One of the most interesting things about how proponents of hare killing on grouse moors responded to our exposé over Easter is how little talk there was of disease control. In 2007, when SNH commissioned a study of hare killing in Scotland, it was estimated that 50% of hare killing was justified primarily on the grounds of disease control. The theory being that hares carry ticks that can transmit louping ill virus to red grouse chicks, reducing the number of red grouse available for recreational killing.
The scientific justification behind this claim, however, is absent. Indeed, a 2015 Report to the Scientific Advisory Committee of Scottish Natural Heritage concluded that “there is no clear evidence that mountain hare culls serve to increase red grouse densities”.
With this excuse in scientific tatters, those who wish to continue killing hares have had to use their imagination and move on. In their statement in response to the footage of large-scale culls, SLE mention tick control only in passing, whereas BASC avoid the topic entirely. The only person not to have got this memo, it seems, is the author of this bit of questionable scientific literacy in the Courier.
Instead, the main excuse now appears to be the need to reduce the grazing pressure from mountain hares, which is so great on these sites that it would otherwise threaten their conservation status. The Scottish Gamekeepers Association even warn that:
“In two areas shown in the film, the habitats are protected. Land mangers were notified by SNH that one was in unfavourable condition. There are no deer on that holding. The over-grazing damage was caused solely by mountain hares. Another area in the film is designated for dwarf woodland and there is a duty to reduce grazing pressure on the habitat. The other holding has significant areas of forestry as well as moorland. Both of these habitats require grazing assessment and management.”
The problem with this argument is, however, a familiar one: there is absolutely no evidence behind it. Here’s five reasons why mountain hare killing is not part of the conservation toolkit:
- Mountain hares are native to the Highlands, and data suggests that their numbers have plummeted on some grouse moors in the NE Highlands.
- Mountain hares are an important prey species for, amongst other animals, raptors like Golden Eagles, as well as foxes. If there really was a problem with mountain hare numbers (there is no evidence for this, but let’s go with it for a second), then the obvious response would be to reduce predator control and do everything possible to eradicate raptor persecution.
- No reputable conservation charity culls hares. In fact, the opposite is true: the RSPB, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the National Trust for Scotland, the John Muir Trust, are all against mountain hare culling.
- The killing is unregulated, unmonitored and no surveys are carried out. If hare killing was genuinely about conservation then there would be baseline surveys, regional targets to reduce the population density to, and coordinated culling. There is none of this. In the open season, which lasts most of the year, land managers can freely kill hares without carrying out any surveys or monitoring and without jumping through any legislative hurdles.
- Other grouse moor management practices are a bigger threat. Grouse moors are often grazed by other animals, such as sheep, and regularly burnt. Burning can be a far greater threat to designated features like juniper than being nibbled at by mountain hares
As for the sites where the OneKind, League Against Cruel Sports and LUSH investigations team filmed mountain hare killing, we have seen no published evidence that mountain hare killing is required to keep them in good conservation condition. A summary of the sites and any nearby designations is below.
- Slochd Summit
The footage showing a single gunman shoot and injure a hare and then set his dog on it to finish him took place on an undesignated site that is just outside of the Cairngorms National Park and close to two designated sites:
- Nearby is the Slochd Special Area of Conservation (SAC), a small site designated for European heath that is apparently in favourable condition. The threats identified to the site include fire, air pollution, hunting (including trapping and predator control, and ‘problematic native species’. No management plan exists for the site.
- About a mile away lies the Allt na Feithe Sheilich SSSI, designated for geological features preserved in the peat soils.
Mountain hare grazing pressure is not identified as an issue on any public documents relating to either of these sites.
- Cairnlea Hill, Cairngorms National Park
This large-scale cull took place on a grouse moor within the Cairngorms National Park and near to but outside of the Morven and Mullachdubh Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Site of Special Interest (SSSI). The site is designated for features associated with moorland like blanket blog and juniper. In the SNH Management Statement for the site two main pressures on the juniper in particular are identified: burning and browsing. The site has a history of burning small areas of juniper, including a burn without consent in 2005. The browsing pressure appears to be mostly associated with sheep: “The relative impact of domestic livestock, as opposed to wild animals such red and roe deer and mountain hare, is not clear but the 2005 survey attributed browsing damage mainly to sheep.”
- Near Kinveachy Forest
This large-scale cull took place on a grouse moor on the boundary of the Kinveachy Forest SSSI, just outside of the Cairngorms National Park. This site is designated for the native Caledonian pine woodland and moorland habitats, which provide feeding and nesting areas for birds like the golden eagle. The hare killing took place on the grouse moor, over a mile away from the forest. The SNH Management Statement neither identifies mountain hares as a pressure on the site, nor does it prescribe killing. Instead, the pressure arising from deer grazing and the success in controlling their numbers is noted. What’s more, this is an important area for golden eagles. And guess what golden eagles eat?…