The fastest mammal on the moors ?
“To get you in the mood, here you can watch a short exciting film from the 2016 Sorby Natural History Society’s Mountain Hare Walk.” Video: Sorby Mountain Hare Walk 20 March 2016
Why Are We Interested In The Conservation Status of Mountain Hares in the Peak District?
“The following is background material regarding a new study scoped, with Manchester Metropolitan University, and some very helpful charities – notably People’s Trust for Endangered Species and Hare Preservation Trust .
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The rewilding of habitats in England and the reintroduction of lost native species, is an important means of arresting the depletion of landscapes (Monbiot 2013). The very concept of rewilding, encourages conservation managers to compare present day habitats to those of the Holocene, before human influence and cultivation. Such reflections consider the composition and coherence of ecosystems, the effects of a species’ presence or absence, and the function of ecological processes and anthropogenic changes, and with a much longer time horizon than that of contemporary studies or human lifespans (Hodder et al., 2009).
Within the UK, we have an imperfect understanding of the process and effects of reintroducing species for the purpose of their conservation. Some reintroductions have succeeded; others have brought beneficial or deleterious effects to other species within the landscape; others have failed altogether. In selected UK locations, there are initiatives currently being considered to translocate individuals for the creation of new populations of small mammals including pine marten, beavers, otters and dormice. Reviewing the effects of reintroductions, including those from earlier eras, can help us understand how contemporary rewilding initiatives may succeed. (Hodder & Bullock 1997 ; Cardillo et al., 2008). By generating population viability models we will be able to make a substantial contribution to the ongoing field of reintroduction biology, and also provide important insight into the factors that influence the viability of isolated or reintroduced UK mammal populations.
Mountain hares were native to Great Britain before the last Ice Age, though died out in some areas, including the Peak District, some 6000 bp. The present day population of mountain hares in the Peak District is the only one now occurring in England and arose from a reintroduction of hares from Perthshire, Scotland, bringing six groups of up to fifty individuals to the Peak District, during the 1880’s. There is little empirical data concerning the current health of this population.
The mountain hares contribute to the Peak District ecosystem, as an indicator of habitat quality, as prey species for raptors, foxes and stoats, and provide pleasure to tourists as icons of the moorland landscape.
Peak District habitat
Mountain hares live within the Peak District National Park, nearly 500 km2 of upland terrain situated between Manchester and Sheffield. The landscape ranges from 200 metres to 630 metres above sea level and is bordered by farmland and towns. The uplands are primarily heathland, bog and moorland. There is very little human infrastructure, apart from roads which are known to cause roadkill of hares. The uplands are exposed to prevailing westerly winds and are cold and hazardous for the winter months. There are four sub-areas of Northern Moors (150 km2), Kinder (80 km2), Bleaklow (100km2) and Derwent Edges (90 km2) which are bounded by A roads with heavy traffic. Local mountain hare extinctions are known to have taken place at some outlying areas (Eyam, Combs Moss, Goyts Moss). Some areas, e.g. Chew moor, have shown newer populations of hares. There are known to be higher concentrations of hares around Derwent Edges and parts of Bleaklow (Mallon 2001).
Mountain hare conservation status is listed in Annex V of the EC Habitats Directive 1992, as a species “of community interest whose taking in the wild and exploitation may be subject to management measures”.
Natural England have a Biodiversity Action Plan for mountain hares, which suggests the following actions:
Monitor the mountain hare population in northern England
Develop and validate a practical and cost effective survey and monitoring methodology for mountain hares
Investigate the effects of exploitation on hare populations and their dynamics
Investigate how current land use changes and climate change are likely to affect mountain hares
Reduce road mortality, especially if major roadworks are proposed through suitable mitigation
Based on above findings, review the legal status of the mountain hare.
Essentially we ideally want to know whether the Peak District mountain hares are a viable population.
Viability of island populations or reintroductions of mammals depends upon a number of factors including: fitness of reintroduced animals; subsequent migrations or augmentations; genetic diversity; habitat scale, appropriatenessquality and safety; resource competition; predator and prey interactions; disease; and the effects of human activities (Cardillo et al., 2008).
There is little formal data that explains the conservation outcome of the 1880’s Peak District mountain hare reintroduction. Most of our natural history knowledge arises from informal surveys by volunteers. Historical population counts have varied widely in estimations: 300 to 500 hares (Yalden 1984) 944 hares (Mallon 2001) and a more intensive count conducted in 2001, suggesting upwards of 5,000 individuals, albeit with low precision (Mallon et al., 2003).
Mountain hare population numbers are known to cycle by 90%, making them highly vulnerable (Newey et al., 2007). Threats include high mortality during extreme winters, increased road traffic, roads acting as barriers to small scale gene flow, and hybridisation with brown hares (Thulin 2003). Hunting and control actions by landowners are a concern ((Yalden 1984; Mallon 2001; Mallon et al., 2003). In Scotland, mountain hare populations are adversely affected by hunting. In addition, landowners believe mountain hares are implicated in the transmission of louping ill virus that afflicts grouse, and instigate culls on hare populations (Scottish Wildlife Trust Position Statement – Mountain Hare Management).
CARDILLO, M., MACE, G.M., GITTLEMAN, J.L., JONES, K.E., BIELBY, J. 7 PURVIS A (2008). The Predictability of Extinction: Biological and External Correlates of Decline in Mammals. Proceedings of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (2009) 275, 1441 – 1448.
FLUX, J. E. C. and ANGERMANN, R. 1990. Chapter 4: The Hares and Jackrabbits. In: J. A. Chapman and J. E.C. Flux (eds), Rabbits, Hares and Pikas: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, pp. 61-94. The World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland.
HARRISON, A.K. (2011) Dispersal and compensatory population dynamics in a harvested mammal. University of Glasgow. Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine.
HEWSON, R. & HINGE, M.D.C. (1990). Characteristics of the Home Range of Mountain Hares. Journal of Applied Ecology Volume 27 No 2.
HODDER, K.H. & BULLOCK, J.M. (1997) Translocations of Native Species in the UK: Implications for Biodiversity. Journal of Applied Ecology 1997. 34. 547 – 565
HODDER, K.H., BUCKLAND, P.C., KIRBY, K.J. & BULLOCK, J.M. (2009) Can the pre-Neolithic provide suitable models for re-wilding the landscape in Britain? British Wildlife Volume 50 Number 5, Special Supplement 2009.
MALLON, D.P. (2001) The mountain hare in the Peak District. Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.
MALLON, D.P., WHEELER, D.P., WHITELEY, D. & YALDEN, D.W. (2003) Mountain hares in the Peak District. British Wildlife Vol 15 No 2 Dec 2003. .
MONBIOT, G. (2013) A Manifesto for Rewilding The World. Guardian Newspaper 27 May 2013.
NEWEY, S., WILLEBRAND, T., HAYDON, D.T., DAHL, F., AEBISCHER, N.J., SMITH, A.A. & THIRGOOD, S.J. (2007) Do mountain hare populations cycle?
SCOTTISH WILDLIFE TRUST – Position Statement on Mountain Hare Management. 002_293
THULIN, C-G. (2003). The distribution of mountain hares Lepus timidus in Europe: a challenge from brown hares L. europaeus? Mammal Review 2003, Volume 33, No 1., 29-42
UK BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) 2008. Lepus timidus. Version 2 updated 15/12/2010
YALDEN, D.W. (1984) The status of the mountain hare (Lepus timidus) in the Peak District. Naturalist 109: 55 – 59