On February 28 the last ever mountain hare season in Scotland will end. RSPB Scotland Senior Species and Habitats Officer James Silvey discusses what protections for mountain hare in Scotland will mean.

Mountain hare protection in Scotland - What happens next?

On the 28th of February the last open season for mountain hares in Scotland will end. From the following day hares will benefit from the same level of protection as species such as the pine marten and red squirrel making it an offence, to kill, capture or disturb the species - among other things.

In practice this means that the unregulated culls that have become routine management on a number of intensive grouse moors will now be illegal, as will the hunting of hares for sport. Whilst this is an important moment in the conservation of the species and stops the wholesale slaughter of hares that we have seen in the past, it does not mean that hares will never be killed, legally, in the future.

As we have seen recently in Scotland with the management of beavers, licences can be issued to capture or kill protected species under certain circumstances. In the case of beavers, licensing is largely related to when the animal’s burrowing or damming activity threatens areas of prime agricultural land. However, within this licensing system it has been reported that potentially 20% of the population was legally killed in 2019. This has resulted in Trees for Life calling for a judicial review of the legality of the management of this protected species proving that protection and licences are only effective with proper interpretation and responsible management.

mountain hare in summer coat sitting in front of a large rock

NatureScot are the licencing authority in Scotland who will determine which activities will be licensable and which will not. It is highly likely that the activity of killing mountain hares to control tick populations and therefore louping ill virus, will not be licensable as there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the control of hares is an effective form of tick management. Previous supporters of this management seem to recognise that the writing is on the wall for this activity, and this is likely to have fuelled the recent interest in hare translocations which have been seen in the media (here).

Ultimately mountain hares may achieve protection overnight, but attitudes will not change as quickly. It is highly likely that on the run up to the usual hare open season on the 1st of August, NatureScot will receive many licence applications for the killing of hares on grouse moors. Some of these may be linked to tree protection of which evidence suggests hares can have a significant impact, whilst others will endeavour to achieve licences for disease control and therefore legalise the previous status quo.

To address this issue, it is vitally important that NatureScot produce a robust licencing system that;

  1. Stops the killing of mountain hares for disease control
  2. Is evidence led, requiring references for all evidence, including anecdotal
  3. Requires land managers to fully explore non-lethal control measures first
  4. Requires land managers to demonstrate that activities will not detrimentally affect local populations of the species
  5. Reports regularly on the number of licenses given and the number of hares killed

NatureScot have begun the consultation of this licencing system and RSPB Scotland along with our partners who have supported greater protection of mountain hares have been involved in early discussions. We support these ongoing conversations and will advocate strongly for the licencing system that we believe will provide the necessary level of protection for Scotland’s mountain hares.