The Trust and a group of nine other high profile wildlife and conservation organisations are calling on the Scottish Government to impose a three year ban on all mountain hare culling on grouse moors until safeguards are in place to inform sustainable management, and to meet our international conservation obligations.
The mountain hare is Britain’s only native hare and plays a vital part of the complex ecosystem of Scotland’s uplands and moorlands, including acting as an important source of prey for golden eagles, one of Scotland’s most famous birds.
Mountain hares are often found in good numbers on grouse moors with their large expanses of heather and are protected against indiscriminate methods of killing under the European Union’s Habitats Directive. The Scottish Government has a legal duty to maintain their population in a state of good health. However, mountain hares are now routinely culled on a large scale on many grouse moors in Scotland. This practice has developed relatively recently in the belief that it protects red grouse against the tick-borne louping ill virus, despite the lack of scientific evidence to support this claim.
Director of Conservation for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Simon Jones, said: “Mountain hares are important to Scotland both culturally and from a conservation perspective. We, along with the other organisations are calling for a three year ban, to allow time for all those involved to take stock of the longer term impacts of large scale culling.
“Once the results of the study have been published we will then be able to identify the best ways to monitor mountain hare populations and measure the impact that management is having on their conservation status.
“We believe that grouse moor managers have a duty of care to these important mountain hare populations. The unregulated and seemingly unsustainable culling that is endemic on many grouse moors is a threat to these important populations.”
Duncan Orr-Ewing from RSPB Scotland, one of the organisations calling for the ban, said: “Mountain hares in their white winter coats are one of the most iconic species in Scotland. At present very little is known about their current numbers and population trends.
“We also don’t know what impact these large scale culls are having on mountain hares’ wider conservation status which could mean that the Scottish Government may be in breach of its legally binding international EU obligations to this species.”
Mountain hares are thought to spread slowly from one area to another and so culls may have significant detrimental impacts on local populations of hares. In some areas it has been shown that the culls are leading to severe population declines of mountain hares, and potentially even local extinctions.
In December 2014, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) along with other partners announced the beginning of a three year study to trial methods of measuring mountain hare numbers to better inform their monitoring, how to assess their population status, and identify appropriate management measures. As part of this, SNH called for a voluntary restraint of large scale mountain hare culls on grouse moors.
As a next step to this call, a number of the organisations involved plan to ask for a meeting with Scottish Government and SNH officials in the coming weeks to discuss the issues surrounding mountain hare management and the proposed ban on mountain hare culling on grouse moors.