Today’s call from ten leading Scottish wildlife charities for a moratorium on mountain hare culls is warmly welcome. As our report showed, culls continue in spite of repeated calls from the Scottish Government to stop. The voluntary approach is simply not working, and unless action is taken it will leave the Scottish Government looking powerless.
Yet, the Government does have the power to do something, and our view is that they don’t even need to enact primary legislation. A moratorium, as suggested today, is one option and we do support it, but it might not be the best option because of its narrow focus. What, after all, would count as a cull? Couldn’t an estate simply claim they were enjoying a days hunting? The end result is no different. To illustrate: one former gamekeeper described to me how the annual mountain hare hunt on his employers estate was a great social occasion that brought together gamekeepers from neighbouring estates and involved the killing of thousands of hares. Is this a cull or a hunt? From a conservation perspective, it shouldn’t matter.
Recreational killing, according to a 2008 report commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage, is responsible for approximately 40% of mountain hare killing in Scotland.
Since this study, our report, mountain hare persecution in Scotland, revealed that large-scale hunting continues to be a major issue. Twenty five companies were found to offer this activity, with one estate bragging until recently that they had hunted 2000 hares in just one season. A moratorium that was restricted to culls on grouse moors would therefore only solve half the problem. If that, given the blurred line between motives.
An alternative approach would to not discriminate between motives and introduce controls on all mountain hare persecution. This could be achieved by extending the closed season on mountain hares so that it applies all year round. This would mean that any killing, regardless of scale or purpose, would require a licence from SNH. This strategy has two important advantages. Firstly, licensing would require operators to make accurate returns of the numbers killed under each licence, and this would result in accurate collection of data on mountain hare control and hunting. Secondly, every licence application would have to provide an acceptable justification, i.e. that the proposed killing is a last resort and is not based on unevidenced claims such as the need to control hares to reduce louping ill virus in red grouse.
Here’s a final thought exercise:
If it turned out that the unregulated and unmonitored killing of mountain hares in Scotland was not driving their population decline, would you support the status quo? For example would scenes like this be justified?
My guess is that the vast majority of the public would say no. What that means is that we value the lives of mountain hares and respect their right to exist beyond simply ensuring a ‘sustainable population’.