The Scottish Government have finally confirmed they will implement a Scottish Greens amendment to protect Mountain Hares under the proposed Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Act. The amendment came on the back of a 2019 report by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee to the EU which revealed that Scotland’s Mountain Hare populations have experienced a major decline [BTO Breeding Bird Survey mammal data concluded that there had been notable decreases in mountain hare populations in 108 of the 316 10km squares for which the species was assessed in Scotland between 1995/99 and 2011/15 time periods].
The report led to the conservation status of the Mountain Hare being downgraded to unfavourable, which meant that special conservation action needed to be undertaken to halt further declines and aid their recovery. The amendment means that Mountain Hares will only be permitted to be killed under licence (for example to ‘protect’ forestry operations), and will effectively end the mass-scale killing on grouse moors.
The main causes of this reclassification were identified as hunting and ‘management of fishing stocks and game‘ (with lesser pressures including the impacts of agriculture and habitat loss). That shouldn’t come as a surprise because, as we’ve discussed before on this site, the driven grouse industry really dislikes Mountain Hares.
There are two primary reasons (as we were reminded in the comments below, hence this edit). Golden Eagles prey on hares: fewer hares to predate means fewer eagles (and few estates encourage Golden Eagles as they also predate Red Grouse: in fact, persecution on and around grouse moors has had such a marked effect on the survival rates of young eagles that the UK population continues to be suppressed). And because hares can carry ticks that can carry a virus that can cause louping ill – a disease of the central nervous system that affects mainly sheep, but which also affects other animals such as cattle, horses, pigs, goats, and – and which is where we get to the nub of the ‘problem’ – Red Grouse.
Red Grouse mean money to estate owners. Nothing more, nothing less. So – despite the obvious link to disease spread being found a) in the unnaturally high densities of grouse that estate owners strive for, and b) the medicated grit trays full of grouse droppings that go hand in hand with ‘overstocking’ – come rain or shine, increase or decline, public disgust or – no, just public disgust – gamekeepers on upland shooting estates shoot thousands of hares every year.
Gamekeepers have actually taken to killing Mountain Hares with such relish that they’ve been wiped off whole mountainsides. Voluntary restraint has been urged on them many times, but ignored. Chilling images of piles of dead hares and video footage of keepers exterminating hares have circulated on social media. The response from the industry to the outcry has always been a gleeful two-fingers. These are our estates and we’ll do what we bloody well want, seems to be the attitude.
In every way possible – from ignoring public disquiet and requests for restraint to openly posing with hare corpses – the shooting industry has brought around this restriction on shooting Mountain Hares on grouse moors themselves (though as Alison Johnstone, Green MSP for the Lothian region, who has led on protecting these animals, notes below the protection won’t begin until March 2021: given that most of the shootings take place at the end of the ‘season’ in January and February these ‘essential workers’ will no doubt show their usual restraint and kill as many hares as possible…).
Gloating has never been a particularly good look for any industry that wants to bring the public onside – but then the shooting industry has proven time after time that if the ‘public’ wants to limit their ‘fun’ in any way at all, then it doesn’t care whether they’re onside or not.
However, despite the arrogance of the industry and its employees – and while we would like to see this protection granted to Red Grouse (and all other wildlife on moorlands) as well – at least the long-term future of hares on grouse moors seems a little safer than now than it did before this announcement
The Scottish Government have finally confirmed they will implement my Green amendment to protect mountain hares that the Parliament passed back in June.
After months of keeping the pressure on I’m relieved and pleased that this will finally happen, and the slaughters that have become routine on grouse moors across Scotland will be history.
I am extremely concerned though that the Scottish Government is waiting until 1st March 2021 for protection to kick in. The majority of mountain hare killing takes place in January and February and I do fear that efforts to kill hares this winter will be redoubled. I will ask the Scottish Government what they will do in the meantime to prevent this. However, the Scottish Government has previously urged voluntary restraint on this killing, but to little avail. There was no need for this long delay, and I will be scrutinising the government and what happens next to make sure there are no loopholes and that protection means protection.
After so many years of campaigning we’re almost there. I want to thank you again for the role you played in making this happen.
You might also have heard that the Scottish Government have finally announced that they will go ahead with plans to license grouse moors in the next Parliament. The Greens will be holding the SNP to this commitment and doing everything in our power to make sure licensing comes as soon as possible and is as robust as possible.
All the best and thanks again for everything you do,
Alison Johnstone MSP