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