Peak District mountain hares at risk of extinction

Posted by Dave Turnbull on 20/04/2022
Photo: Shutterstock

Independent research study finds England’s last mountain hare population surviving at very low densities and at risk of extinction; only 3500 hares remain but peatland restoration offers hope.

The study, by Manchester Metropolitan University and Queen's University Belfast, provides the first comprehensive population assessment for twenty years. Published in Ecology and Evolution, it estimates the population density is just ten mountain hares per square kilometre. 

Surveys involved researchers walking over 830 kilometres and observing nearly 2,000 mountain hares.

Dr Carlos Bedson, lead author said: “Our findings are deeply concerning. Whilst there are a couple of places where mountain hares are abundant, most of the Peak District hills have very few hares remaining”. 

“The highest densities were in ecologically restored blanket bog, which has benefitted from investment in rewetting, where the natural flow of water is restored by blocking gullies and planting mosses and heather. " Researchers suggest such interventions, managed by partners including Moors for the Future and the National Trust, have contributed to higher plant diversity, providing a better environment for mountain hares.  

Dr Bedson observed: “We have seen lifeless moonscapes of degraded bare peat, revert back into vibrant living landscapes that store carbon and support biodiversity providing ecosystem services, thanks to investment in bog restoration.”

Chris Dean from Moors for the Future, said: “While the news is worrying that mountain hares face an uncertain future, this study provides new evidence that our work over the past 20 years has made a positive difference, improving the habitat for this emblematic species, to give it the best chance of survival.”

The study reported fewer mountain hares on land managed for grouse shooting. Such areas are periodically burnt to regenerate young heather for gamebirds. This can provide good conditions for hares in some cases but seems to support fewer numbers than restored peatlands. There has also been a perceived association between ticks carried by mountain hares and disease in the gamebirds such that in Scotland mountain hares were culled on grouse moors. It is not known to what extent culling occurs in the Peak District.

Dr Neil Reid, from Queen’s University Belfast, said: “Whilst it’s alarming how few hares remain it’s important to remember our research also highlights how conservation can make a difference. Healthier bogs had more hares reflecting the wider benefits of rewetting peatlands. We hope the findings will lead to more rewetting in a bid to increase not only hare population but biodiversity more generally.”

The study was funded by People's Trust for Endangered Species, Hare Preservation Trust, the BMC, Action for Hares South West and Penny Anderson Associates. The findings have been submitted to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) – the government’s advisory body on nature conservation – which has recommended mountain hares in England are legally protected against shooting and persecution.

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Anonymous User
So not only is it birds of prey that get exterminated on grouse shooting estates, it's mountain hares as well. Isn't it time grouse shooting was licenced?
Anonymous User
Mountain and brown hares are becoming extinct because people insist on hunting and killing them in large numbers - full stop!
Anonymous User
While ever there is cretins using dogs to hunt the mountain hares in the Peak District national Park their numbers will always be under threat
Inaccurate, headline is Not the last mountain hare population in England there is a population near the Scottish Borders. I was a wildlife ranger working on the Scottish side of the border and only had to take one step onto the English side at the boundry of my beat. The mountain hares were more evident in the a hard winter because they would come off the moor into the forests for food and shelter.
Anonymous User
On numerous occasions whilst walking in the Peak District I have seen men hunting hares with dogs. The most common place is on the moors between the Snake Pass at Doctors Gate and Bleaklow just off the Pennine Way towards Grains in the Water.
Anonymous User
So the grouse moor owners burn the moors, kill the hen harriers and other birds of prey, kill weasels, stoats, foxes, crows, magpies and any other supposed predator, and even kill the mountain hares just in case they are carrying ticks that could affect grouse. It's time we stopped allowing the hills to be used as a giant grouse farm.

I'm not against all types of hunting. In Scandinavia grouse are hunted in an ecologically sustainable way, tracked on foot and with dogs through natural landscapes, requiring genuine skills instead of just the ability to point a gun up in the air. But the most telling thing of all is the name of the bird they shoot. They call it the willow grouse, but it's the exact same species of bird that in the UK we call the red grouse.
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