by Ian Coghill
It is odd what triggers a train of thought. The origins of this are some of the language chosen for the BBC piece covering a survey of mountain hares in the Peak District, funded by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES). According to the BBC article, there are, ‘Only 3,500 mountain hares left in the Peak District’.
It is the ‘only’ that suddenly struck home. Why ‘only’? How many did they expect? How big would the estimate have to be to get rid of ‘only’? Would 4,000, or 40,000 or 400,000 have done it? At what point would the BBC have dropped the ‘only’?
The ‘only’ is even worse when you read the paper and find that it says that the 2021 population was estimated to be slightly higher than it was decades ago. So, ‘Mountain hare population stable for decades’ or ‘Still 3,500 mountain hares in the Peak District’ would have been approaching reality. Even ‘Still only 3,500’ would have been OK, but what the BBC actually said was at best poor journalism, at worst an attempt to peddle fake news.
Next the question: are there 3,500 mountain hares in the Peak District? No one knows. The present paper bases its estimate on what the researchers saw when walking transects in broad daylight. This is so obviously a dubious method of counting a nocturnal and secretive animal, that the paper spends time explaining why it is not as mad as it sounds.
So, we have a scientific-sounding estimate but it is still an estimate. If the counts had been done at night the estimate would have been higher but it would still be an estimate. That is why when someone tells you that there are X foxes or Y roe deer in the country, you can assume they are not telling the unalloyed truth. No one actually knows the precise number of anything, and anyone who wants to base policy or action on a such a number should be watched carefully.
Where these numbers sometimes have a legitimate place, if you can agree a universally applicable counting and estimation technique, is in detecting trends over long periods of time. But that is not what the conservation industry uses them for. These estimates, and on occasions they are little more than guesses, are used for campaigning, fund raising and to influence policy. They get away with this statistical abuse because they are usually dealing with politicians and media, who all too often have no knowledge of the subject and who see the NGO’s as altruistic, something hey very rarely are.
What we do know is that the PTES is part of the conservation industry and has a vested interest in the use of the word ‘only’, faithfully repeated by the BBC, a word that is likely to earn the PTES cash.
If we look more closely at the paper on mountain hares and the BBC article there are some interesting insights. The article is clear that the research shows a serious and worsening situation for the Peak District’s mountain hares.
The lead author states unequivocally that, ‘Our findings are deeply concerning. Whilst there are a couple of places where mountain hares are abundant, most of the Peak District Hills have very few hares remaining’. The PTES is even more afflicted by the results, saying that, ‘both the scientific data and anecdotal evidence showed numbers had been dropping annually’.
What makes these statements so extraordinary is that if you actually read the paper, it contains the following three quotations:
“The present study estimated 3562 hares suggesting a stable population over the last two decades.”
“Estimates for 2002 compared with 2019 appear similar and suggest a stable population.”
The paper also provides a standard by which we can judge how UK mountain hares are doing. It says that in its northern European range the mountain hare population density is 1-6 mountain hares per sq km. This helpfully enables us to avoid comparisons with the high mountain hare populations on many Scottish grouse moors, where population densities of 50-200 are not uncommon and where populations can be 30-35 times more abundant than on moorland not managed for grouse.
What the paper says is that on all habitat types apart from abandoned grouse moor, the mountain hare density was higher than that typical across the animals European range. With that one exception the results ranged from 10-32 mountain hares per sq km. Even the exception, abandoned grouse moor, at 4.8 was in the high end of the European range.
It is fair to ask if the BBC journalist, Jennifer Harby, looked at, let alone read the paper. Had she done so they would have read what the author says in the paper. “The mountain hare densities we recorded are higher than many comparable populations in Europe”. He even lists the exceptions. They are some studies relating to Scottish grouse moors, with densities of 200-280 hares per sq km, and “on predator-free heather dominated islands off mainland Sweden” with a hefty 400 per sq km. So, apart from Scottish grouse moors, the only habitat in Europe with a greater hare density than the Peak District is to be found on islands off the coast of Sweden.
It is questionable if the principal funders, the PTES, even looked at the paper they had funded. If they did it is difficult to see a benign explanation for their statement in the BBC article. A quick look at the abstract, the barest minimum attention anyone can be expected to give to a paper they have largely paid for, reveals the following clear statement, “A stable population over the last two decades”, yet PTES is equally clear that, “Evidence showed that numbers had been dropping annually”.
What the research shows is that, even if you only count a nocturnal and secretive animal like a mountain hare in broad daylight, you still find a lot of hares, at least by European standards, if not by those of Scottish grouse moors. It also shows that the population is apparently stable and not in free fall as is so often hysterically claimed.
The story doesn’t end there. The shooting estates have been doing their own counting, using the more effective Scottish system of walking transects at night using high-powered torches to spot and count the hares. This, unsurprisingly, showed good numbers. What was interesting was when the people involved suggested meeting and talking to the PTES researcher, he refused on the grounds that meeting a stakeholder might create bias.
