Mountain Hares are very unlikely to be given protected status on the island, with the Environment Minister saying such a move would be ‘rather exceptional’.
Geoffrey Boot was asked by Bill Henderson MLC what plans his department has to make the Manx Mountain hare a protected species under the Manx Wildlife Act.
In his written response, Mr Boot noted that the hares are not native to the island but were introduced in the 1950s ‘as an addition to the game shooting interest’. In the 1970s the hares were moved on to the vermin list due to the ‘significant increase in numbers and the resulting damage to crops and freshly planted conifers during the upland afforestation and perceived risk as vectors for disease as tick carriers’.
Mr Boot added: ‘Since then a perceived general, but unstudied, decline in numbers led to the Department’s upland stakeholders recommending that the Department afford the species an extra level of protection by returning them to the game list which would afford them a closed season. It has also appeared that illegal coursing with dogs had become a problem in some areas and the move to reclassify hares under the Games Act means that there would be stronger powers of protection and more scope for prosecution.
‘Re-classification under the Games Act would provide scope for varying the protection should the populations either increase or decrease significantly, including an all-year closed season were that to be deemed appropriate. This hare is known to show sizable changes in population, in cycles, and their young, leverets, are susceptible to predation by various species of predatory birds which in turn is reflected in the cyclical population as a prey species.’
The Minister says that the criteria for assessment for listing species for protection includes if they are in danger of extinction in the island or likely to become so if conservation measures are not taken, or if there is an international obligation and that species ‘must generally be native, however, though an established but introduced species can be considered exceptionally’.
He added: ‘The criteria are not primarily aimed at the protection of such species, but this is not ruled out, if there is a need for it and a useful effect, that fits the criteria for exceptional inclusion of a non-native species. Whilst my department does not have evidence or reason to believe that this species is in any imminent danger on the Isle of Man, such as may warrant full protection for this species, officers will continue to monitor the situation and should it be necessary, begin a formal assessment.’
In response to further questioning from Mr Henderson around the population numbers for the Manx Mountain Hare and Lowland Brown Hare, Mr Boot said there was no specific standardised monitoring of the population figures.
He added: ‘Whilst it is felt that the mountain hare population may be at the low end of their population cycle, it is also a commonly held view that there has been a general decline over the last three decades. However, one must note that a range of upland breeding species have also declined, on the hills, over the same time period, including curlew, a truly native species and red grouse. The cause of these declines is complicated and not fully understood, but a fragmentation of upland habitats over the preceding decades and an increase in naturally occurring predator species are thought to be contributing factors.
‘In the 1970s, a study identified the distributions of the two species and thereby provides a baseline for comparison with any resurvey. The mountain hares have only ever occurred in the uplands north of the Central Valley. With regard to Lowland Brown Hares, a species introduced to Britain from Europe in the Iron Age, I am informed that this species has flourished on the Island over recent decades colonising farmland where they were previously absent, particularly south of the central valley. Internationally, brown hares are considered a species of Least Concern for conservation, both globally and in Europe, specifically.’