.

Nearly 70 gamekeepers and land managers across 47 estates have now attended formal training workshops led by GWCT. The courses cover the importance of counting for management planning and conservation, lamp methodology practice, equipment, use of count cards and selection of survey sites. More than 60 sites and 240 transects have already been mapped for repeat surveys.

Due to continuing demand, the training will run again this year and be extended to nature reserves and other types of landholding in order to establish a fuller picture of populations on the ground.

Night-time lamping surveys carried out using the new methodology in late 2018 saw, in one instance, 102 mountain hares counted on a single walked transect in the central highlands, while another study site (comprising four walked transects) yielded a count of more than 200 mountain hares. These results, which point to robust mountain hare numbers on managed moorland, were achieved in much the same areas as daylight counts for the report by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology and RSPB published in the Journal of Applied Ecology in August 2018 that suggested significant declines in hare numbers.