I was pleased to be given the opportunity to make the case for protection of Scotland’s mountain hares on the BBC programme Countryfile yesterday. If you missed it, you can watch the episode on iPlayer here. Here are three reflections after watching the show and people’s reactions to it on social media (and the OneKind phone today!).
- Countryfile deserves credit for bringing this issue to the public’s attention
I was genuinely surprised when I arrived in the Cairngorms to meet the Countryfile team and they told me that the previous day they had been out filming a cull. This is unprecedented: I’m not aware of any film footage of a cull in existence prior to this. It can’t have been easy to find an estate and get their agreement to do it given the secrecy that mountain hare culling is usually shrouded in, so well done them.
I’ve also seen some argue on social media that the piece wasn’t balanced, but that wasn’t my impression. I put my case to the public in full and got similar airtime to other interviewees. I think that what people are really concerned about is the content, which is understandable as it was disturbing to say the least. However, we shouldn’t shoot the messenger: in this instance, Countryfile has done the mountain hares a service by showing the public what’s really going on, on Scotland’s grouse moors.
- Has the Scottish Government’s policy on hare culls changed? Because it’s beginning to look like it
My understanding is that the Scottish Government position is that “mountain hares may need to be controlled for land management purposes, but is opposed to large-scale culls of the species” (see here) and that its advisory agency Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) advocates “voluntary restraint” with regard to large-scale culls. Worryingly, however, this position may be changing.
At the end of last year, the new CEO of SNH defended hare culling and said that “We do have a lot of evidence which suggests that the overall population is not under threat.” The spokesperson on Countryfile appeared to reiterate this position, omitting any talk of opposition to culling and arguing that there is no population crisis and that localised declines can be addressed through further research. The following statement was also made:
“People come to the country for a whole load of different reasons, people come because they like walking and enjoying the countryside. But people do come and pay because they enjoy the sport of shooting deer, shooting grouse, so it is part of our wider cultural heritage.”
At best this is a mistake, at worst it’s smoke and mirrors. Whether or not grouse shooting, a ‘sport’ practised by a small minority of people, is part of our cultural heritage is subjective and many if not most Scots would dispute it (See this YouGov poll on support for a ban on driven grouse shooting). But even more importantly, why are SNH linking the supposed cultural role of grouse shooting in Scotland to mountain hare culls, when their own scientific advisers have concluded “there is no compelling evidence base to suggest culling mountain hares might increase red grouse densities”?
I can only hope that this is a case of media soundbites rather than an actual change in policy, but I have written to SNH to clarify this.
- Politicians – Ignore the ethical and animal welfare case at your peril
I thought that the many arguments against mountain hare culling came across well in Countryfile. I noted in particular the strong response on social media to the ethics of the culls. Mountain hares are a native species that are iconic of ‘wild’ Scotland. Yet they are being systematically killed to benefit red grouse so that a small number of people can then kill red grouse for fun. I believe the conservation and animal welfare cases for an end to the culls stand on their own legs, but the dubious ethics of this situation really has traction with the public. Just have a look at the write-up of the response to the Countryfile feature in the Mail and Express.
The ethical questions are even more pressing when we remember that shooting mountain hares is still considered a sport, by some, and is marketed as such by our national tourism agency – an important aspect that we didn’t get the time to cover in the Countryfile episode.
Ethics are nothing to shy away from. Government makes ethical decisions all the time, on animal protection policy as much as anything else, and finding yourself on the wrong side of the argument can be politically damaging – as Theresa May found out when she spoke out in support of fox hunting during the election campaign. Without a doubt, mountain hare culls will continue to grow in public and therefore political profile. I hope that our political leaders in Scotland quickly get on the right side of this debate and show the leadership that is needed to address this issue.
Here are three ways you can help the mountain hare campaign:
- Join OneKind with a monthly donation – we’re a small charity so every new member we have means we can do more to stand up for Scotland’s animals. Seriously, this really helps!
- Sign these petitions: We Care for the Mountain Hare and Visit Scotland but Don’t Kill our Hares
- Order your free mountain hare campaign pack and buy a campaign t-shirt