Coming from the soft south, I didn’t see a live grouse until I was 19. That was in the summer of 1974, when I took offto the Cairngorms for a couple of weeks to go youth hostelling with a friend. There were new sights around every corner, with dotterel, snow buntings and ptarmigan on the high tops; golden eagles and ospreys flying, ring ouzels and whinchats in the scrubby hillsides, and dippers in the streams.
That holiday also brought my first view of a mountain hare, bouncing up out of its form almost under my feet. More memorable, however, was seeing them in February 1982 when I was a newly recruited trainee adviser with GWCT, sent north to Speyside to learn a bit about grouse with the late James Duncan, then our adviser for Northern Scotland.
With next to no snow on the hills, the white blobs of hares hiding in the heather and pretending not to be there seemed almost comical. In those days I took it for granted that mountain hares were there, just as brown hares were a part of the arable farmland at home.
Now, I realise that both species owe much to gamekeepers. If you want to see one of our wonderful native mountain hares, go to a grouse moor in Scotland, or in the area of the Peak Distict where they were reintroduced more than a century ago.
Everyone agrees that heather burning for grouse provides optimal habitat, but what some find harder to swallow is that foxes are a major driver of populations, and fox control by gamekeepers makes a big difference to numbers. I find it sad that Scottish politicians have decided to ignore all this, as shown by the recent move to stop gamekeepers carrying out necessary control of mountain hares.
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August 12, 2020