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Background Info

The mountain hare is indigenous to the Highlands and can be found throughout this region and the uplands of Scotland. Their natural habitat is sub-alpine scrub but they also thrive on grouse moors, because they benefit from the abundance of young heather created by burning and the intensive killing of predators such as foxes and weasels. The mountain hare is an important part of the upland ecosystem, shaping their habitat through grazing and providing a range of predator species, including golden eagles and wildcats, with an important food source. The conservation of Scotland’s mountain hare is widely recognised as a priority. They are:

  1. Listed on Annex V of the EU Habitats Directive (1992) which requires EU member states to maintain them in favourable conservation status.
  2. A priority species for conservation action under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.
  3. On the Scottish Biodiversity List, which means that they are considered by Scottish Ministers to be of principal importance for biodiversity conservation.
  4. Protected by a closed season under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, which makes it an offence to kill a Mountain Hare in the closed season (1 March to 31 July) without a licence from SNH.

Mountain hare in Scotland are relatively little studied but all the signs are that the population is in long-term decline, as a result of habitat loss, climate change and crucially, persecution. Because of the lack of research in this area, population estimates are out of date, and the impact of these drivers of decline is poorly understood. The Scottish Government recognised this recently, making a welcome investment in a major research project that will conclude in late 2017. 

The last population estimate was made in 1995, when 350,000 were thought to exist. This number is widely disputed, but most agree that the current population could be anything from 175,000 to 500,000. The population fluctuates year-on-year, making it hard to identify a long-term trend, but the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has monitored mountain hare as part of the annual Breeding Bird Survey since 1996. Their data, albeit for a limited sample size, suggests an overall decline of 34% between 1996 and 2014.

This overall trend is supported by observations on the ground. The Mammal Society notes that on some western Scottish moors mountain hare are now rare, where they were previously abundant. The noted Scottish biologist and ecologist, Dr Adam Watson, estimates that spring abundance of adults has been reduced by between five- and a hundred-fold on most grouse moors.

As mountain hare killing is not licensed during the open season and is carried out with no regulatory oversight, it is impossible to know how many are killed. The only estimate is that 25,000 were killed in 2006/7, which is thought to be between 5-14% of the total population. Additional anecdotal evidence of large-scale culls includes:

  • Lammermuir hills, 2014 – RSPB Scotland received evidence that between 1500 and 1700 mountain hares were shot by landowners across the Lammermuirs in the spring.
  • Balmoral, 2016 - Two culls involving Balmoral and neighbouring estates were witnessed, one of which was said to have killed 500 hares.
  • Lecht mountain pass, 2016 - A birdwatcher encountered a mountain hare cull. Images show a group of 20 armed gamekeepers equipped with more than a dozen high-tech off-road vehicles and hundreds of dead hares.

Culls are carried out for a variety of reasons, but on grouse moors the principal reason mountain hare are culled appears to be to control the tick-borne louping-ill virus. In the only study of the issue, a questionnaire-based survey of estates in 2006/7 found that 50% of hares shot were culled for this reason. This is substantiated by claims made by shooting organisations. For example, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) advises that “where grouse suffer from tick and the tick-borne louping-ill virus, hares can sustain high levels of these parasites and help perpetuate the disease. As there is no alternative form of treatment, in these cases hare numbers may need to be temporarily reduced to suppress the disease”. The same study estimated that 10% of hares shot were culled to protect forestry interests, and 40% for sport shooting.

By contrast, in recent correspondence with OneKind, the management of the Cairngorms National Park (CNPA), while not ruling out some hare management for forestry protection, stated that the Authority had concerns about the public interest justification and scale of culling for the primary purpose of tick control.

In recent years, however, it appears that large scale culling of mountain hares on grouse moors in the name of tick control has become part of the routine management which seeks to establish very high numbers and densities of red grouse to be commercially shot.

Whilst there is no doubt mountain hare carry ticks, there is no clear evidence that their control could be part of an effective red grouse management regime. Indeed, its scientific basis is so tenuous that SNH’s scientific experts advise: “There is no clear evidence that mountain hare culls serve to increase red grouse densities”. Similarly, the most recent scientific review of the effectiveness of mountain hare culling as a management technique for louping-ill concluded that “there is no compelling evidence base to suggest culling mountain hares might increase red grouse densities”.

Finally, OneKind and the other petitioners are concerned that the persecution of mountain hares is causing serious and extensive suffering. As the killing is unregulated and often secretive, it is impossible to scientifically assess the welfare impacts, but there is enough evidence to conclude that the persecution of mountain hares may be causing serious and, given the numbers of individuals involved, extensive suffering. Shooting any small mammal in the wild is challenging and there is an inevitable risk of injury rather than making a clean kill. This is exacerbated in the case of mountain hare by a number of factors, including the very large number of individual mountain hares that are shot in a single hunt, and the mixed abilities of hunters that participate in commercial hunts. Furthermore, snaring mountain hares is known to cause injury and distress, sometimes for prolonged periods, although it is generally accepted now that this may only be carried out under licence from SNH.