With just one week to go until our rally and mass lobby of the Scottish Parliament to end mountain hare culling, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association has rung the alarm bell about the level of culling carried out to protect forestry.
Mountain hare are protected by a closed season that runs from 1 March until the end of July every year. Outside the closed season, culls can be carried out with no permissions or monitoring required, and this is when the vast majority of culls take place. Within the closed season, licences can be issued for ‘exceptional circumstances’ and for specific reasons, usually to protect forestry.
In a welcome intervention, the SGA has submitted a Freedom of Information request to SNH to find out how many licences have been granted for culling within the closed season. This has confirmed what we already knew, i.e. that some culling continues within the closed season to protect forestry. For the 2016 closed season, 6 licences were issued to permit the killing of 838 mountain hares.
Culling is not monitored outside of the closed season, but a study based on questionnaires sent out to Scottish estates estimated that a total of 24,529 mountain hares were killed in 2006/07. Of these, 50% were carried out for tick control, 40% for sport shooting, and 10% for forestry protection. In the absence of better data, if one assumes 25,000 are killed in 2016, the licensed killing for forestry protection makes up just 3.4% of this.
Whilst irrelevant to the main issue of indiscriminate culling of tens of thousands of mountain hares on grouse moors, these revelations are an important reminder of the complete lack of protection that exists for these animals. Mountain hare are a priority species conservation action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, on the Scottish Biodiversity List, listed on Annex V of the EU Habitats Directive, and a listed on the IUCN Red List. Yet in Scotland they are even killed in the closed season, when killing is an even more serious welfare and conservation issue.
The SGA has also warned that banning culls would result in “dead hares lying everywhere” because of intestinal parasites caused by unsustainably dense populations of mountain hare. The concern for mountain hares is appreciated, but the theory does not reflect the fact that all the signals are the Scotland’s mountain hares are in decline.
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has monitored mountain hare as part of the annual Breeding Bird Survey since 1996, and their data, albeit for a limited sample size, suggests an overall decline of 34% between 1996 and 2014. Scottish Natural Heritage also advises that the evidence suggests a decline. This overall trend is supported by observations on the ground. The Mammal Society notes that there are some western Scottish moors they are now rare where they were previously abundant. Dr Adam Watson estimates that spring abundance of adults has been reduced by between five to a hundred-fold on most grouse moors.
Given the SGA appears to share our concern for mountain hares but fear the impact this could have, perhaps they would support our call for an end to culls in National Parks first? This would be a big step forward and would test their theory too.