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New research determines the best methods to count mountain hares in upland areas

Mountain hare (c) James Hutton Institute
"These methods can be used to provide information to help inform the management and conservation of these amazing animals"

A report published today and co-authored by James Hutton Institute scientists recommends ways to count mountain hares. The scientific study compared a range of methods to count individuals, and determined the most effective, reliable and cost-effective methods for estimating hare populations in upland areas at local and national levels. The research concluded that two methods can do this: systematically counting hares at night using a spotlight, and measuring dung accumulation over four to six months during the winter.

Scott Newey, a population ecologist at the James Hutton Institute’s Ecological Sciences group and co-author of the report, said: “The work reported here provides the scientific evidence that allows us to make recommendations on simple and effective methods that can be used to survey and monitor mountain hares in the Scottish uplands. These methods can be used to provide information to help inform the management and conservation of these amazing animals.”

Eileen Stuart, SNH’s Head of Policy & Advice, added: “Many people enjoy seeing mountain hares in the Scottish hills. Our priority is to make sure mountain hares remain a common sight. To do that, we need a better understanding of the existing population – something which this report will make possible.

“We hope that the counting methods recommended in the report will be adopted by those who manage land around Scotland, and the information made available to us. This will give us a better picture of mountain hare numbers, both regionally and nationally and support local decisions about how to maintain and conserve our native hare population.”

Adam Smith, Director (Scotland) of Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, commented: “Mountain hares benefit from moorland management across Scotland and we want to ensure this continues and understand why the species may be challenged in other places. We hope adoption of the new counting techniques that our research has identified will shed further light on the conservation of this species.”

Mountain hare numbers fluctuate widely between years, and between regions, but the information currently available suggests the Scottish population is stable. In recent years, there have been informal reports in the media of widespread culling of hares, leading to interest in whether this practice is linked to declines in mountain hare numbers in some areas. The methods recommended in the report will provide a way to monitor populations and changes in numbers, both of which will help in the conservation of the species.

Scientists, ecologists and representatives of land managers interested in conservation and management of mountain hares, met on 24 January to review the recommended methods. Feedback from this meeting and further discussions with land managers, will contribute to developing and implementing a monitoring programme. This data will then help interpret population changes and help land managers make informed decisions about how they manage mountain hares on their land.

The study Developing a counting methodology for mountain hares (Lepus timidus) in Scotland was commissioned by SNH and carried out in partnership with the James Hutton Institute and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. The full report can be downloaded from SNH's website.

Notes to editors:

The mountain hare (Lepus timidus) is Britain’s only native lagomorph (the group of mammals that includes rabbits and hares). In Scotland, heather moorland actively managed for red grouse provides very good habitat for the species.

Mountain hares are a traditional game species in Scotland, shot for sport and recreation and hare numbers are sometimes managed to protect crops, woodland and forestry. In some cases mountain hare numbers are managed as part of efforts to control the louping ill virus that affects sheep and red grouse. However, the available evidence suggests that managing hare numbers for disease control is unlikely to be effective where red deer are part of the landscape. SNH, GWCT and Scottish Land & Estates published in 2014 a call for voluntary restraint on large-scale culling of mountain hares for disease control where other potential carriers of ticks had not been removed, e.g. deer and undipped sheep.

The mountain hare is protected against overexploitation and against killing when they may have young with a close season (1 March to 31 July).

Scottish Natural Heritage is the government's adviser on all aspects of nature and landscape across Scotland. Our role is to help everyone understand, value and enjoy Scotland's nature now and in the future. For more information, visit our website at SNH media is also now on Twitter at

The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust is an independent wildlife conservation charity which carries out scientific research into Britain’s game and wildlife. We advise farmers and landowners on improving wildlife habitats. We employ 22 post-doctoral scientists and 50 other research staff with expertise in areas such as birds, insects, mammals, farming, fish and statistics. We undertake our own research as well as projects funded by contract and grant-aid from Government and private bodies. The Trust is also responsible for a number of Government Biodiversity Action Plan species and is lead partner for grey partridge and joint lead partner for brown hare and black grouse.

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.