Plan to use hares as bait to keep eagles away from wind turbines

THEY were once a common sight on the west Highland estate of Beinn an Tuirc, but as the landscape has changed over the past 40 years, there is now a greater chance of spotting a mountain hare at a tea party than on the moorland.

Now, a project by an energy company aims to establish a thriving community of the creatures by next Easter.

ScottishPower Renewables is offering 30 to rangers for every hare they hand over. The animals will be reintroduced to draw a pair of golden eagles, which feed on the hares, away from the wind turbines.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The company is offering cash after a call to estates for help failed to elicit a strong response.

A colony of hares will be established near the Beinn an Tuirc wind farm in Argyll and Bute. David Macarthur, an ecologist at ScottishPower Renewables, said that the decline of the hares had come as open moorland – the animals' natural habitat – was replaced by forests.

When the wind farm was proposed, conservation groups and local planners insisted on a habitat mitigation plan to keep the eagles away from the turbines.

"The idea was to reinstate the heather moorland to act as a foraging habitat for the eagles," Mr Macarthur said. "The opportunity offered itself to improve the local ecosystem by introducing a species that had become extinct. But the other plus is that by doing this, we're also introducing another prey-item for the eagle."

Other prey of the bird, red and black grouse, have been reintroduced to the area successfully. But Mr Macarthur said it was not about simply setting up a ready source of food for the eagles.

"What the conservation groups are keen on is having management in place that is sustainable in its own right," he explained. So if we can do that by having the mountain hares sustaining themselves as a natural component of that ecosystem, then that's an ideal outcome."

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said: "ScottishPower's approach in creating this habitat that takes into account local biodiversity is to be welcomed."

Traditional protection: camouflage and top speed of 40mph

UNLIKE its close cousin, the rabbit, the mountain hare does not rely on burrows for protection.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Adapted to both polar and mountainous regions, it lives on moorland in gorse and other ground cover, in depressions in the ground known as "forms".

Only in severe weather, particularly in deep snow, do they burrow.

While the fur is brown in summer, in preparation for winter the mountain hare moults into a white "pelage", offering vital camouflage.

Mountain hares graze on heather and grasses.

The female mountain hare gives birth to a litter of up to five leverets. The breeding season is between February and September, and the young are born with fur and their eyes open.

Though generally solitary creatures, during severe winters or at good food sites, they may congregate in groups of up to 70.

Generally, they have a life-span of up to ten years, and when fully grown weigh between 5lb and 9lb, with a length of up to 2ft.

Mountain hares can reach speeds of nearly 40mph when threatened.

Though eagles prey on them, the mountain hare's greatest threat comes from red foxes and stoats.