Scottish wildlife organisations call for temporary ban on mountain hare culling
A temporary ban on the culling of mountain hares on grouse moors has been demanded by a coalition of Scottish wildlife organisations.
The ten groups, including RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), argue that reports suggest a period of "voluntary restraint" of large scale culls, called for nearly three years ago to allow research to be carried out, is being ignored.
They are appealing to the Scottish Government to introduce "urgent safeguards" to protect mountain hares, saying culls are believed to be leading to severe population declines and potentially even local extinctions.
Moorland managers say the culls are sometimes necessary to limit the spread of ticks, protect trees and to maintain fragile habitats, while gamekeepers maintain that voluntary restraint is being exercised.
Calling for the temporary ban Susan Davies, director of conservation at SWT, said: "We believe that grouse moor managers have a responsibility for this important native species.
"Lethal control should be halted until there is both accurate information on the number of hares culled, and the true effect of these culls on the health of the hare population is known."
The hares are Britain's only native hare and are said to play a vital part in the complex ecosystem of Scotland's uplands and moorlands.
The coalition is asking for the ban on all mountain hare culling on grouse moors until measures are put in place to ensure their numbers can remain at sustainable levels.
In December 2014, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) announced the beginning of a three year study to trial methods of measuring mountain hare numbers.
As part of this, SNH - backed by Scottish Land & Estates (SLE) and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) - called for a voluntary restraint of large scale mountain hare culls on grouse moors.
Duncan Orr-Ewing, of RSPB Scotland, said: "The Scottish Government needs to do more to safeguard these iconic species of our upland areas.
"In 2014 we had serious concerns that the notion of voluntary restraint would be ignored by many in the grouse shooting industry and, with the evidence of culls continuing on many moors over the last three years, it seems that these fears have been well founded."
The other organisations in the coalition are the Scottish Raptor Study Group, the Badenoch and Strathspey Conservation Group, the Cairngorms Campaign, the National Trust for Scotland, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Mammal Society, the John Muir Trust and Mountaineering Scotland.
The charity OneKind, which is also campaigning on the issue, welcomed the call and said any moratorium must also apply to recreational hunting if Scotland's mountain hares are to be properly protected.
Tim Baynes, director of the Scottish Moorland Group which is managed by SLE, said there is no evidence provided by the 10 organisations to substantiate claims that periodic culls are endangering mountain hare populations.
He said: "In 2014, we issued a joint statement with SNH which acknowledged the need for occasional culls but recognised the requirement to do so responsibly. Culls range from 14% to 5% of hare populations in years when culls are carried out, which is sustainable.
"Despite attempts to criticise grouse moors for managing mountain hare numbers, the real issue lies further north and west in Scotland where populations have died out in many places.
"The organisations give no indication of how many mountain hares exist on their own reserves and we believe attention should be focused on such areas where mountain hares are completely absent.
"Grouse moors are an excellent habitat for mountain hare breeding, a fact recognised by visitors who come to spot them on moors throughout Scotland."
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association added: "Voluntary restraint is being exercised on grouse moors."
The Scottish Government said it opposes large-scale culling of mountain hares, while recognising that numbers do sometimes have to be controlled.
A spokeswoman said: "Scottish Natural Heritage is examining the available evidence.
"If this points to continuing high levels of culling of hares that could cause significant population declines, locally or nationally, the Scottish Government will consider bringing forward further measures to protect them."