Protecting Scotland's Mountain Hares: How Far Have We Come?

The beautiful, iconic mountain hare is a species admired by many, but these animals have had a difficult past and don’t face the easiest future.The mountain hare is native to the Highlands of Scotland. In 1995, an estimated 350,000 mountain hares called Scotland their home. Today, the population is just 135,000. 

Every Little Life

When we look at the population of a species, at how many less there are, we tend to look at the overall picture, at the species as a whole. What we have to remember though, is that these are individual lives. 

The loss of around 215,000 is a dramatic change in population, but it also means that 215,000  individual lives were lost and no young were born to take their place. That 215,000 of these beautiful, sentient creatures died. Each of these lives had their own unique experiences, and their own character traits. While many of them may have lost their lives to natural predation, being what another animal needed to survive, or to an illness that we could do nothing to prevent, many of them lost their lives at the end of a gun. 

Conservation or cruelty? 

Many factors are thought to be responsible for this sharp decline in numbers but one of the most distressing ones is the hunting and shooting of mountain hares.

Many have claimed that the killing of these animals is necessary for ‘conservation’ or ‘ecological management’, but these arguments are thin at best.

One commonly presented argument is that mountain hares negatively impact red grouse populations, which are of course only encouraged so that they can be shot for profit. While the hares may present a problem for the landowners who want to make money from the killing of these birds, this hardly seems a reason for the hares to have to die.

Another is that mountain hares are said to spread tick-borne diseases such as lyme disease, but robust scientific evidence for this is yet to be provided.

Around a decade ago, some relief came for the mountain hare population in the form of a closed season. Under the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act (2011), it became an offence to kill a mountain hare during what was designated their closed season, which lasted from 1st March to 31st July each year.  The idea behind this legislation was that population numbers would increase if mothers were not killed whilst caring for their leverets. But the numbers killed the rest of the year were still extremely high.

Where We Are Now

On 17th June 2020, the Scottish Parliament finally voted for an end to the mass killing of mountain hares, and for them to instead be given year round protection. 

From the 1st March 2021, the mountain hare was added to Schedule 5 of the Wildlife & Countryside act 1981, and given ‘full protection’.Under this act it is now an offence to deliberately or recklessly injure or kill a mountain hare at any time of the year. Unless, of course, you have a licence to do so. This licencing is where campaigners’ concerns now lie.

Licenced To Kill A Mountain Hare

The current scheme allows licences to be given to individuals who want to kill or take mountain hares for rather vague ‘specific purposes’. These include reasons such as to ‘prevent serious damage’, or for ‘social, economic or environmental purposes’. While licences will not be granted for mountain hares to be  hunted purely for sport, there appears to be a danger that killing could still be allowed to continue on a fairly large scale.

What’s Left To Do

The licensing scheme is being kept under review until 2024, suggesting that changes could potentially  be made during this time period. Organisations such as OneKind are working to persuade NatureScot to strengthen the scheme, aiming to minimise the killing of mountain hares as much as possible and minimise suffering where it does still occur.

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