This is standing advice to help planning applicants seeking permission for development that could affect mountain hares, and to assist planning officers and other regulators in their assessment of these applications. It avoids the need for us to advise on individual planning consultations in relation to mountain hares. We will only provide further advice in exceptional circumstances that are not covered by this standing advice.
In practice, this guidance primarily relates to renewables developments in the uplands (mainly wind farms, their access roads and associated grid infrastructure) and in similar moorland habitats that exist at lower altitudes in some parts of northern/western Scotland. But it also applies to some other developments in such areas e.g. new transport infrastructure projects.
Consideration of protected species in development management
Scottish Planning Policy requires that the presence (or potential presence) of legally protected species is factored into the planning and design of development proposals, and that any impacts on protected species are fully considered prior to the determination of planning applications.
Where impacts on a protected species cannot be avoided, certain activities may only be undertaken with a licence from NatureScot. It is important that any licensing issues are considered as part of a planning application to avoid any unnecessary delay to a development proceeding.
If mountain hares are confirmed as present on a development site, a licence to disturb them and destroy resting places is likely to always be required before any work on site can commence, irrespective of the season.
Legal protection for mountain hares
Since 2021, mountain hares have been protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). It is an offence to intentionally or recklessly:
- kill, injure or capture a mountain hare;
- disturb a mountain hare in its place of shelter;
- damage, destroy or obstruct access to a mountain hare’s place of shelter.
This means that if mountain hares could be affected in these ways by a development, and no action is taken to prevent it, an offence may be committed. The advice below will help ensure that impacts on mountain hares are minimised and no offences occur.
When a development could affect mountain hares
Mountain hares have a widespread distribution in Scotland and are typically more numerous in the central and eastern highlands. For an up-to-date map of mountain hare distribution see the National Biodiversity Network Atlas, but see also Hesford et al. (2020), the Atlas of the Mammals of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (The Mammal Society/Pelagic Publishing 2020) and the 2019 EU Habitats Directive Article 17 report 2019 EU Habitats Directive Article 17 report.
These sources indicate the broad pattern of distribution across Scotland but cannot provide detailed information for individual development sites. Local Record Centres may have additional information that can help determine if mountain hares are likely to be present.
In Scotland, habitats that may support mountain hares include open moorland particularly heather-dominated moorland associated with grouse shooting where they can reach very high densities (exceptionally up to 300/km²), montane grassland, woodland, blanket bog (including areas of hagged peat), marginal upland grassland and rocky slopes. Densities in habitats not managed for red grouse are much lower (i.e typically <5/km²). Around half of mountain hare populations are cyclic with regular changes in density every 5-15 years.
They are usually found above 300m above sea level, but they can occur at much lower altitudes where suitable moorland habitat exists, e.g. in the far north/north-west of Scotland. They are one of only two mammal species in Scotland that moult, partially or wholly, to a white coat in winter. Their diet is largely comprised of heather, grasses, rushes and sedges.
Breeding takes place between March and October. Very young leverets (only a few days old) are left hidden in the heather with the mother returning at intervals to suckle them. They do not move very far at this stage, relying on being cryptic to avoid detection, but they are still vulnerable to predation and injury from machinery.
Mountain hares can have a variety of different types of place of shelter. These have been categorised as forms, heather seats, peat scrapes, burrows, snow seats and snow scrapes (see Thirgood & Hewson 1987). A mountain hare may use many of these features on an occasional and unpredictable basis.
Mountain hare shelters are primarily features that reduce exposure to wind and, in many cases, are not easily identifiable as such in the absence of a hare. For these reasons, we do not consider it practical or very meaningful to attempt to identify these features on a systematic basis across a development site. A comprehensive systematic survey of such features is therefore not required, although any field signs (including places of shelter) that are incidentally detected during the site assessment process should be recorded and reported.
Carrying out a mountain hare survey
The primary focus of the survey is to (a) determine presence of the species and (b) provide an indication of abundance.
