Thes secret life of Lammermuir hares

Over 99 per cent of the UK's mountain hare is found in Scotland and gamekeeprs have been helping to count their numbers in the Lammermuirs
Over 99 per cent of the UK's mountain hare is found in Scotland and gamekeeprs have been helping to count their numbers in the Lammermuirs

The nocturnal life of native mountain or ‘blue’ hares on the Lammermuirs is now more fully understood thanks to the local gamekeepers.

Working in partnership with conservationists in the Lammermuir Hills the gamekeepers of The Hopes and Mayshiel estates at Lammer Law and Meikle Says Law used high powered spotlighting equipment, to help the Lammermuirs Hare Group compare hare numbers at night with those seen in daytime.

Evidence suggests mountain hares are declining but research from the James Hutton Institute has shown numbers fluctuate naturally over a 5-15 year cycle.

While counts on Lammer Law showed a similar number (13) between day and evening, nearly five times more hares were viewed on Meikle Says Law under the gamekeepers’ lights.

Ten hares were counted in the daytime, with 49 spotted in the same small area in the dark.

“Hares are largely nocturnal,” said Ian Elliot, head gamekeeper at The Hopes.

“This makes them difficult to count accurately during the day. They will also shelter to get out of the wind and move to different areas every day because of the weather.

“When the local hare group contacted the Lammermuirs Moorland Group about the surveys, we wanted to help. We felt the knowledge of gamekeepers would assist in getting as accurate a picture as possible.”

Graham Pettigrew from the local hare group said: “As a check on whether our counting methods were reliable, it was good to undertake a collaborative effort with the estate landowners.”

Whilst mountain hares are a welcome sight for many, particularly with their white winter coats, they can reach high densities on some grouse moors and numbers need to be controlled.

They carry sheep tick, which threaten wild grouse survival and can cause Lyme Disease. They are also controlled to protect agricultural crops and tree regeneration schemes.

“When we control hares, we do so carefully, and harvest at the right time,” added Ian Elliot. “There are many reasons to keep the numbers at a sensible level. We have trees at The Hopes and, when the snow drifts, the hares get over the netting and start eating them. It’s about a responsible balance.”