Wildlife counting wars: scientists vs gamekeepers

by Deborah Hadfield

Is there a shake-up heading towards the world of  wildlife counting? Since the 1980s, scientists have taken control of the job of working out bird and animal population levels – and their counts and their estimates are now the basis for government policy. Now a new study carried out by gamekeepers casts doubt on previous findings by scientists. 

In South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, gamekeepers are uncovering the truth about the number of the animals in the national park by using a different kind of counting method. They reveal there are up to five times as many mountain hares in the Peak District than scientists previously estimated.

Shooting estates reintroduced mountain hares to the Peak District in the 1800s. Since then, they have become a much-loved sight in the moorland. For the last 200 years, gamekeepers have kept the numbers at a sustainable level. 


Counting blue hares by lamplight in the Peak District
Counting blue hares by lamplight in the Peak District
Gamekeepers Richard Bailey and Nick Gardner

The co-ordinator of the Peak District Moorland Group,  Richard Bailey, says earlier counts are flawed.

He says: “The previous population estimates weren’t carried out over all the habitats that the hares use. Some of the shooting estates weren’t included in previous reports.

“It’s an isolated population. Peaks and troughs are natural. There are many things that affect hares, for example parasites, predation, disturbance, and road casualties. It all impacts the population on the ground.”

It’s not just mountain hares where scientists and gamekeepers disagree. They clash about the best way to count other animals, too. Deer manager Niall Rowantree of West Highland Hunting says the management of deer has become ‘intensely political’.

He says: “It’s no longer purely about the welfare of the species or their survival. It’s about its influence on land use and other people’s desired land use. The whole thing about the numbers is asking where you are going, where you come from and what do you want from them.”


Watch the NGO's hare count film:

Richard Bailey helped arrange the hare count in the Peak District. He points out:  “Mountain hares are predominantly nocturnal animals, so it makes sense that the night-time counts are providing more successful and reliable population estimates than daytime counting.”

The count is still branded ‘science’. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust leads the research, using a technique now adopted by the James Hutton Institute and the Scottish government’s NatureScot, formerly SNH.

Gamekeepers from 16 grouse moors estates took part in the count.

Nick Gardner from the Fitzwilliam Wentworth estate in South Yorkshire was part of the nocturnal manoeuvres. He says: “We marked out a block on the moor and we did transit counts, so it was four  lines with lamps and thermals imagining equipment.

“It was exciting. I know we have a lot of hares in the area and it was nice to see them and get that evidence across.”

One happy outcome is that the gamekeeper’s results reveal the number of mountain hares is much higher than previous scientific estimates. 

The preliminary results suggest the number of hares recorded by gamekeepers may be the equivalent to a population density of 52 to 126 animals per square kilometre. This is between two and five times higher than recent estimates and is similar to the number of mountain hares recorded in Scotland. 

Gamekeeper Nick Gardner says he isn’t surprised by the high numbers. “Working up here every day I knew the hares were here because we see them,” he says.

 Counting can be controversial as the figures aren’t always black and white.

Gamekeepers acknowledge that knowing the number of animals on an area of land can help in managing them and their habitat.

Niall Rowantree says: “The whole principal has been to get a handle on what’s happening with the population, and more importantly to monitor trends. It’s good to know how many deer but also where are you going? Is the population going up or is it going down.”  

For more information, visit the Peak District Moorland Group’s Facebook page 

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