Mountain Hare Mystification

When it comes to conservation, I think we can all agree that regardless of our opinion, we all love to argue. Everyone has their own view and conservation topics are so contested that we are all willing to argue until the cows have not only come home, but have settled themselves in their barn for the night and are fast asleep. So, what issue is right up there in the debate stakes? The sport of red grouse shooting. In fact, there are so many different issues concerning this sport that we have to approach each one separately, otherwise we might just pass out from exhaustion. So, what is it this time? Mountain hare culling on red grouse shooting moorland. Once again it’s a problematic topic and sometimes the available facts can all seem a little hazy.

So, let’s ease ourselves in shall we? What do we know about the mountain hare? Well, they are not exactly in the most stable condition in the UK as they are considered to be at threat from a number of factors, including habitat fragmentation, loss and over-exploitation. As a result, they are thought to have declined in both number and range in the UK, with climate change being an ever increasing problem. This is reflected in the classification of the hare as a UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species, meaning that they are considered threatened and in need of conservation action. In addition, they are listed in Annex V of the EC Habitats Directive, as a species ‘of community interest’. This quote continues, but what is basically means is that Member States need to ensure that mountain hares conservation status are maintained and that their populations are sustainably managed.

So, considering all of this and the fact that mountain hare culling is a regular practice in Scotland, then surely there must be a theory behind it. Indeed, and that theory is based on the problem of the RNA virus, looping ill. Ticks are one of the main vectors of looping ill and it is because of this that the virus can severely impact red grouse populations, with a very high mortality rate among both adults and chicks. Animals that carry these ticks are potential spreaders of the virus and include farm animals such as sheep, goats and cows, but can also be carried by dogs and deer. So where does the mountain hare fit in in all this? Well, unfortunately for them, though they do not show clinical symptoms of the virus they are carries of the infected ticks and can therefore spread the disease. Consequently, the culling of mountain hares is considered essential in order to control the virus, protect grouse stocks and protect the financial viability of grouse shooting estates. It has also been suggested that disregarding culling as a management plan is irresponsible as it will put human health at risk.

The theory supporting culling is based predominantly on the findings of one particular study, which was carried out in Morayshire. The study found that when mountain hares were culled, incidences of looping ill in red grouse decreased and there was a recovery in their populations. However, conservation groups argue that this study is far from conclusive (one study rarely is) as it was unusual in the sense that grouse numbers were already very low, looping ill rates were very high and there were very few deer in the area. In fact, the study also states that hares were the biggest carrier of the disease where sheep had been vaccinated against LIV. This therefore implies that where sheep are not vaccinated, hares are not the largest carrier of the disease. But it doesn’t stop there. The paper also confesses it’s weaknesses and claims that the potential conflict between mountain hares (as a conservation species) and red grouse shooting is ‘rare’ and ‘limited to parts of Morayshire’.

Though this study did show that mountain hare culling reduced looping ill in red grouse in this case, subsequent studies have shown the opposite. A study in 2010, which reviewed the evidence of studies carried out on this issue concluded that there was ‘no compelling evidence’ to support the large scale culling of mountain hares. It argues that the ‘widespread culling is not necessarily effective in reducing disease or increasing economic returns’.

In the past there have been calls for a halt in the cull of mountain hares due to the concerns surrounding the health of the mountain hare population. However, those that support the cull argue that reliable data on the population of mountain hares is lacking and there is no proof that they are in decline. But if there is no proof that they are in decline, there is also no proof that they are not in decline. The call for the halt was labelled ‘irresponsible’, but surely it is also equally irresponsible to continue with a course of action when we have no idea what the consequences may be. Make your own decision there. But what of the threat to human health? Although LIV  has been recorded and recognised in humans, such cases are very rare indeed, with those few individuals that have been infected displaying flu-like symptoms and then encephalomyelitis (infection of the brain and spinal chord), though this can be effectively treated. Those who are most at threat of the virus are those working in laboratories with the virus, or individuals who work in close contact with farm animals.

When it comes to culling a species for disease control, there are certain requirements that have to be, or should be met. First, we have to ensure that our understanding of the viruses transmission cycle is understood, with all possible host and vector interactions considered. We have to be sure that all the impacts of culling on wildlife populations have been considered and that the economic returns of culling are higher than the cost (both financial and ethical) of culling. So, considering everything, have such requirements been met? You may disagree, but I’d say not. 





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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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