Wildlife and animal rights groups say that the “mass slaughter” of a much-loved Scottish species is unjustified and cruel. But landowners insist that the cull is necessary to protect grouse from disease so that they can be shot for sport.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has received evidence that between 1,500 and 1,700 mountain hares were shot by landowners across the Lammermuirs in the spring. The figures are privately confirmed by landowners as “not unrealistic”.
Several sporting estates were involved in the cull, including Burncastle, the 8,000-acre grouse moor near Lauder in the Scottish Borders owned by Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland. Based at Alnwick castle in Northumberland, he has been listed by the magazine, Country Life, as one of the UK’s top ten aristocratic landowners.
“Most people will be unable to see any justification for killing an iconic species, known to be in decline, on such an industrial scale,” said Libby Anderson, policy director at OneKind, an Edinburgh-based animal welfare group.
“This goes far beyond hunting for the pot or what some may call sport – it looks more like extermination. Killing in springtime is likely to involve the deaths of pregnant or lactating females, adding to the toll of suffering.”
The large-scale culling of mountain hares is not illegal, though they are a protected species. Thousands are shot and trapped on uplands across Scotland because land mangers fear that ticks they carry spread a viral disease, known as louping ill, which can be fatal to grouse.
But a study by scientists from the former Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in Aberdeen and the University of Glasgow in 2010 found that killing the hares was not an effective way of controlling the disease. This has been seized on by opponents of the killing.
Jonny Hughes, the chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, described the “slaughter in the Lammermuirs” as another blow to Scotland’s poor record on wildlife persecution. “We strongly condemn the wholly unnecessary persecution of these iconic mammals,” he said.
“We urgently need a national monitoring programme for mountain hares so any control that may be required is based on science, and only goes ahead as a measure of last resort.”
Duncan Orr Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, argued mass mountain hare culls were unsustainable, and the science behind them very thin. “Any reduction of mountain hares in the south of their range is of particular conservation concern as these are isolated populations, which are declining,” he said.
“We are calling on the Scottish government to better regulate driven grouse shooting and introduce a system of licensing conditional on compliance with the law and best practice.”
The issue is now going to be raised in the Scottish Parliament by the Green MSP for Lothian, Alison Johnstone. “To hear reports of mass culls is deeply disturbing,” she told the Sunday Herald. "The commercial nature of large sporting estates must not be allowed to trample over the conservation of highly valued wildlife.”
A spokeswoman for the Duke of Northumberland confirmed that there had been a hare shoot on his estate in the Lammermuirs this year. “This was routine, carried out to control numbers and hence maintain balance within the fragile uplands habitat,” she said. “The bag was not exceptional, with all of the game sold to the local game dealer.”
Tim Baynes, director of the Moorland Group of the landowning organisation, Scottish Land and Estates, was critical of the RSPB and others for raising concerns. “Mountain hares breed very successfully in areas such as the Lammermuirs because grouse moors manage the habitat and control foxes and stoats which will predate young hares,” he said.
“However, breeding success brings its own problems because mountain hares are a vector for the sheep tick which carries diseases such as louping ill. Therefore their numbers are sustainably managed with culls carried out in the prescribed season at a level which does not endanger the population.”
The Scottish government, however, said it didn’t believe that the risk of disease would justify the “large-scale removal of mountain hares”. Added a spokeswoman: “We do have concerns about the intensification of management on some driven grouse moors, especially if it is associated with unlawful activity.”
The government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, stressed that mountain hares must be managed sustainably. Because of concerns over “possible over-exploitation”, the issue was under review by experts due to report in December.
Mountain hares are dappled brown with a blue tinge in the summer, but turn white for the winter. This makes it harder for predators to spot them in the snow, but also makes them more visible in early spring.
They usually live above 400 metres and take shelter in shallow depressions in the heather. They are most active in the evening and at night, but when disturbed during the day can be seen zigzagging across the hillside, bounding along on their powerful hind legs.
They eat grasses, heather and tree bark, grow to about 60 centimetres long and live for about four years. They are native to Scotland and there are no reliable estimates of their total population, though counts by the British Trust for Ornithology suggest they’ve suffered a 43% decline between 1995 and 2012.
They are eaten by birds of prey like golden eagles, as well as foxes, stoats and cats. Their populations can fluctuate dramatically, and they can thrive on grouse moors - except where they are victims of large-scale culling.
Also known as blue hares or by their Latin name, Lepus timidus, they are classified as a “priority species” in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. This means that they are regarded as under threat and need action to help protect them.