Now we have the final report it is clear that there was indeed a risk of bias. But that bias is entirely in the other direction. His results appear to show that the best place for mountain hares in the Peak District is on re-wetted bog. He met he had no problem meeting and working with stakeholders in the Peak District who are keen on re-wetted bogs, but thought it unacceptable to meet anyone connected with re-wetted grouse moor bogs.
To explain his view that there were fewer hares on grouse moors than he expected, he goes on about about mass culls of mountain hares in Scotland to eradicate louping-ill, and then says, “we then speculate whether the same has occurred on grouse moors within the Peak District”. Had he taken the trouble to ask anyone if this speculation had any basis in fact, which he would have to have done had he actually met a gamekeeper, he could have watched his bizarre but damaging theory go up in smoke.
Forget, for a moment, that everyone in the shooting community knows that this is nonsense. Remember instead that the Peak District moors are visited by 13 million people every year, that they are walked, run and cycled over 24 hours a day and that they have a greater density of conservation industry employees than any comparable place on the planet. What are the chances of someone covertly conducting a mass hare cull? Less than zero. By the simple expedient of not asking, we now have a peer-reviewed paper that can be used to claim that mass hare culls have taken place in the Peak District. Yet, he talks of avoiding bias.
The case of the Peak District hares is just one example of how the conservation industry uses numbers and language to create conservation problems that are not there. Another extraordinary use of numbers is the system of red and amber listing that the conservation industry uses to terrify and confuse.
A group of conservation industry scientists produces the Birds of Conservation Concern reports. It divides Britain’s bird species into categories include red, amber and green. The first thing to remember is that whilst there are seven tests in each category, to be listed the species only needs to meet one.
The way the system is currently operating, and remember it was created and is operated by the conservation industry, creates gigantic conservation problems. This is simply illustrated with reference to two very common gull species. The herring gull with a population which is unknown but well into the hundreds of thousands and it is red listed because its population is dropping. The lesser black back gull, again with a population in the hundreds of thousands, is amber listed because half its breeding population is found on only 10 sites.
It is true that the herring gull has abandoned some coastal breeding sites, but it is also true that there are huge increases elsewhere, and that there is no accurate estimate of how many herring gulls exist in the UK, a number that varies thanks to the species ability to move to and from Europe with ease. While there is evidence that the population has declined after many years of explosive growth, there is no reason whatsoever to be concerned about its conservation.
Gamekeepers and even birdwatchers long ago predicted a change in the bird’s habits and a possible decline. They pointed out that the inevitable result of stopping fishing boats discarding by-catch at sea and new rules on the management of landfill sites, both of which provided huge food resources for the herring gull. Now that the bird is red listed and, as a result, the huge amount of damage it causes to the environment, the survival of rare species and people’s lives, goes unchecked. As reported in Fieldsports News, local councils are paying businesses for the damage that over-populations of gulls cause to buildings – while pest controllers are unable to remove those gulls.
The lesser black back gull breeds in many more places than ten, and it is amber listed because the sites are only counted if they are Special Protection Areas or Important Bird Areas. By this simple means, a bird with a population measured in hundreds of thousands is moved into a category that almost entirely precludes any control, no matter how bad the damage it causes.
We are now faced with two, related species, with combined numbers approaching a million, that are highly predatory and, when present in numbers, can have catastrophic environmental impacts. As a result of their ‘listing’, and the interpretations and extrapolations of Natural England, the maximum cull allowed in rural locations in England is 900, and most of that is taken up by health and safety at airports.
My most optimistic estimate for culling for conservation purposes in England is well under 100. This is entirely ludicrous when viewed against the size and robustness of their populations and the scale of the problems these two species cause.
It must also be remembered that the huge increases in population of both species took place when they were listed as a shootable species on the general licences, and were being killed by conservation organisations, including the RSPB, in large numbers. There is no evidence that local control for conservation would have an impact on national population trends. Yet thanks to what amounts to sleight of hand, exploiting a flawed system, using selective and sometimes speculative numbers, we have to watch while genuinely rare and declining species are massacred by some of the most abundant predators in the country.
Finally, when the numbers fail, we just have assertion. Beavers will stop floods. Well, they didn’t stop the Isla rising eight feet in four hours earlier in 2022. Lynx will control deer numbers. Well, they didn’t manage it in Yellowstone, USA, when there were plenty of lynx and bobcat and no wolves. Moors won’t burn when they are re-wetted, planting trees increases biodiversity, re-wilding can solve whatever problem you like. Millions are being spent, huge decisions are made, lives are ruined, species decline – based on what?
The country and its countryside face huge problems. It is essential that we all work together solving those problems with strategies and tactics based on sound science, strong data, mutual respect and the courage to do unpopular things.
We are not served well by a conservation industry that trades on fake news, dodgy data, assertion and point scoring, and appears more interested in their brand and bottom line than successful partnership working for the greater good of the countryside and the precious wildlife it supports.