The full extent of culling of one of Scotland’s most iconic species, the mountain hare, has been revealed with data released under freedom of information rules showing up to 38,000 a year are being killed on sporting estates. 

The figures, produced for the Scottish Government last year but not published before, suggests that large-scale mountain hare killing has been routine in Scotland for many years.

With about 4,000 hares culled on a single estate in 2014-15, The Ferret has learned that the government agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) advised the Scottish government that it may have to report to the European Commission that the population is in “unfavourable status”.

The figures emerged after the Scottish Government published a joint statement with the shooting industry promising “voluntary restraint” on large-scale culls, which, along with recent footage of a number of culls taking place in the Highlands, suggests it has had little impact on shooting estate practices.

Mountain hare killing is not monitored and is unregulated during the open season.

Until now the only estimate of the extent of the killing was approximately 25,000 mountain hares over a one year period in 2006-7.

The latest data shows the total number fluctuating around an average of 25,961 and reaching as many as 37,681 in 2014.

In 2015, the most recent year for which an estimate is available, 26,952 were estimated to be killed and the freedom of information request revealed that SNH noted a sharp decline in hares in north east Scotland.

Gamekeepers advised to cover up dead mountain hares

Harry Huyton, director of animal welfare charity OneKind, said that “large-scale mountain hare killing is a routine” and that “voluntary solutions” are not working.

He added: “Scottish Natural Heritage should be leading the way when it comes to protecting wildlife, but instead it appears to be holding the Scottish Government back from taking action against unregulated mountain hare killing. Evidence of significant declines in mountain hares in parts of Scotland is being disregarded.”

Robbie Marsland, director of the League Against Cruel Sports said the public will be “shocked to know the true extent of mountain hare killing”.

“We believe that this is not about conservation – killing over 1.3 million mountain hares in the last 50 years does not conserve them, quite the opposite,” he added.

Eileen Stuart, head of policy and advice at SNH, urged estates to exercise restraint. “While there is currently no evidence of a national decline in mountain hares, the surveillance scheme we are starting this winter will give us a better understanding of the distribution and abundance of mountain hares across Scotland,” she said.

“There is new data shortly to be published which suggests there may be population declines in some areas. We need to determine how representative this is of a wider, national, picture.”

Tim Baynes, director of the Scottish Moorland Group, said the data demonstrates that culls have been taking place for more than 60 years and there has been “no extinction of mountain hare populations”.

He added: “The data since 1954 provides no evidence for an underlying decline in the hare population and underlines the point, confirmed by SNH in their evidence to the Petitions Committee in October 2017 that mountain hare populations moves in cycles, and so does the need for management of their numbers.

“The harvest of mountain hares over the past few years is lower than it has been in many periods in the 1970s and 1980s – we did not see an extinction of hare populations back then and we are not doing so now.

“Mountain hares can reach very high numbers on managed moorland and are managed to control the spread of sheep tick diseases, and to limit grazing damage to young trees and fragile montane habitats. Deer culls are carried out for similar purposes.

“We firmly support new research on improved hare counting methods, undertaken by the James Hutton Institute and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and back the newly published mountain hare management guidance published by the Moorland Forum aimed at ensuring best practice on this issue across Scotland.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Gamekeepers Association said: “It is our understanding that there is evidence in circulation which disproves local population decline in north east Scotland.

“The data obtained from 1954 under freedom of information shows a well understood pattern of 10 year population cycles. It does not show evidence of unsustainable management.

“Lobbyists making claims do not manage land or species – they get paid office salaries to campaign against people who do. When filmed on BBC Countryfile, Harry Huyton didn’t even know the difference between a hare and a deer print.

“Hares are controlled across different landscapes because, amongst other things, they can cause serious ecological damage at high densities. They will graze moorland sites then move into fringe woods for cover.

“There is no point in reducing deer and managing sheep grazing then allowing hares to eat the habitat. That is utterly illogical.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have been clear that we oppose any level of culling which threatens the conservation status of Scotland’s mountain hares and are discussing the evidence and next steps with land managers, as well as conservation and animal welfare organisations.”

Outrage over mass killing of mountain hares

David Noble, Chairman (Scotland) of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust said:  “We know that mountain hares thrive on our managed heather moorland, and their number per hectare in this environment is up to 10 times greater than anywhere else in Europe, so the context of a reported 25,000 culled per annum represents around only seven per cent of the population, a very sustainable harvest.

“It is important to recognise that high bag numbers do not necessarily equate to a high proportion of the population killed, but typically are indicative of the level of abundance.

“So, we caution giving excessive weight to as yet unpublished local research into change in hare abundance using untested count methods from areas experiencing landscape scale habitat change.

“Indeed, most specialist policy makers usefully recognise that mountain hares benefit from moorland management, and that protection of habitat is more important in the long term.

“The grouse moor community cannot – and does not – ignore public concerns about the culling of this charismatic species. What is required, and should parallel Scottish Ministers’ review of grouse moor management in 2019, is a coordinated approach with counting and management of mountain hares at regional level to safeguard against the possibility of any threat to local populations.”

The documents released by Scottish Natural Heritage in full

Photo thanks to PeteWalkden, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

A version of this story was first published by The Sunday Times on 20th May 2018.