Last month the Scottish Parliament voted overwhelmingly (see here) to provide full protected status for mountain hares, thus effectively ending the unregulated slaughter of ~26,000 hares on grouse moors every year.
However, hare-culling under licence will still be permitted under certain circumstances and the conflict over the protection of this species is far from over.
[Shot mountain hares strung up in a chilling larder, screen-grabbed from a controversial feature on Countryfile (2018) showing mountain hares being shot on a Scottish grouse moor]
In preparation for a more detailed blog in the run up to the opening of the hare-killing season this Saturday (1st August), have a read of this opinion piece written last month by Alison Johnstone MSP, whose amendment to the Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections & Powers) (Scotland) Bill led to the [as yet to be implemented] increased protection for mountain hares.
This article is reproduced from The National (26 June 2020).
It’s time Scotland took on landed interests over animal protections
by Alison Johnstone MSP
THE response to mountain hares finally becoming a protected species in Scotland has been nothing less than astonishing.
After MSPs backed my amendment, thanks and congratulations came flooding in from across Scotland and around the world for winning vital protection for this iconic native species.
In parts of the Highlands, mountain hare populations have crashed since the 1950s, with an average of 26,000 killed every year, largely for fun and as part of mass killing on grouse moors. Last year their conservation status was downgraded to “unfavourable”.
Protecting these animals is the least we should do as a progressive country that values our wildlife and countryside, yet there has also been an astonishing response to this move from landed vested interests and the grouse shooting lobby, who have reacted with fury.
Gamekeepers claimed the vote in Parliament was “undemocratic” and threatened to set up their own political party, while the countryside alliance called into question my integrity, presumably because their only alternative is to defend the indefensible.
Preventing the slaughter of native wildlife in decline is perhaps the most basic act of conservation. Even under the highest level of wildlife protection available in Scotland, land managers could still apply for a licence to kill hares as a last resort, so the scale of response from the grouse shooting lobby is very revealing. It shows this is a community which is not used to being beaten. It demonstrates the power and influence they are used to having.
In December, the two-year review of Scotland’s grouse moors led by Professor Alan Werritty was published, but it brought absolutely nothing new to the table. It couldn’t even define what a grouse moor is, even though they cover around a fifth of Scotland’s land mass.
Incredibly, the Scottish Government has yet to respond to this watered-down review, which perhaps shows how unwilling the SNP is to take on this powerful lobby.
Last week, however, Scottish Government ministers came under incredible pressure after a Scottish Greens petition in support of hare protection garnered more than 25,000 signatures in just a few days. It was clear that public opinion does not align with the interests of those who enjoy shooting grouse on an industrial scale.
Although Parliament voted for an end to indiscriminate killing of mountain hares, the fight is not yet over. Shooting clubs have ominously warned our celebrations will be “short-lived”, and August will see the start of hare-killing season.
The RSPB and others have expressed concerns that these enthusiasts will use any delay in implementing the new restrictions to kill as many mountain hares as possible. There are already signs on social media that they are mobilising to do this.
They know this would be met with outrage, but this is a sector which has shown little interest for public concerns. The number of birds of prey which vanish around grouse moors is testament to that, which no doubt contributes to the lobby’s claim that mountain hares “thrive” on grouse moors. It is a circle of killing dressed up as conservation.
The fact muirburn continued into the pandemic lockdown and in dangerously dry conditions, despite the warnings of the fire service and Parliament backing my colleague Andy Wightman’s temporary ban, is another example of this industry’s disregard for wider community concerns and democratic process.
In accepting my amendment during the debate, natural environment minister Mairi Gougeon suggested the Scottish Government might delay implementation of this vital protection for mountain hares.
LIKE many, I’m really worried that this delay will only encourage an unprecedented killing spree by those who want one last hurrah. The ban must come in by August 1 and the Scottish Government need to issue a warning to these powerful vested interests that they must control themselves. They can’t always have their own way.
Grouse moors are left deliberately barren as a plaything for the very few. It’s ridiculous that so much of Scotland is taken up with this this mindlessly cruel Victorian hobby, when that land is needed to restore forests and peatland to tackle the climate emergency. Changing its use would also provide thousands of rural jobs at a time when unemployment is rising at an alarming rate.
Although mountain hare protection is a vital first step in tackling the problem of grouse moors, when we look back at last week’s animal and wildlife bill, it’s clear there is a long way to go for our Parliament to truly take on the powerful lobbyists who defend them.
For example, once again the SNP joined forces with the Conservatives to protect the rights of the shooting lobby to dock the tails of puppies. This practice involves cutting or crushing muscle, nerves and bones, without anaesthetic, in puppies under five days old. If done badly, it can cause the dog chronic pain throughout its life. Animal welfare experts are clear that there is no scientific basis for tail docking and the British Veterinary Association agree the practice should be banned in all circumstances except for treating an injury.
Our proposals to further protect badgers and beavers were also rejected. It’s time for Scotland to take on the powerful landed interests that hold back progress, for which animal protection is the front line.