Each year, an average of 26,000 mountain hares are killed across Scotland. Some are killed as part of localised 'culls' on shooting estates and others are killed for sport. However, the scale of the culling is believed to have increased as part of the intensification of grouse moor management.
The mountain hare is Britain's only native hare and has an important ecological role in the uplands, especially as a source of prey for top predators of conservation concern such as golden and white-tailed eagles.
A recent long-term study by the Centre of Ecology & Hydrology and the RSPB has shown that mountain hare populations were at around 1% of 1950s levels with moorland sites experiencing the fastest rates of decline since the beginning of this century.
The timing of this recent catastrophic decline coincides with the onset of widespread culling of mountain hares to seek to limit the spread of Louping-ill to red grouse.
Mountain hares are only currently protected during the closed season between 1 March and 31 July although they can still be culled outwith that time under license from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
Mountain hare persecution
Mountain hares are killed for a variety of reasons including to protect forestry interests and for recreational sport shooting, but overwhelmingly on driven grouse moors to seek to control the viral disease ‘Louping-ill’ (LIV) in red grouse.
LIV can be transmitted by ticks that are hosted by mountain hares and other mammals and can affect grouse chick mortality. However, as recent studies have explained, there is no compelling evidence that culling mountain hares reduces the density of red grouse.
In March 2018 a consortium of campaigners from OneKind, League Against Cruel Sports Scotland and Lush released video footage of “brutal, military-style culls” of mountain hares that had been filmed on a number of driven grouse moors a few weeks earlier
The political response
Following the footage Alison Johnstone MSP raised the issue in Parliament on March 29 2018, asking whether the Scottish Government would introduce new legal protection for the iconic mountain hare. The First Minister responded by explaining that the Government will explore all available options to prevent mass culling including legislation and a licensing scheme.
The Revive coalition will work to to ensure that mass culling of mountain hares comes to an end.
- Prohibit mountain hare killing except under licence all year round
- Introduce complete protection within national parks
- Strengthen and bring transparency to the licencing arrangements
- Remove government and quango endorsements of mountain hare killing businesses