Last week Scottish Parliament voted to increase protection for mountain hares. RSPB Scotland's James Silvey and Duncan Orr-Ewing reflect on what this success means,and what RSPB Scotland wants to see in a new licensing system.

Hares to be made a protected species, but what does that mean?

Last week the Scottish Parliament voted on an important and welcome amendment to the Animal and Wildlife Bill that will increase the protection for mountain hares. The vote won cross-party support and was passed. The result of this vote means the mountain hare will eventually join a list of protected Scottish wildlife that includes species such as the red squirrel and pine marten.

For RSPB Scotland this is the culmination of a long engagement with this issue, including securing closed seasons to protect breeding mountain hares in the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011; the building of a coalition of 10 conservation eNGOs calling for a moratorium on mountain hare culling in 2015; and the publication of a vital scientific paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology in 2019 using seven decades of data gathered by the renowned upland ecologist Adam Watson. That paper revealed long term mountain hare population declines in Scotland.

This was a landmark moment and represents only the second time that a species has been moved from the quarry (huntable species) list to protected species status, following the capercaillie being placed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 2001. Why this was required has been discussed in a previous blog. The question is, what now?

mountain hare in summer coat by rock

Benefits of protected status

The details of protected status can differ between species but in the case of mountain hares it will mean that hares can only be killed under licence and that the unregulated population reduction culls that have been reported on in the past will be illegal. However, SNH can still issue licences that allow individuals to disturb or kill protected species for a variety of reasons. This includes things like forestry protection, which can be acceptable when done responsibly and at an appropriate scale. But the wording of the legislation will also allow hares to be killed under licence, “for any other social, economic or environmental purpose”. This very wide-ranging category is at least only allowed when it will give rise to, or contribute towards the achievement of, a significant social, economic or environmental benefit” and only when, “there is no other satisfactory solution.

This wording nevertheless introduces a deal of interpretation and, in all honesty, flexibility, meaning that licences could be given to address activities that we would not support. We also suspect such licences would not reflect the intention of the Scottish Parliament when it confirmed protected status for mountain hares last week.

When to use a licence

Currently hares are shot for a number of reasons; sport, disease control, grazing competition and protection of young trees but the only reason that has suitable evidence indicating that hares can cause significant damage and which some form of control may be required, (and then only as a last resort) is the protection of young trees. In the case of disease control (supposedly the most common reason mountain hares are killed on moors) the recent Werritty report concluded that “There is no substantive evidence to support the population control of Mountain Hares as part of tick and/or Louping Ill virus control to benefit grouse, except under unusual circumstances.” We are also aware from SNH’s SiteLINK system which looks at the condition of our protected areas (SSSIs) that damage by mountain hare grazing to sensitive habitats is not recorded as an issue requiring control in numbers of mountain hares. 

white mountain hare on hillside

A new licensing system will undoubtedly follow the protection of mountain hares and it is vital that this system is;

  • Transparent – Any licensee will be required to provide a return to SNH indicating how many hares were shot and where. This information should be publicly available and open to scrutiny
  • Science led – The Werritty report acknowledged that mountain hares can impact newly planted forestry and as a last resort, we would support lethal control licences being given to protect young trees. The science however does not support the role of hares in disease control or grazing impacts and we would not support licences being given for these reasons.
  • Subject to regular review – It is vital that any licence regime is subject to regular review and amended if needed. The publication of figures showing potentially 20% of Scotland’s beaver population was killed in the first 9 months of it receiving protected status, indicates that interpretation of the legislation is as important as the legislation itself.
  • Well enforced - We know from the experience with illegal persecution of birds of prey that laws relating to protected species on grouse moors are often flouted, and it is reasonable to expect that some grouse moor managers will continue to kill mountain hares illegally.
  • However, above all, we now need Urgency to put these measures in place – Mountain hares are yet to be formally designated as a protected species. The mountain hare open season begins on 1 August, and in the run up to this protected status we are concerned that some grouse moor managers may seek to reduce the population further, pre-empting the decision by the Scottish Parliament to give this species proper protection.

    Indeed, the Scottish field sports journalist Matt Cross, who writes for the Shooting Times, openly shared his thoughts on Twitter on the eve of the decision, saying he wondered: “how many people are sitting at their dinner tables tonight thinking ‘well, if we aren’t going to be allowed to manage them maybe we should just try and wipe them out before the law comes in’. He justified this by saying that shooters felt “backed into a corner”.

    We know that self-restraint by grouse moor managers is something that they find all but impossible to deliver, as evidenced by well publicised breaches of the Scottish land and Estates moratorium this spring during the Covid crisis in relation to muirburn, as well as the longstanding inability to stamp out illegal raptor persecution. The failure to self-regulate is also one of the main reasons why the Werritty Grouse Moor Review Group Report has unanimously supported the licensing of grouse moors in Scotland, to ensure that in the future grouse moors work within the law and follow sustainable land management practices.
  • My concern is, as you express, none of the licensing authorities have shown any restraint in issuing licences. They haven't investigated whether the conditions for actually issuing a licence have been met, and certainly have not monitored that the terms have been adhered to, hence the success of WildJustice in challenging the General Licence scheme.