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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