Mountain hare surveys should be done by persons with appropriate knowledge of mountain hare ecology and practical experience of mountain hare survey work. Surveyors need to be familiar with mountain hare field signs and experience of undertaking straight line transect surveys at night. The ability to distinguish mountain hare droppings from those of other herbivores such as deer is important. Note that the droppings of brown and mountain hares cannot be reliably distinguished based on form and structure alone.
The recommended time to undertake night-time mountain hare transect surveys is during the autumn (September-November inclusive). Details of this method, which relies on spot-lamping, are provided in NatureScot Research Report 1022 (Annex 3, A3.2). The alternative survey method suggested in this report (based on dung counts) is not widely used, and spot-lamp counts are preferred. Spot-lamp counts are undertaken on some shooting estates already and can also contribute useful data to national population monitoring of mountain hares, if permission is given for them to be made available for this purpose. See also Mountain Hare Counting Guidance (Scotland’s Moorland Forum 2021).
The survey information needs to be sufficiently up-to-date when a planning application is submitted. Pre-application mountain hare surveys normally remain valid for two more survey periods, and should be repeated if the application is going to be delayed beyond the start of a third survey period, unless it is clearly evident that there has been no substantive change in number, distribution or activity of mountain hares since the original survey was undertaken.
Reporting survey results
If a development proposal has needed a mountain hare survey, a survey report must be submitted as part of the planning application. The report should include:
- names and experience of surveyors;
- details of any information gathered from Local Record Centres or other sources;
- descriptions of habitat surveyed and any limitations to the survey, such as access;
- survey methods, including survey area, date, time and weather conditions;
- a map showing the location of the survey transects in relation to the development and any mountain hare sightings or field signs recorded;
- an assessment of how the development might affect mountain hares.
If mountain hares could be affected by the proposal, the report must include a protection plan. The plan should include:
- measures proposed to minimise impacts on mountain hares, including annotated maps and/or photographs showing the location of any measures proposed and how they relate to survey information and construction work;
- a summary of any residual impacts once the above measures are taken into account;
- details of any licensing requirements, including the proposed method for detecting and protecting any young hares ahead of groundworks commencing.
Measures to minimise impacts on mountain hares
Measures to minimise impacts on mountain hares should follow a hierarchy of avoidance, mitigation and compensation. The primary objective of any such measures is to avoid any mortalities or injuries to hares.
Upland development (and development on moorland habitat at low altitudes) should be designed and constructed to avoid mountain hare habitat and maintain habitat corridors. However, in practice, where mountain hares occur, complete avoidance of their habitat is unlikely to be possible.
Any initial groundworks or vehicular activity over uncleared ground during the hares’ breeding season (March to October inclusive) must be preceded by a sweep survey for young hares as described below. Any breach of this risks committing an offence. This restriction must be in force for construction workers until all works are completed, but the principle also applies generally thereafter, i.e. vehicular access to or within the finished site should only be via established access roads. Site staff must be briefed of the purpose of this restriction by an ecologist or Ecological Clerk of Works.
The greatest risk of mortality or injury is to juvenile hares (leverets) as they may be reluctant or unable to move away quickly when disturbed. So special precautionary measures are needed ahead of any initial groundworks within habitat used by mountain hares. The risk of harming well-grown young and adult hares is considered very low, even when flushed at short distance, due to their agility. The risk of injury or mortality therefore only really exists during the hares’ breeding season, but given that the earliest births may be in March and dependent young may be present until early October, and this coincides with the preferred period for undertaking construction work in the uplands, in practice there may be few opportunities when consideration of young hares is not required.
