It has been legal to kill mountain hares in Scotland for decades, although in more recent years concerns about the species’ conservation status led to the introduction of a closed hunting season as part of the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, which became enacted on 1st March 2012 (see here).
Nine years later and after a long, hard-fought campaign by a number of organisations and individuals, backed by Scottish Greens MSP Alison Johnstone, as of this Monday (1st March 2021) mountain hares in Scotland will have increased protection, meaning it will be illegal to intentionally kill, injure or take mountain hares at any time unless a licence is obtained.
[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]
Mountain hares have been killed for a variety of reasons, including to protect forestry interests and for recreational ‘sport shooting’, but overwhelmingly they’ve been killed on driven grouse moors in a vain attempt to control the viral disease ‘Louping-ill’ in red grouse – I say vain attempt because scientists have concluded ‘there is no compelling evidence base to suggest culling mountain hares might increase red grouse densities’ (see here).
The scale of the mass slaughter on some driven grouse moors in recent years has been eye-watering (nearly 38,000 killed in one season – see here) and this was despite widespread calls for voluntary restraint from within the shooting industry itself (e.g. see here). The killing is believed to have increased as part of the intensification of driven grouse moor management in some regions (see here).
Hopefully, from Monday, we won’t ever see a return to that level of obscenity but the new protection does not mean that mountain hares can’t still be killed – it means the hare killers will need to have a licence and thus presumably evidential support to justify the licence being issued, which should mean that slaughtering thousands of hares to protect grouse stocks will not be permissible.
We don’t yet know the terms of the new licensing scheme but NatureScot (the licensing authority) has begun to consult and there’ll be a lot of organisations watching with close interest to scrutinise the final details. NatureScot can also expect a series of FoIs to scrutinise licence applications vs licences issued.
RSPB Scotland’s Senior Species and Habitats Officer James Silvey has written an excellent blog laying out what the RSPB expects to see in the new licensing regime – see here.