Yesterday, a coalition of Green, Labour and SNP MSPs combined to ban the unlicensed culling of mountain hares and make them a protected species, passing the amendment which had been proposed by Green party MSP Alison Johnstone, with a total of 60 votes for to 19 against.
A good day for hares, one might have imagined, but this superficially uncontroversial motion was wracked with controversy due to the late nature of its introduction as an amendment to the wider Animals and Wildlife Bill, while the vote to officially protect mountain hares was greeted with dismay by the field sports lobby.
Firstly, the controversy about the timing of this bill (which prompted Rural Affairs Minister Mairi Gougeon to comment that she was “not happy with the manner in which this amendment has been advanced”) seems largely contrived to me. After the Scottish Tories repeatedly complained about the late timing of this intervention, Green MP Andy Wightman questioned whether the Tories were claiming to have never made any late amendments themselves, after which the Tories accused him and those associated with the late amendment of virtue signalling! The whole bad tempered exchange could surely have been avoided if provision for the mountain hares’ protection – which campaigners have been pressing for for years – had simply been included in the original bill.
More interestingly, Twitter was afire last night with sour predictions from field sports enthusiasts, echoing the line advanced by both the Game and Wildlife Trust and the Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association, that protection did not equal conservation, and suggesting that paradoxically the newly minted legal protection of mountain hares was likely to be hasten the demise of mountain hares, rather than benefit them.
How could this be?
Essentially their argument seems to be this: mountain hares are more numerous on driven grouse moors than in other habitats. Therefore moorland managers should be allowed to manage them how they see fit. Remove gamekeepers and management for driven grouse shooting and upland habitat may switch from being favourable to mountain hares to hostile. As evidence of this, the Scottish Gamekeepers Association cited the case of Langholm where hares allegedly thrived under the old keepered regime but have disappeared since the gamekeepers were “taken off”. Furthermore, some argue that the absence of traditional management leaves the hares vulnerable to more extreme swings of population boom and bust, with disease left to regulate their numbers rather than keepers. This threat is postulated to increase the chance that a bad year and a particularly steep decline might result in local extinction for mountain hares. Additionally, landowners argue that hare culls are necessary to combat tick-borne diseases and protect plants and young trees.
Let’s break these arguments down.
Firstly, mountain hares certainly are more numerous on grouse moors. Nobody is denying that, although these high densities aren’t natural and there is debate about whether grouse moors may also be the places where hare populations have recently experienced their steepest declines. The two facts are not incompatible. Indeed, the value of a habitat that suits hares so well is rather compromised when it is also the habitat where they are killed in the greatest numbers. And as the GWCT reported in their most recent paper on mountain hares, the number of hares killed in annual culls has been steadily increasing.
So, hares can reach high densities on grouse moors but are also culled in growing numbers on grouse moors, and these culls may or may not be driving the hares’ decline. In principle it is possible that hares could be so numerous on grouse moors that they could sustain high harvesting rates, but it is also possible that culls could be driving or merely accelerating a more general decline. Given that we have good data suggesting that mountain hares are in decline (facing other threats including climate change and afforestation with non-native plantations), or even if you only accept that they may be in decline but argue that we don’t yet have perfect data (as some shooters claim), the precautionary principle determines that an end to culls is the best course of action.
And leaving aside the debatable merits of the argument that removing keepers might be bad for hares, it’s worth pointing out that nowhere in this bill did anyone suggest removing keepers, or indeed changing moorland management except to stop culling hares! The unnatural conditions that keepers create – the muirburn and predator control – which so favour mountain hares will still be there.
The landowners claims that culls are necessary to control tick numbers also ring rather hollow when we consider that the ticks’ primary hosts are sheep and deer, both of which are maintained at very high densities across the UK uplands and both of which pose their own threat to plants and young trees. It seems a little unfair to single out hares for blame in this regard, especially given that a recent study found “no effects of Mountain Hare abundance on grouse tick burdens and actually found better grouse chick survival in areas with greater numbers of Mountain Hares”.
Concerning hare browsing impacts on plants, the Werritty Report concluded: “There is evidence that Mountain Hare browsing activity can locally reduce or suppress tree and shrub growth, i.e. preventing natural succession and contributing towards maintaining open heather moorland.” But then SNH can and does issue licenses for hare control to address this issue, and will continue to be able to do so. The new bill only bans unlicensed and unregulated culls.
This leaves us with only one argument – that without keepers being able to freely regulate the mountain hare population it will be left to the caprices of disease and starvation to periodically reduce hare numbers. Assuming no licenses will be issued to prevent this postulated threat, how realistic is the scenario of hares cycling to extinction? Only time will tell. Hare numbers already cycle widely in Scotland. With a healthy suite of predators including eagles, goshawks and mammalian predators, the population would of course be naturally regulated, but most of these predators are excluded from grouse moors. Elsewhere in Europe, where predators are present and hare numbers are lower to begin with, hares do not exhibit the same frequency or wildly oscillating extent of cycles in Scotland.
I do not believe protection will leave hares worse off. I am not convinced that all those arguing that it will really believe it either. I think the condemnation of this “bad law” is rooted in something else – fear that shooting is under siege, belief that it represents a backdoor attack on grouse shooting, concern that this law marks the thin end of a wedge of increased regulation, and a more fundamental resentment of law being made by people remote from those whom it affects. One Twitter user commented:
“Not so much a catastrophe, just another option for rural people to manage land, and to make a living from the land, taken away by urban legislators.”
And this resentment poses insidious dangers. One prominent field sports journalist was last night speculating on whether the impending ban would motivate some to go out to “just try and wipe them out” while they still could. “Semi autos only” came one reply. The Ferret has already reported on increased seal killing rates by salmon farmers ahead of the coming ban on seal shooting.
The GWCT and SGA had earlier argued that protection does not equal conservation, and ironically this is a fact that conservationists are already only too aware of. Raptors have been protected for decades but continue to be persecuted. Beavers are legally protected but continue to be persecuted under a licensing scheme not fit for purpose. It is always better to bring people with you than legislate against them. But the deep divisions between shooting and conservation only grow wider. I am pleased that hares have received legal protection but I worry about the growing distrust, dislike and disparity between the increasingly polarised factions in the “uplands debate”. Some will undoubtedly herald the hares’ protection as a battle won, but the war shows no sign of ending soon, and like most conflicts this is one with no real winners.