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Highland hillwalkers, naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts wanted for first major study of mountain hares

By Louise Glen

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Volunteers wanted for national survey on the numbers of Scottish Mountain Hares.
Volunteers wanted for national survey on the numbers of Scottish Mountain Hares.

Highland volunteers are wanted for the first on-the-ground national survey to shed light on distribution and numbers of Scottish mountain hares

The survey, which is launched today and will carry on throughout 2021, is calling on hillwalkers, naturalists and other outdoor enthusiasts to record sightings of the charismatic animals as they are out and about. No previous experience of wildlife surveys is necessary to take part.

Mountain hares are Scotland’s only native hare and an important species in the Scottish hills, and gathering more accurate information about them will help inform conservation efforts.

There is concern about the state of the mountain hare population and the possible effects of control measures. The available sources of information present a mixed picture of their conservation status, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions on population size and trends. The picture is further complicated by their naturally cycling populations, which can fluctuate by ten-fold or more over periods of about nine to ten years.

This project is a partnership of NatureScot, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the Mammal Society, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the James Hutton Institute.

It builds on previous work to develop suitable counting methods and seeks to complement these other counts to allow improved monitoring of mountain hares across their range in Scotland.

To participate, volunteers will need a smartphone with the free Mammal Mapper app. This can be used to record mammals during walks anywhere in Scotland. It contains an in-built ID guide to help participants identify mammals that they see, plus a section on upland birds which can now be recorded too.

The BTO website also shows the highest priority areas for mountain hare monitoring (www.bto.org/mountain-hares). Volunteers are asked to take part as and when regional Covid travel restrictions allow.

Fiona Mathews from the Mammal Society said: “Mountain hares are classed as Near Threatened in Britain by our recent Red List, highlighting the need for urgent action. Almost all of Britain’s mountain hares are found in Scotland, yet in most regions we have very little information on how they are doing. That is why we are calling on the public to help in our new project.

"You don’t have to be a specialist: all you need is to be out in the hills with a smartphone.”

Rob Raynor, a mammal specialist at NatureScot, said: “Many people enjoy seeing mountain hares in the Scottish hills. Our priority is to make sure they remain a common sight. To do that, we need a better understanding of the existing population – something which this novel national survey will make possible by filling in the gaps in our knowledge.

"It will give us a better picture of mountain hare numbers, both regionally and nationally, and support decisions about how to maintain and conserve our native hare population.

“We’d like to encourage hillwalkers and anyone with an interest to contribute their sightings to this valuable project. We have an online training video and guidance within the app, so participants who aren’t certain if they’ll be able to tell the difference between mountain hares, brown hares or rabbits can feel confident about their identification once they’re out in the hills."

Ben Darvill from the BTO added: “Scotland’s outdoor enthusiasts can transform our understanding of mountain hares via this simple survey. It’s easy to log hare sightings while you’re out in the hills, and keen participants can also record the upland birds that they see, too. We hope that the project will add an enjoyable extra dimension to outdoor adventures.”

Read more about mountain hares by clicking here.

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