Scotland bans mass culling of mountain hares

The Scottish parliament voted earlier this week on giving mountain hares special protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

The mass culling of mountain hares has been banned after Scottish ministers bowed to intense pressure from conservationists.

The special protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act will make it an offence to intentionally or recklessly kill or injure the hare without a licence.

The decision was another boost to wildlife as MSPs also voted to ban salmon farmers from shooting seals and introduced far tougher penalties for wildlife crime amongst a series of new animal protection measures.

Bob Elliot, the director of the animal welfare charity OneKind, said: “This is a triumph for one of the Scottish Parliament’s hare champions, Alison Johnstone, and also underlines the willingness of a Minister to listen to public opinion on the status of this cherished species.

“Different reasons given by the grouse shooting industry for the supposed need to control mountain hares, such as the prevention of louping ill, a disease carried by ticks, have been successively discounted, and animal welfare has taken precedence.”

Up to 26,000 mountain hares are thought to be shot each year by grouse moor managers and gamekeepers. (Bouketen Cate/Creative Commons)

Scottish Green party MSP Alison Johnstone, introduced the late amendment to the animal protection bill which was accepted on Wednesday night by Mairi Gougeon, the Scottish rural affairs minister.

Mountain hares live in the Highlands and upland areas of southern Scotland and northern England.

In winter, the hares turn white to aid camouflage in the snow.

Up to 26,000 are thought to be shot each year by grouse moor managers and gamekeepers on the grounds they carry ticks and diseases which harm young red grouse, and also feed on heather, shrubs and saplings.

The nature conservation committee, an expert advisory committee to the UK government, told the EU last year that mountain hares were in “unfavourable inadequate conservation status”, partly due to a lack of data about their population numbers.

Sarah-Jane Laing, the chief executive of Scottish Land & Estates, does not believe the decision will help Scotland’s wildlife, however.

She said: “These changes will not help Scotland’s wildlife, which is the prime concern of gamekeepers and land managers.

“Mountain hares are thriving on Scotland’s moors and their fate will not be improved by this vote. There is clear evidence that the control of hares helps combat tick and Lyme disease and protect plants and young trees. Balanced wildlife management is key to meeting Scottish government targets on biodiversity and tree planting.”

Recent polling commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland and OneKind, found that 83% of Scots believe that mountain hare culling should either be illegal or subjected to regulations. 

Robbie Marsland, Director of the League Against Cruel Sports said the amendment offers protection to “one of Scotland’s most iconic species”.

“We’re obviously delighted the Scottish Parliament has voted in its favour. Mountain hares are subjected to the most appalling cruelty and are one of a number of species eradicated on an industrial scale to ensure grouse numbers are kept unnaturally high for sport shooting,” he said.

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