To minimise the risk of harm to young hares, between March and October it will be necessary to undertake an intensive pre-construction manual “sweep” survey of the terrain immediately ahead of any vehicle access on ground that is not already an established access track. Exactly how this is done will be site-dependent but one possible approach is to form a line of suitably-trained personnel acting like a line of beaters in a grouse shoot, except that their role is to detect any hidden leverets in the vegetation as they progress. The use of trained wildlife detection dogs (but not gun dogs) is another possible approach. Thermal imaging equipment may also be useful (in cooler weather) for detecting young leverets sitting tight in cover. It may be most efficient to undertake the sweep survey over just the area expected to be cleared in a single day, and then repeat the process daily until all such initial groundworks have taken place. This pre-construction search must take place in all areas that will be affected by earth-moving/ground clearance operations and must be undertaken immediately ahead of the machinery coming on site. There must be no delay between the search and any subsequent works or vehicular activity.
If very young leverets are found that are only a few days old, and still being suckled and unable or reluctant to move, avoid physically handling and moving them. Record the exact position of any leverets with GPS and, if necessary, mark them with an unobtrusive marker (to avoid attracting the attention of predators). Then inform vehicle operators that they must stay clear of the area until further notice. It may be necessary to cordon off an exclusion zone. Return daily to check the leverets’ presence for up to seven days. Trained wildlife detection dogs may be required for this. If leverets are found during this period, continue to monitor until either (a) the leverets are no longer present or (b) the seven day period has elapsed, whichever comes first. Either way, a repeat sweep survey of all areas (as above) will need to be undertaken without delay before vehicular access can be permitted. If leverets are still present at Day 7, they can be carefully captured and moved to a safe undisturbed area (i.e. in dense heather), but not too far from the capture site, so that the mother can find them again easily. Wear nitrile gloves if handling leverets.
Other measures that should be implemented to minimise disturbance to mountain hares and the risk of incidental killing or injury, include:
- Capping exposed pipe systems when contractors are off site, and covering or providing exit ramps from exposed trenches or holes, to prevent hares becoming trapped.
- Avoiding work around dawn or dusk and during the hours of darkness wherever possible. But if floodlighting is required avoid light-spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the works.
The loss of habitat involved in most upland developments is unlikely to be sufficient to justify compensation measures for mountain hares, unless the development will result in large tracts of land being lost as mountain hare habitat (e.g. by impounding water to create an enlarged or entirely new water body). Wider land management practices in the surrounding area are more likely to influence the hare population in the longer term. In the rare cases where significant permanent loss of hare habitat will result, the recreation or restoration of nearby open moorland habitat should be considered.
Licensing development works affecting mountain hares
Licences for development works that would otherwise result in an offence with respect to mountain hares can only be issued if:
a) the development will give rise to significant social, economic or environmental benefit (see Protected Species Licensing: Licences for ‘social, economic or environmental purposes’) and
b) there is no other satisfactory solution.
Given the difficulty of finding and identifying shelters used by hares, any licence that is issued to disturb mountain hares in relation to a proposed development will also normally include damage to, or destruction of, any place of shelter potentially used by mountain hares, but only within a clearly defined area (usually covering the footprint of the development). There is a presumption against licensing the killing or injury of mountain hares.
For advice on whether or not a licence is likely to be granted, planning applicants should contact the NatureScot licensing team. An up-to-date mountain hare survey and a mountain hare protection plan for the proposed development must be submitted with the enquiry, together with details of the development proposals. We would normally only expect these enquiries when proposals may reduce available mountain hare habitat to such an extent that the local population viability may be affected.
Guidance on applying for a mountain hare licence for development purposes, along with the application form can be found on our website.
For further information on protected species licensing see Protected Species Licensing: Legislation, Appropriate Authorities and Licensing Purposes.
If you already have a licence number, include it in the subject line of your email, or have it to hand when you call.
Thirgood, S. J. & Hewson, R. (1987). Shelter characteristics of mountain hare resting sites. - Holarct. Ecol. 10; 294-298.)
Hesford, N., Baines, D., Smith, A. and Ewald, J. (2020). Distribution of mountain hares Lepus timidus in Scotland in 2016/2017 and changes relative to earlier surveys in 1995/1996 and 2006/2007. Wildlife Biology 2020(2), (16 June 2020).