Mass shooting of mountain hares to be banned

Landowners will be prevented from mass shooting of mountain hares and salmon farmers face controls on sonic seal scarers after the Scottish Government bowed to pressure at Holyrood.

But ministers have not banned the large-scale killing of beavers in Tayside, despite mounting concerns about farmers culling them. As many as 87 beavers were shot under licence in 2019.

Campaigners have welcomed the moves on hares and seals, though some would have preferred an outright ban of the use of scarers by the fish farming industry. Landowners were “extremely disappointed” at the curbs on hare killing, while wildlife groups criticised the failure to stop beaver killing.

Highland hare population has dropped dramatically, says study

MSPs debated the final stage of the Animals and Wildlife Bill in the Scottish Parliament on 17 June, considering a rash of last-minute amendments to improve animal welfare.

The Scottish rural affairs minister, Mairi Gougeon, accepted an amendment from the Scottish Greens making it an offence to kill mountain hares without a licence. She suggested, however, that it may take time to change the rules.

“I will give careful thought to how any proposed licensing regime will work and to when the protection will come into force,” she said. “There are still many issues to tease out. I intend to discuss that in detail with stakeholders over the coming months, as part of a proper consultation process.”

This was claimed as a victory by the Green MSP, Alison Johnstone, who has long campaigned to prevent around 26,000 mountain hares being killed on sporting estates every year. Landowners and gamekeepers say they have to be culled to prevent them spreading disease to grouse.

Johnstone described the cull as “indiscriminate and brutal slaughter” and “obscene”, and pointed out that her amendment had been backed by 23,000 people. “I’m delighted the Scottish Government has finally given into pressure to protect this iconic native species,” she said.

“The sheer volume of interventions from those defending our wildlife was impossible to ignore, and saw off pressure from the grouse-shooting lobby, who once again attempted to undermine the evidence by claiming that killing these animals also protects them.”

The Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, hailed the move as a “triumph” for Johnstone. “OneKind is delighted to have been part of this and to see a successful conclusion to one of our most heartfelt campaigns to end the mass scale mountain hare killing,” said the group’s director, Bob Elliot.

“The announcement comes in the wake of repeated calls for change from animal welfare organisations and conservation organisations, highlighting the fragile nature of Scotland’s mountain hare population and the welfare consequences of shooting a small, fast-moving animal as part of a wildlife management or recreational pursuit.”

But Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, pronounced itself “dismayed” by the move. “We are extremely disappointed that the Scottish Parliament has voted for sweeping changes to regulations covering the control of mountain hares,” said chief executive, Sarah-Jane Laing.

“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.”

She added: “Yet again, we have seen rushed, last-minute amendments to a bill which will lead to flawed legislation. It cannot be good governance to have years’ of scientific research, evidence and effort tossed aside without proper consideration.”

Seal scarers used by fish farms branded ‘sonic torture’

The minister, Mairi Gougeon, accepted another Green amendment committing the government to report back to the Scottish Parliament by March 2021 on “future plans for regulation of the use of acoustic deterrent devices” by the fish farming industry. The devices, knowns as ADDs, are widely used to try and prevent seals from attacking and eating caged salmon.

Gougeon rejected the suggestion of introducing an immediate ban on ADDs, pointing out that they were also used by offshore industries and fishing boats. But she accepted “regulatory reform” may necessary.

“I want to ensure that, where ADDs are used, they are properly regulated and deployed to have an effective deterrent effect while minimising any environmental impact and not unduly exposing marine wildlife to harm,” she told MSPs.

Gougeon also confirmed, as reported by The Ferret, that seal shooting by salmon farms would be banned in order to protect a £180 million export business to the US. But campaigners fear this could lead to increase use of ADDs, putting other marine mammals at risk.

The Ferret has revealed that the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, concluded that ADDs could harm dolphins, porpoises and whales. The devices were branded as “sonic torture” by the Greens.

Green environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, welcomed the prospect of controls on ADDs. He argued that some of the devices could breach the US animal welfare law that prevents the US from importing fish from industries that harm marine mammals.

“It’s not the ban we wanted, but will hopefully lead to tighter control,” tweeted Ruskell’s researcher, Mags Hall.

OneKind has expressed concerns to the government about the impact of ADDs on species such as cetaceans. “We are strongly opposed to any increase in the use of ADDs,” said policy advisor, Libby Anderson.

The anti-fish farming campaigner, Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch, accused ministers of postponing action on ADDs. “The Scottish Government kicks the protection of marine mammals into touch,” he tweeted.

The Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, which represents fish farming companies, stressed that it needed access to non-lethal methods of controlling seals. “That is why our farmers have been working closely with the Scottish Government to collate detailed information on the use of acoustic deterrent devices on Scotland’s salmon farms,” said the organisation’s spokesperson, Hamish Macdonell.

“Following the vote taken by MSPs today, we now expect ministers to use this information to help inform new regulations on the use of ADDs. Our farmers believe that ADDs are an effective management tool in deterring seal attacks but are only one of a range of measures farmers use to protect their livestock.”

A bid by the Scottish Greens to stop the “disgraceful” killing of beavers in Tayside was rejected by the Scottish Government. Gougeon insisted that the system for licensing farmers to shoot them introduced in 2019 was working and needed “time to bed in”.

Ministers were backed on beavers by the Scottish Conservatives, who accused the Greens of “virtue signalling and grandstanding”. But wildlife campaigners described the decision as “a blow to ending beaver deaths”.

The Scottish Rewilding Alliance, which bring together groups wanting to boost wildlife, warned that the “genetic viability” of the Tayside beavers was at risk. “For beavers to have a secure future in Scotland, the number of rivers in which they live and their total population must both be allowed to increase,” said alliance convenor, Steve Micklewright.

“Instead of killing beavers, relocating them to rivers where they are welcome by the community would ensure they deliver the biodiversity and climate change benefits Scotland so desperately needs.”

The Ferret has reported since 2016 on the mass killing of mountain hares on grouse shooting estates. We have also run a series of stories on the shooting of beavers, including the shooting of a fifth of the known population of 450 on Tayside between May and December 2019.

This story was updated at 11.55 on 18 June 2020 to add comments from the rural affairs minister, Mairi Gougeon, and the Scottish Rewilding Alliance. Photo thanks to iStock/CarlDayPhotography. As well as being a director of OneKind, Bob Elliot is a reader director of The Ferret. He is not involved in commissioning or editing stories.

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