HIGHLAND mountain hare populations are less than 1% of what they were 60 years ago, according to a decades long study of Scotland’s wildlife.

Scientists at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and the RSPB say the mammals are in desperate need of help.

Many estate owners don’t like the hares, blaming them for spreading diseases and destroying habitats and the Scottish Moorland Group questioned the study’s conclusions, saying the findings “flies in the face of what estate owners and land managers see every day on the ground”.

Open season on the hares runs for the next five months, and tens of thousands of the animals will be killed.

The new study counted animals over several decades on moorland managed for red grouse shooting and nearby mountain land.

According to the research, from 1954 to 1999, the mountain hare population on moorland sites decreased by almost 5% every year.

That long-term decline was likely to be due to land use changes such as the loss of grouse moors to conifer forests, they said.

However, from 1999 to 2017 the scale of the “severe” moorland declines increased to over 30% every year, leading to counts last year of less than 1% of original levels in 1954, researchers said.

On higher, alpine sites, numbers of mountain hares fluctuated, but increased overall until 2007, and then declined, although not to the lows seen on the moorland sites.

The report stated: “The study found long-term declines in mountain hare densities on moorland, but not alpine, sites in the core area of UK mountain hare distribution in the eastern Highlands of Scotland.

“These moorland declines were faster after 1999 at a time when hare culling by grouse moor managers with the specific aim of tick and LIV control has become more frequent.”

The research paper, being published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, stated: “On moorland sites, a long-term decline (4.6% per annum) from 1954 to 1999 increased to 30.7% per annum from then until 2017, with a density index falling to <1% of initial levels after 2008.

“Before 1999, declines were associated with conifer planting and were least severe where heather burning characteristic of grouse management was present. Grouse moors had the highest rate of decline after 1999.”

Lead author of the study, Dr Adam Watson said: “Having counted mountain hares across the moors and high tops of the eastern Highlands since 1943, I find the decline in numbers of these beautiful animals both compelling and of great concern.

“We need the Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage to take action to help these iconic mammals of the hill – I hope they will listen to the voice of scientific research.”

The Scottish Moorland Group said the research was “out of kilter” with other studies on mountain hares.

A spokesman said: “This latest research also flies in the face of what estate owners and land managers see every day on the ground – that hare populations are very high.

He added: “It should be remembered that mountain hares are only culled when the populations are sufficiently high”

Around 25,961 mountain hares are killed annually in Scotland, Scottish Government research revealed.